It's such a tiny, insignificant word that we barely observe it, but there it is in all its perniciousness: "John would have prevented [Jesus], saying `I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'"
Before John the Baptist, there were others who attempted to prevent Jesus from being who he is. Jesus Prevention is not a new thing. King Herod sent his armed soldiers to slaughter the children of Bethlehem in order to prevent a new King from taking his throne...even though Jesus did not come to rule from an earthly palace. (Mt 2:16 ff)
Even Mary and Joseph scolded the young Jesus when he stayed back in the Temple as they wended their homeward way to Nazareth following his Bar Mitzvah one Passover. "Why were you searching for me?" asked the twelve-year-old. "Did you not know that I must be in My Father's house?" (Lk 2:49) While their prevention was decidedly different from that of Herod, it was one more attempt to put a roadblock...albeit well-intentioned...in his way. When Jesus reached his maturity, it was John the Baptist who inaugurated Jesus Prevention anew. Jesus sought baptism, but, says Matthew, "John would have prevented him..." It was Jesus Prevention clear and simple.
The Greek word Matthew uses, diekoluen, not only means prevent, but it has the force of forbidding it, and the connotation of definitely hindering him. The New International Version uses the word deter, while the New English Bible translates the word as dissuade. It is clear, it is not such an innocent word after all, but one with a dire, almost diabolical, meaning. I call it pernicious. It means going against the will of God. To be sure, John was being modest in his Jesus Prevention, while Herod...and later the scribes and Pharisees...were plainly vicious. Remember how they carried on when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath day? They were emphatic in their Jesus Prevention. Mary and Joseph were thoughtful parents, who cared for Jesus and did not want him left alone in the Big City while they trekked homeward to Galilee. Yet despite the varying degrees of prevention, they were all standing in the way of Jesus being fully who he came to be: the Messiah. But more important than that: they were standing in the way of being all they could be as well...all that God intended for them to be...all that Christ could make them be as they served him by performing simple acts. Christ sought baptism from John, because this human act was important to his divine purpose. Fortunately John came to understand that, but Herod never did...nor have many others who have gotten into the negativity of the Jesus Prevention game.
You and I have stood in Jesus' way also. It may be a modest but determined protest on our part, as it was for John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph. Haven't we prevented him from allowing us to be all that we can be at times, because, as we put it piously and sincerely, "we are undeserving"? Or, in the vein of Mary and Joseph, we still want him to be the Baby of the manger we have a responsibility to fuss over and protect, instead of the budding Messiah who cares for us by the torturous reality of the Cross. By such attitudes, we deny the power of Baptism and the might of the Holy Spirit.
There are, of course, the Herod-like preventers among us, too, who want to wipe out any suggestion they need a Savior to rescue them from life's foibles, a Savior they erroneously think threatens to take over their inconsequential thrones to rule their insignificant empires, be they ever so small or ever so huge. At the same time, such modern-day Herods prevent themselves from being fully the monarchs they might be, preferring to blunder along arrogantly, rather than accepting God's invitation to serve him.
Even today, there are those who hinder the holy. Yet if we examine closely the story of our Lord's Baptism, we discover John forsook the role of hinderer to sail along with the sacred. Is that a lesson we need to re-learn? "Jesus Prevention" is a detriment to joy, rather than a compliment to modesty. Instead of practicing Jesus Prevention, discover the Jesus dimension! That's our task for today.
I. Let's examine what it means to "hinder the holy." There may be overt acts of prevention, or covert ways to hinder him. Either way...obvious and above board, or underhanded and secretive...they can be means of the devil rather than acts sanctioned by God.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we find numerous well-intentioned souls trying to prevent Paul and the other apostles from preaching Christ. Jesus Preventionists stoned Stephen (Acts 6:8-8:1), killed James Acts 12:1-2), imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:3), and later jailed Paul and Silas in Philippi (Acts 16:16 ff). Ananias and Sapphira were certainly Jesus Preventers in their attempt at deceiving the Lord (Acts 5:1 ff). Another Ananias, this one in Damascus, almost joined his namesake in being a Jesus Preventer himself, but he agreed to baptize Saul despite some negative vibes within about the Christian-hater-turned-Believer (Acts 9:10 ff). All of these Jesus Preventers thought they were helping Judaism, but they were hindering the holy, and hampering their Hebrew faith instead. They were negative in their outlook and obstinate in their determination. We discover such attitudes going on today with the war lords of Somalia, and the ethnic purifiers of Yugoslavia, the neo-Fascists of Germany, and the feuding gangs of urban America. They all think they are doing something noble for their cause, but it all boils down to Jesus Prevention...to preventing Jesus and his love from making miracles happen, from using every day people in extraordinary ways. That's why I could not agree with the President in saying that American troops in Somalia are doing "God's work," as he termed it. They're there to help instead of hindering the holy.
