Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Supporting Character

One of my favorite uncles when I was a child wasn’t really a relative at all. He was “Uncle” Don Seawooster, a friend of my father’s. And besides his gruff but lovable manner with my brother and me, what I loved about him was his hobby. He was a member of the Southtown Players, a community theater group. He performed in their plays, though rarely in a lead role, but what really fascinated me was his behind the scenes work. He built the sets and what I remember was a backstage tour of the sets for Dracula. I forget which stage version they presented but they really went all out with the special effects. A bat flew out over the audience. After drinking from one of his victims, Dracula stepped forward and suddenly blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. But the highlight was the scene in which the men hunting Dracula grab and hold him till the sun rises. As one counts down the seconds from his pocket watch, Dracula suddenly disappears, his cape dropping empty to the floor and in the form of a bat he flies out the window. Uncle Don showed us how it was done. Dracula’s cape had false shoulders and a collar higher than the actor‘s head. When grabbed, the actor playing Dracula was standing behind a sofa, facing the back wall of the set. The actors playing his hunters would grab his false shoulders. “Dracula” would untie his cape, drop to the floor and crawl out a small hinged door, rather like a cat flap, that was set into the back of the set and hidden behind the sofa. At the right time, the hunters dropped the cape and the prop bat, also behind the sofa, flew via a wire out the open window. If it weren’t for all the preparation uncle Don had done, the scene wouldn’t have worked.

Though less glamorous than acting, the folks who create the sets for a play, or a movie, or a TV show are invaluable. They help create the realty necessary to make the story believable. They set the mood, they create the world and time in which the story takes place. What would “Dracula” be if it weren’t for the castle and the doomed ship and the asylum and the crypt? Where would “The Hound of the Baskervilles” if it weren’t for the moors and the Grimpen mire and the stone age dwellings? Where would Holmes himself be if it were not for London, that “cesspool of crime?”

And even among the actors, those who play supporting roles, are still vital. In the original Sherlock Holmes story, as in the new updated series, it is an otherwise forgettable character named Stamford who introduces Watson to Holmes. Scrooge is the central character of “a Christmas Carol” but a pivotal scene would be missed were it not for the boy in the street he hails at random to ask if it is Christmas Day and then sends to get the big turkey at the butcher shop and deliver it to the Cratchits. Would you continue to watch “The Matrix” or care who Neo if it weren’t for Morpheus, the man who initiates Tom Anderson and keeps telling us who he is to become?

John the Baptist has that thankless task in the gospel. He is the herald who goes before the anointed king to announce his arrival. John doesn’t mind the role assigned to him but once imprisoned by Herod Antipas, he starts to wonder, is Jesus really the one?

Why would John doubt? Was it because he was in prison and in danger of being executed? Sometimes even believers start to doubt God when things go bad for them. Maybe a prayer is not answered, or rather, not answered as we would like. Maybe it’s a disease or a disaster or a death. Maybe it’s a wayward child. Or a reversal of your fortune or career. It wasn’t what you expected. Or what you deserved as a believer in God. What’s the good of following Jesus if you aren’t exempt from the same trials and troubles other people suffer?

People are always looking for a way in which to magically eliminate suffering in this life. And a lot of people think God promises his followers that they won’t have to undergo anything really unpleasant. But Jesus said just the opposite: “in this world you have trouble and suffering…” There is no promise that Christians are immune to having bad things happen to them. Jesus wasn’t. There is no magic in this life that allows for actions without consequences. We are most certainly not exempt from having to dealing with the fallout of following Jesus. We still have to take a stand and do the right thing, even if it costs us. For that reason Jesus added “…but take courage--I have conquered the world.”

But I doubt that John the Baptist thought that doing God’s work meant a painless existence. He was a prophet and he knew what happened to a lot of the prophets in the Old Testament. Besides he doesn’t ask Jesus to magically get him out of prison.

There is another possibility. John preached of how the axe was laid to the root, of how God’s judgment was imminent, of how the Kingdom of God was near. And yet, where was that day of judgment? Even in prison, John should have heard of the inauguration of the righteous reign of God’s Messiah. So he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is indeed the one. The implication is, perhaps, why isn’t the kingdom here already?

