By the time John the Baptist reevaluated his entire life calling in the prison at Herod’s palace, Jesus was well on his way out into the wilderness. Nothing added up. If Jesus was the Messiah, why wasn’t he in control of Herod’s Palace? Why were the corrupt priests still ministering in the temple? Why were the Romans still taxing, demeaning, and executing his people?
Why wasn’t Jesus in control?
John couldn’t make sense of the power that Jesus exerted throughout his ministry. John expected a Messiah who would take over. Instead, he got a Messiah who wandered in the wilderness, healed the outcasts, forgave notorious sinners, and spoke about a vague Kingdom of God without ever crowning himself king.
How could Jesus be a king without the office and position of a king?
The riddle of Jesus was as confounding to John as it would be for us today. There’s no doubt that many Christians today would struggle to believe in and follow a religious “leader” like Jesus who wasn’t married, didn’t have a large following, and never assumed any kind of official office or put together an organization/denomination.
Jesus wasn’t organized, systematized, or influential according to our own terms. While he had a certain amount of authority and clout because of his powerful teachings and miracles, he never took on a formal position. That latter point made no sense to John.
I was reminded of these lessons about John from my book Unfollowers when I read a post by Sarah Bessey over the weekend. Sarah gives evangelicals “permission” to step away from labels, traditions, and positions for a season in order to grieve and to rediscover what following Jesus may look like for them. Everything in her post resonates with my own experiences in evangelicalism: the need to grieve its worst parts, the desire for distance and space, and the reassembling of my faith out in the wilderness apart from religious structures.
We don’t get to remake faith according to our own terms. We can only seek out Jesus wherever he may be found, and as the story of John the Baptist teaches us, Jesus spent a lot of time in the wilderness.
Like John, we all crave some sort of validation, an external marker that tells everyone: “Look, I’m on the right side!”
We can feel the tension of Jesus’ audience all over the pages of scriptures. His disciples asked when they would be able to reign on thrones with him. They followed him to his ascension asking if he was finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel. They wanted clear, external validation that they were on the right side.
I can feel the same tension today. I’ve always wanted to be associated with a group that is successful and right. Whether that’s been a group of fundamentalists destined to be raptured someday soon or a rag tag band of progressive evangelicals who are trying to figure out prayer and service to the poor, I want my choices to be validated by institutions and groups. I want to belong to something bigger than myself and to have a kind of position or rank or recogniztion within that group.
Jesus consistently denied his followers any kind of office or position. They were just a bunch of uneducated nobodies who followed that “Messiah-wanna-be” for three years. They never received any kind of validation or position that meant a thing among their contemporaries. Jesus even discouraged them from taking the title “rabbi.”
And so where does that leave us?
Can we find contentment on the margins and in the wilderness, with only the validation that comes from Jesus? Do we need positions, titles, labels, or recognition in order to serve, bless, or pray? Do we need an institution to recognize us?
As much as I crave the roots and traditions of my faith, I have also seen how institutions and power structures can become a snare and an idol all their own. I live daily with the tension of seeking to learn from the founders of my faith while also embracing the wilderness that Jesus has called me into.
At some point every day, I have to face my desire for validation and recognition within a structure or organization. Most importantly, as I stand in the prison made of my own desires, I wonder where Jesus is. Why isn’t he here with me? Why hasn’t he given me what I want?
The answer is found in the barren wildnerness where titles are never given and have no value any way. I can follow Jesus out there, but I have to let go of my own plans first. In that sense, I have quite a bit in common with John the Baptist.