Jesus Prevention happened in the Old Testament as well. Jonah resisted God, going the opposite direction that he was told to go, but God would not relent. Jonah wasn't successful in preventing God from acting through him. (Jonah 1:3) The Israelites, you will recall, cast a calf of molten gold to be their god in an early attempt at God Prevention as they wandered in the wilderness near Mount Sinai. They discovered the error of their ways, however. (Ex 32:4 ff) They eventually determined to sail with the sacred. King Nebuchadnezzar threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace when they refused to worship pagan gods, but this try at God Prevention also failed, and the king came to know the might and wonder of the one true God. (Dan 3:13 ff) Even a pagan king set sail with the sacred...if not as fully dedicated as God would like.
Jesus Prevention got into full swing when the devil tempted Jesus, but he did not yield. (Mt 4:1 ff) It was pursued by the nay-saying scribes and Pharisees later when Jesus healed on the Sabbath day, as we've already noted, and most dramatically by Judas Iscariot, who betrayed our Lord. (Lk 22:3 ff) There were those who had the chance, but did not sail with the Savior at all, content merely to deter and hinder the holy.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has had to cut back in its programs, because the dollars are not there to fund them. One wonders if this is a contemporary form of Jesus Prevention. We can become so thrifty in our giving habits that we, too, hinder the holy, preventing the Good News from reaching others. It is true of our parish budget and congregational income for last year, and, I fear, unless we determine to follow Christ completely, it will be true again this year. All one has to do is read the current issue of The Lutheran to see how well-spent are our dollars for outreach to the world.
Jesus Prevention is, often times, well-intentioned, but it has the net effect of refusing to let him work his miracle through us. Amazingly, John the Baptist caught that idea before it became an irretrievable mistake. He was, in many ways, a tremendously negative preacher after all. He was a legalist. He identified sin and preached powerful sermons against it. Even the king was not spared his tirade, nor should he have been. He was wicked and John knew it. (Mt 14:1 ff; Lk 9:7-9; Mk 6:14-29) Yet John's inclination to rant and rave over the negative was not his sole quality, albeit the one we most often remember. When he saw a glimmer of hope, however, he latched on to it. So should we. Instead of Jesus Prevention, we should sail on with the Savior...like John the Baptist once he knew the Jesus dimension.
II. That requires a drastic change. Instead of hindering the holy, John recognized his near mistake and sailed on with the sacred. So did Paul later on, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, who originally resisted him.
When Jesus responded to the Baptizer's unwillingness to baptize Him, John told the Lord "I need to be baptized by you." But Jesus had an explanation: "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness," said the Lord. It is then that Matthew writes of the camel hair-clad prophet, "Then he consented." It took a good argument to sway John from his negativity, but fortunately he willingly sailed on with the sacred. He was no alligator attempting "to bring down the authority," as Bill Hulme terms such negativists.1 Nor was he an early day Martin Luther. Peter Steinke reminds us that "Martin Luther troubled himself greatly to fulfill God's law. Failing, he admitted, `I don't love God; I hate Him.' But out of this personal experience," writes Steinke, "Luther discovered God's act of justification, the reconciling peace of Christ. He learned that God is greater than the human heart."2 He set sail with the Savior, and the world is richer for it.
It was a good thing that the Baptizer relented from his initial Jesus Prevention stance, for it was then that the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove, and a majestic voice was heard, "This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Jesus Prevention often puts roadblocks before such happy circumstances. Chaos happens rather than corroboration. Wouldn't you really rather hear God's affirmation than the silence of despair? Wouldn't you prefer listening to the boast of a wonderful God than hear the groanings of the disappointed who failed to set sail with the sacred?
Are you willing to sail with the sacred yourself? Are you willing to let Jesus Christ use you for His noble purposes? That's what happened to John. His willingness to baptize Jesus permitted us to view the unity of the Godhead as Father, Son and Holy Spirit demonstrated their oneness.
Steve Martin plays a con man, Jonas Nightengale, who professes to be a faith healer in the film Leap of Faith. He lands in Rustwater, Kansas, and begins his miracle crusade with glittering lights and sequined clothes. In every way, Jonas Nightengale is Jesus Preventionist. He's a fraud, a demagogue, an opportunist bilking the pious. Yet something happens, something amazing, for in the face of Jonas' fraud God allows a real miracle to happen. Says Jonas afterward, "One thing I know, you can spot the genuine article." For a brief moment, Jonas Nightengale had unwittingly forsaken hindering the holy and set sail with the sacred. It was a mind-blowing phenomenon that sent him right out of his comfortable niche as a con artist. God can and does use everyone who sails with His sacred purposes to do fantastic things. More often than not, He enables us to fulfill our potential as His people rather than divide the Red Sea like Moses, or bring down the walls of Jericho like Joshua.
