Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)Well, now, that's a rather strange piece of scripture. Let's see what it looks like in context. When we go back through the three Synoptic Gospels we find this picture:
John the Baptist began preaching, "Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!" And a lot of people did repent, because they had been taught to fear God. To them, his announcement -- "The kingdom of God is at hand!" -- was not good news; it was the immanent threat of divine retribution. So, those who believed they were sinners subject to the wrath of God went to John, confessing their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan River.
When some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him, he said, "You brood of vipers! You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance. Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."
Someone asked John if he was the Messiah. He said, "No. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord.' I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor, and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Jesus came to John and was baptized. Afterwards, John said of him, "There he goes. He's the one I was talking about."
Jesus began preaching right where John began: "Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!" But then he started doing things that John didn't do: he preached good news about the kingdom of God, and he healed people. He healed a lot of people, so they brought all kinds of sick people to him, and great crowds followed him. Then he selected twelve of his disciples and sent them out to do as he did -- heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons -- with the message, "This is the will of God and the work of His kingdom."
When John the Baptist heard what Jesus was doing, he was puzzled. He sent his disciples to ask, "Are you the one, or shall we look for another?" Jesus did not say either Yes or No -- and he did not quote scripture. He pointed to the evidence: "Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me."
As they went away, Jesus turned and spoke to the crowds about John: "What did you go out in the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, `Behold, I send my messenger before you, who shall prepare your way before you.' Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; and yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
So, why did Jesus say that John wasn't in the Kingdom of heaven? John did what he was sent to do -- he prepared the way for Jesus -- but he did not foresee what Jesus was sent to do. And he didn't recognize what Jesus was doing even when he heard about it. He was surprised and puzzled when Jesus gathered the grain, but did not burn the chaff.
Jesus and John were in agreement on some things. Jesus viewed sin as seriously as John did. Neither of them pandered to people by telling them they didn't need to repent. Both John and Jesus said, "If you repent, God will forgive you." That was good news to the common people, because it meant they didn't have to buy God's forgiveness by sacrifices. All they had to do was repent. But it wasn't good news to the priests, or the Temple, because it undermined the whole system of guilt and sacrifices that supported the priesthood and the Temple.
John and Jesus differed concerning the will of God toward unrepentant sinners. John said, "If you don't repent, God or His Messiah will destroy you." Jesus said, "If you don't repent, you will destroy yourself, contrary to the will of God."
This point is the dividing line -- the watershed -- between two very different theologies. John preached the wrath of God. Jesus preached and demonstrated the grace of God. And in our scripture for today Jesus said, in effect: members of the Kingdom of God recognize the will of God better than John the Baptist did.
John the Baptist was not the only one who didn't see the will of God as Jesus did. Later, near the end of his ministry, as Jesus was going to Jerusalem for the last time, he sent some of his disciples on ahead of him to make arrangements for a place to stay overnight. They entered a Samaritan village, but the people would not receive them. When his disciples James and John heard about this, they asked him, "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them, as Elijah did?" But he rebuked them: "You don't know what kind of spirit you represent." And they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56)
Why was the preaching of Jesus called "the good news"? It was news to those who heard it, because they had not heard it before. It wasn't merely a new covenant with the Jews; it was a whole new theology, barely hinted at in Judaism, and not found in any other religion -- a new understanding of the will of God, and a new description of the Kingdom of God. Basically, the difference was between "crime and punishment" and "search and rescue." That difference is the watershed, the dividing line, between the old and the new understanding of the will of God.
"What do you think?" Jesus said, "If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine in safe pasture and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. And just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance."
This was good news to those who had repented their sins, because many of them loved someone who would not repent. They were grieved, tormented, by the expectation that God would burn their loved ones. Then Jesus revealed the good news that God and the members of His kingdom (that is, all those who obey the will of God) continue to care, and keep on trying. They continue to search for, and rescue, lost souls and those who have intentionally gone astray.
There are bits of this new theology in the Old Testament. Jesus cited one when he said, "Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'" He was quoting Hosea. And there are echoes of the old theology in the New Testament. Written toward the end of the first century, John's Gospel sees the essential difference: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." This gospel illuminates the high point of the watershed: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." But then even this Gospel reverts to an echo of the old theology: "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests on him." (John 3:36) That last thought is an echo of the old theology.
So ... we can read the New Testament with Old Testament eyes, and thereby see a god of wrath and vengeance -- or we can read it with New Testament eyes and see the loving Father revealed by Jesus. In this denomination, we have that choice.
However, if we read the Old Testament with New Testament eyes, the old image of God looks pretty terrible. Think about all the cruelty that is attributed to God in the Old Testament. Is this actually the same God, in the Old Testament and the New Testament? I don't know. But they are two very different theologies.
"Sinners in the hands of an angry god" is Old Testament preaching. It invokes the old doctrines of fear and guilt, crime and punishment, sacrifice, atonement, and appeasement. I got kicked out of a hard-shell Baptist church when I was fourteen, largely for questioning their doctrine of damnation. (They called it "salvation") Ten years later, Wyn and I left a church in New Hampshire because we couldn't stand their theology or their damning and separating themselves from anyone they judged to be sinners. I said to myself, "This isn't what Jesus taught and demonstrated."
