This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/11/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: James 5:7-10 & Matthew 11:2-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
One of the critiques that early Quakers had of the established church, was that the church at large had adopted a “meantime theology.” The reasoning went like this:
Jesus and the apostles have gone away to heaven, and all prophecy and miracles and revelation have ceased. The chance for salvation is not for now; it is for later. The best we can hope for now is a church that acts as a street medic for sin: Bandaging us up and providing some pain killers, but not quite skilled enough to offer real healing. For that, we would need to wait until kingdom come, when the Great Physician would return and he could heal us once and for.
To this kind of reasoning, the Quakers said, “No! Jesus has come to teach his people himself. The Great Physician is present, and we can be healed – transformed – we don’t have to limp along in sin any longer.” For the early Quakers, the message of the gospel is that Jesus did not just save us in our sin – pardoning us despite our continued evil – but rather that Jesus is actively saving us from our sin – healing and transforming us into people who act like and have the character of God’s children.
In a way, John the Baptist was the ultimate “meantime” preacher. He told people not to cheat, steal, and hurt one another. He gave people basic ground rules for repenting of sin, so that they would be ready when the Messiah showed up. But real salvation was in the future. It was not now, but then – on that day when the Messiah would come and bring a whole new order with him.
John knew that the Messiah was coming soon, but – for most of John’s ministry – he had not shown up yet. John was preparing the way for the Messiah, but he lived his whole life in anticipation of a person that he didn’t know and couldn’t fully understand.
Jesus said of John that he was the greatest man ever born. Jesus said: “Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
John had the anointing from God. He had the plan. He knew the Messiah was coming. Yet he couldn’t predict when or where or in what form. And when the Messiah showed up, he had to ask Jesus, he had to send word to Jesus from prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
And Jesus tells John, essentially: Judge for yourself. Take a look at what I’m doing. Does it match the prophetic witness about the Messiah, or not? Am I doing the things that Isaiah predicted the Messiah would do? Look: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Tell me, John, what do you see?
We know that John died soon after this, executed by Herod. We know that John never got to see how Jesus’ ministry would fully play out. Like old Simeon, who saw Jesus as a baby in the Temple before he died, John was able to say, “These eyes of mine have seen the savior, whom God has prepared for all the world to see. A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people, Israel.” John saw Jesus’ advent, but he did not live to see Jesus’ ministry come to fruition.
John was the greatest prophet of the old era, but like Moses his role was not to enter into the promised land. God used him to pass the torch to a new Joshua, Yeshua, Jesus. This was John’s meantime experience: Seeing God’s salvation, but not being able to rest in it during his lifetime.
How does this relate to the kind of meantime theology that early Friends railed against? The kind that says, “There’s nothing we can do about sin. There’s no way we can do better. But thank goodness, Jesus is coming back someday, and in the meantime we can die and go to heaven if we say the right words and receive the right sacraments from the right priests.” This is the meantime theology that excuses sin and mocks Jesus’ work on the cross.
The meantime ministry of John the Baptist might seem superficially similar, but it is vastly different in character. This is the meantime theology that Moses had. It’s the meantime theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the meantime theology that says, “I see that the dawn is rising. I see the promised land, stretched out before me from atop the mountain. I can see where God is leading us, and I know that we are going to make it there by God’s powerful hand and leading. But I don’t know if I’ll make it there with you.”
James writes to us this morning, encouraging us to be patient, to wait for the coming of the Lord like a farmer waits for the crop to grow and be ready for the harvest. “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”
Strengthen your hearts. Because we may not get to walk into that promised land, but we can see it. We can see the deeds of power that Jesus is doing in the world today. And we know that he is among us. We know that he is here. We know that he is bringing the kingdom.
Maybe we won’t get to enter that promised land on the schedule that we would like. Maybe the transformation we want to see isn’t for us quite yet. But like John the Baptist, we can be obedient. We can make straight the way of the Lord in this crooked wilderness. We can be like Moses, serving the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strength. Even if we don’t get to enter the promised land, we can open the way for others. We can be like Jesus, laying our life down for our friends, trusting that our God and Father will lift us up in the end.