It may not be as obvious, but it will be there, this ability in Christ to do bold things. It may not have the notoriety of a miraculous healing, but it will nevertheless be God using you to be the one He intended for you to be. It's like that military commercial that urges us to be all you can be! You may be a better parent because of it, or a better employee, or a more effective parishioner. When you say "yes" to Christ's invitation to serve, expect miracles...small and gigantic! In Holy Baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit, but not as a descending dove, but as faith imbued with power.
R.A. Torrey says, "Prayers are hindered by unbelief." We might say so is life. "God demands that we believe His Word absolutely. To question is to make Him a liar."3 In short, He wants us to sail upon the troubled waters of life with His Son at the helm...serving Him gladly, faithfully.
Remember how friends brought the paralytic to Jesus for healing; even chopping a hole in the roof, so that they could get inside? (Lk 5:17 ff) That was sailing with the Savior certainly. The father of the boy who was seized by an evil spirit asked Jesus to heal him...if he was able! "If you are able," answered Jesus. "All things can be done by the one who believes." The father implored Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief." (Mark 9:14 ff) He set sail with the Savior, and his boy was saved. It was a simple acceptance of a sacred opportunity to serve.
Barnabas was a wonderful man. He introduced Saul to the Apostles, following Saul's conversion on the Damascus Road, but the Apostles were not all that thrilled to employ a former hater of Christ in the work of the kingdom. (Acts 9:26-27) He was left on the shelf for about ten years, until Barnabas went after him again. He needed help in Antioch, and Paul was the very one who could help him. (Acts 11:25-26) Barnabas was never one to practice Jesus Prevention. On the contrary, Paul himself did a little bit of that. When Mark disappointed him, Paul would have nothing to do with him. (Acts 15:39 ff) It was Barnabas once again who set sail with the sacred and rescued Mark from oblivion...and Paul discovered once more that even great Christians like himself could be Jesus Preventers...until they catch on to the Jesus dimension: the idea of love that applies itself through forgiveness.
Here is the only way to set sail with the sacred and know you're shipping out with the Savior! Without forgiveness there is no love. Without love there is no forgiveness...and Jesus Prevention is in full control. Haven't we something to learn ourselves about the Jesus dimension from Jesus Prevention people?
In conclusion, I want to tell you about someone who was once a Jesus Preventer, who had no use for Christ or Christianity, who hindered the holy in every way that he could. He was a kid from Chicago, who was persuaded to attend a Christian college. He didn't know it was Christian, or he never would have put his deposit down. "...When I did find it out it was too late to get my money back. So I had to go," he writes in a book entitled What Faith Has Meant to Me.4 He says he went to St. Olaf College, one of our ELCA schools, "indifferent to religion—and came out hostile to it."
Then he explains, "But while I was at St. Olaf, two things happened. One, even as I was attacking Christianity, I was being taught to think like a Christian." He studied Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and discovered a way of thought molded by Christian professors that opened his mind to the Holy Spirit. The second thing that happened to him is that he fell in love with a Christian girl. "...Slowly under her delicate and tender hand, the chip on my shoulder was taken away, my hostility to the church was dissolved in her love toward Jesus, large enough then for both of us."
When he graduated, being a good football player, he was set to play professionally for the Cardinals. He broke his shoulder in practice and was cut from the team the same day. In that disappointment and despair, that Christian girl came through. As they waited for the train to come to take them home, he "was told that God loved [him], that broken bones and broken hopes are tomorrow's promise of healing, that in the church year Good Friday was always followed by Easter, that out of despair there came new life, new beginnings, and all was yet in front of [them]."
"Like Jacob of old, that which I had once fought against I now embraced," writes James Kallas, one of the foremost theologians in the Lutheran Church today. "Like Paul of old, that which I once persecuted I preached. The power of God, able to pick up a man, turn him inside out, set him off in new directions, inject purpose and power and dignity into what was earlier aimless and angry, that same power is yet active."
"Why am I in the church?" asks Jim Kallas, whom many of you know. "Because consecrated faculty people at St. Olaf, in the face of the railing of a frightened youngster, continued serenely assured of what they believed, and shared it with me? Yes. Because a pretty young girl, her hair soaked in sunlight, loved me and led me? Yes. But most of all because behind them both stands a reality called the resurrection, which has claimed me as its own."
Here is where Jesus Prevention stops hindering the holy and sets sail with the Savior, for the Jesus Dimension had become indelibly clear. May it be so for all of us.
Richard Andersen St. Timothy's Lutheran Church San Jose, CA
1. William Hulme, "Dealing with the Alliga ors," Lutheran Partners, July/August 1992 (Chicago: Carl Linder, Editor), p. 26. 2. Peter Steinke, "Anger Goes to Church," The Lutheran, January 28, 1990 (Chicago: Edgar Trexler, ed.), p. 21. 3. R.A. Torrey, How to Pray (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1983), p. 73. 4. James Kallas, "God Will Have The Last Word," What Faith Has Meant To Me, Claude A. Frazier, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 102-109.