When I was growing up, I did not have the extraordinary experience of going to any of the large Royal Agriculture and Pastoral shows in NZ. For many country people, I believe going to these shows can be an extraordinary experience in their childhood. I suppose the Expo in Brisbane in 1988 would have been an extraordinary event for those able to attend. The closest thing to such an event I had experienced in my childhood was the local Agricultural and Pastoral Show. It wasn’t until my late 30’s that I got to the Hawkes Bay Royal A and P show that I was able to experience such a thing.
There was a time when country people would drive long distances to see, exhibit and participate in such events and often stay with relatives. I wonder what you, who have had such experiences, reacted like when first going to such events. Often there would be a central place or exhibit where many would get their picture taken. I also wonder if you reacted with that Wow reaction to sights and sounds of the cities or large regional towns these events were held in, especially if you didn’t often go outside your local area.
Let’s return to the scripture readings for this week though, especially Matthew 11. Jesus appears and says to the crowd that day, regarding John the Baptiser, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind. What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes. Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”
I have a suspicion the people that day were just as taken aback by what they saw along the Jordan River as many of us from smaller towns have been wowed when arriving at a major event in a big city. Many of us would have gone expecting to see a show that would take an afternoon to survey. Instead we probably found a mammoth fortress of exhibits that a week’s visit couldn’t traverse. The people that day went out to the river probably expecting to see a madman putting on a religious show. What they got was a man announcing the advent of God’s Messiah. Many weren’t ready for what they received.
Perhaps we’re still not ready. Expo’s and Agricultural and Pastoral Shows showcase todays corporate culture. The scene that day along the Jordan River could be described as a showcase of God’s call to redemption—John the Baptist–style. It was probably a pretty good show. Can’t you see the religious dignitaries’ heads popping up over the heads of the locals and trying to get a glimpse of the long line of people responding to John’s message and requesting baptism? They went to see a showcase of Israel’s popular religious culture. Instead, what they found was quite disturbing. It didn’t take long for people to determine it was not a sideshow. In fact, what they witnessed was life changing.
They went thinking they would find a local minister doling out religious tracts and favours, a religious carnival of sorts. What they didn’t realise was they were witnessing the forerunner to God’s Messiah. John wasn’t calling them to a once-in-a-lifetime experience of God’s redemption and then a quiet return to their religious comfort zones. John was calling them to live redemptive lives— the rest of their lives. As we read this episode, we too are challenged to reconsider what we expect to find when we leave the safe and acceptable confines of our own churches, communities or context.
What do we expect to find in our neighbourhoods once we leave our safe zones? Who do we anticipate will be the recipients of what we do in our lives? Do we expect to move and work in settings that meet our expectations of the good life, where people think, act, and dream like us? Even more if we see ourselves as a disciple of Christ, do we manipulate our worlds so that we are comfortable and have all the amenities and creature comforts of the Australasian way of life? Are we, speaking truth to the powers that exist in our day and time, or do we fear ridicule and chastisement of those who pay the bills?
Do we turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to injustice so that we won’t upset the people who are the power brokers? If the answer to such questions is a painful yes, then we seek to treat the way we live and if we are Christians ministry as “a reed shaken by the wind” or “someone dressed in soft robes,” as Jesus put it. The image here is not only soft Christianity but also soft humanity. It lacks any spiritual backbone to confront injustice. Jesus’ cousin was in prison because he, as one writer puts it, “was incapable of seeing evil without rebuking it. He had spoken too fearlessly and too definitely for his own safety”
In the twenty-first-century humanity and the church is being called once again to leave its safe and unthreatening confines and enter the world, shocked by what it finds. Our shock is to motivate us to speak truth to injustice just as John, Jesus, and his would-be disciples did in their own day. But let’s be honest. It will take disciples, not just admirers of Jesus, to do this.
We have a choice in the matter. Many left Jesus that day, perhaps because he was too demanding. They preferred a life more defined as “a reed shaken by the wind” or “someone dressed in soft robes” than a life of servitude marked by sacrifice and compassion. What John and Jesus were bringing was too risky, too demanding. They preferred “admirer”-ship over discipleship.
Consequently, they walked away. I find the news that some walked away encouraging because we are called to discipleship by a Christ who won’t dilly-dally with us. He wants us to know up front what we can expect when we follow him. To follow Christ is to speak truth to injustice and be willing to accept the consequences. To follow Christ is not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To follow Christ is a journey even “the least” among us can take.