John might be confusing the 2 separate pictures one gets of the Messiah in the Old Testament. One was of David Redux, God’s warrior-king who would end the present evil age and usher in the Kingdom of God. The other was Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant, who takes on the sins of his people. You can guess which one was more popular with the oppressed Jews. They wanted a fighter, not a martyr.

Some thought the portraits were of 2 separate persons. Perhaps the Suffering Servant was the prophet Jeremiah. Or the Jewish people as a whole. Though there were rabbis who thought that the Suffering Servant was indeed the Messiah, the majority thought the two were separate entities. What no one seems to have realized is that this was one person on two different occasions.

Jesus comes first as the servant whose spilled blood would supersede that of the animals sacrificed in the Temple and atone for the sins not just of his people but of the whole world. Mere physical conquest will not make people willing citizens of God’s kingdom. Modern generals realize that you must win hearts and minds first. This Jesus does by taking on himself all the punishment every individual deserves for his or her sins and acts of injustice. With God’s mercy offered to all, with all slates wiped clean, it is possible for anyone to be accepted as a child of God and a citizen of his kingdom. So first Jesus had to come as the suffering servant.

Did John not perceive this? Didn’t he call Jesus the Lamb of God, which is as good as saying he’s meant as a sacrifice? Yes but perhaps he was surprised by Jesus’ low key approach to ministry, as opposed to John’s fiery stance. Jesus did not emphasize God’s judgment to the extent John did. Or perhaps John was simply impatient. Maybe that’s why he asked if Jesus, like John, was just another forerunner. That might explain the delay.

Jesus answers by telling John’s disciples to relay what they see--“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.” In doing so, Jesus is referring to Isaiah chapters 26, 35 and 61. In other words, he is doing the work of the Messiah. And Jesus adds a little rebuke: “blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.”

There are a lot of Christians who are scandalized by Jesus or at least some of the things he did or said. There are those who think he wasn’t tough enough on sin and those who think he talked way too much about hell. There are those who wished he said less about the end times and those who felt he didn’t say enough. There are those who think he wasn’t inclusive enough when it comes to other faiths and those who think he wasn’t exclusive enough when it comes to certain Christians. There are those who ignore what he said about the rich and those who ignore what he said about the poor. There are those who would like to purge the virgin birth from the gospels and those who would like to erase the resurrection. And then there are those who feel he should have talked more like Paul. It’s interesting that at a time when we are supposed to tolerate everyone and respect their opinions, there are people who won’t let Jesus be Jesus. We want him to be more like us.

Or maybe John was like the guy who told Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Maybe as he sat in that dark cell, knowing he’d never see or be outside again, never feel the sun on his back and the cool Jordan river lapping at his thighs, never taste wild honey or see a former sinner rise newly born from the water, he just needed some encouragement, some word from Jesus. He never saw Christ preach or heal; Jesus began his ministry after John was arrested. And maybe John just wanted to hear firsthand that his cousin was carrying out his mission. Hopefully, the word his disciples brought back helped John face the day when Herod would have his head.

One day, when the gospel has spread to all the world, and God knows that all who will accept his reconciliation have done so, Jesus will return, close the book on evil and injustice and take his throne, ushering in his peaceable kingdom. There are times, when pain and sorrow and man’s inhumanity to man assail us, that we wish it were today. Of course, as long as we still add to that pain and sorrow, we might want to rethink that. And we’ve no excuse not to be opening the eyes of the spiritually blind, helping those who stumble get back on their feet, bringing in the social lepers, getting through to the morally tone-deaf, reanimating the spiritually dead, and bringing good news to the poor. God may forgive us but he won’t allow himself to be gamed. As John said, we need to repent, change our minds and turn our lives around. Unlike him, we are free to act. Maybe that’s why though no natural born person is greater than John, we who are born of the Spirit can be greater still. John’s a tough act to follow but Jesus says we can. And who are we to contradict Jesus?

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