Likewise, the doctrine of vicarious atonement is Old Testament thinking. You know the teaching: "Jesus died for your sins." Well, there are two thoughts here. "Jesus came because we are sinners, to gather us up and lead us home" is a New Testament thought. But "Jesus came to atone for our sins as a sacrifice" is an Old Testament thought. It re-invokes the ancient image of a god whose wrath and desire to punish can only be appeased by blood sacrifice -- human sacrifice -- even of his own son. What kind of theology is this? It slanders God. Many primitive religions practiced human sacrifice, but the ancestors of the Jews shifted from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice at the time of Abraham. The Jewish followers of Jesus -- and they were Jews, after all -- said he was the sacrificial lamb of God, but he himself said he was the good shepherd, sent by God to seek and to save the lost. These are two different explanations for why Jesus came to earth and lived and died, and they reflect two different theologies.
My God doesn't require atonement or vicarious atonement. He wants us to live a better life, here and hereafter. As Jesus said to the woman caught in the act of adultery, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." This is what any good parent wants: not retribution or vengeance, but step-by-step change for the better.
Today, those who preach the old theology of a wrathful, vindictive god are driving people away from churches and the Bible and Jesus and God. Internet chatrooms are full of ex-christians who have rejected all of that, because they reject the old image of God. And I agree with them. I say, "My God isn't like that. My God is not willing that any should perish. He does not cause pain or hardship. He sends members of His Kingdom to search for lost souls, and all kinds of sinners, and rescue every one they possibly can." Many ex-christians, and some pagans, have rejoiced to hear the good news about God and His kingdom. More than a few have said they were going to go look for a church that teaches and preaches like that.
On the other hand, there were many who would not listen to John or Jesus. They would not repent because they did not believe they had done anything wrong. Or so they told themselves. And there are a lot of people like that today.
There are modern libertines who say nothing is true or false, good or evil, right or wrong -- it's all just a matter of personal opinion, and one opinion is as good as another. They say everyone should be allowed to do whatever they please, without judgment or pressure from anyone else. They do not repent, because they do not believe anything is right or wrong. Hell is not a threat to them, nor heaven a promise, because they have rejected the entire concept of right and wrong.
Others look at them and wonder if they'll ever get their come-uppance. Many ask themselves, "Why should I live by the rules I was taught, when all these people violate the rules and get away with it? I hope God will reward the righteous and punish the evil-doers -- and these smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied libertines -- but I don't see much evidence of it. Maybe He sends good people to heaven and bad people to hell -- or at least I hope that's the way it is." (I have heard that thought a number of times.)
Many people were disappointed because Jesus didn't blast sinners. They expected the wrath of God; he demonstrated the grace of God. They wanted justice; he preferred mercy. But mercy applies to the repentant; justice to the unrepentant. Jesus did not condemn the repentant, but neither did he offer cheap absolution.
Today, those who will not repent are teaching moral relativism, situation ethics, personal truth, and unearned self-esteem -- which was formerly known as false pride and considered one of the seven deadly sins. And as always, there are false prophets who tell sinners what they want to hear: "You don't need to repent. God made you the way you are. God loves you just the way you are." But Jesus did not do that. He said, "Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were dropped into the sea." (Luke 17:1)
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." And he taught them by many illustrations and parables: "This is the way it is in heaven. Everyone helps and no one hurts. This is the way God wants us to live." But the earth is not heaven. It's a mixture of those who obey the will of God, those who oppose it, and the multitudes who simply go their own way.
There are little spots of heaven on earth -- some families, groups, congregations -- where people help each other when they can, and no one hurts or harms anyone. And as C. S. Lewis wrote: "Whatever else heaven may be, it is where no one intentionally gives offense, or more important, foolishly takes offense." To neither give nor take offense is a sign of the Kingdom of God, in heaven and on earth.
We have some Old views in the New Testament, and we have both Old and New Testament hymns (and some that are neither) in our hymnbooks. One hymn that reflects the teachings of Jesus begins this way: "Rescue the perishing, care for the dying; snatch them in pity from sin and the grave. Weep o'er the erring one, lift up the fallen; tell them of Jesus the mighty to save." This isn't wrath. It is pity.
Even the New Testament passages that predict the end of the age can be read and interpreted two ways. For example, Jesus said: "The kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth." How do you read this? Will the angels throw away all they can, or will they keep all they can? It is interesting to note that several of his disciples were fishermen. But they were not sport fishermen. Sport fishermen throw away everything except the most perfect specimens. His disciples were commercial fishermen. And commercial fishermen always keep every fish they possibly can. So, that is how those disciples would have understood this parable. I believe, in the judgment at the end of the age, God and Jesus and their angels will rescue all they can.
What's the bottom line? Christianity has more than one theology. One of them describes a judgmental God who rewards the righteous and punishes sinners by sending them to hell. Another, at the peak of the watershed, the highest point in the history of theology, describes the loving Father who calls the wanderers home.