One of the “rites of passage” as one attends seminary, to prepare to be a Presbyterian pastor—one of the things all the students have to go through—is to learn Hebrew. Since it’s the language the Old Testament is written in, and one of the tasks of ministers is to work with Scripture, it’s probably a good idea that learning something about Hebrew is part of ministers’ training. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy—or that it’s fun.
For about the first twenty weeks of the course, they have to learn about ten or twelve new Hebrew words each week. Each one is written on its own little flash card—Hebrew on front, English on back. And after 20 weeks, you can imagine, the number of words that have to be remembered has gotten pretty high. And the words all start to look the same after a while; and some of them even have this neat little trick of dropping out one of their letters sometimes—sometimes it has an “n” in it and sometimes it doesn’t—so you never know if you’re looking at a word with a missing letter or a completely different word.
And so eventually just about all Hebrew students start muttering things like: “How are you supposed to know which is which?” “How many more of these can I stuff inside my brain?” “How long will I remember them anyway?” They get to the point where they’re not very happy with Hebrew.
But if they can push through that 20th week-of-Hebrew period, things start to get better. At that point, the memorizing of vocabulary words and rules of grammar is about over. And the focus switches, from memorizing Hebrew basics to actually beginning to interpret the Bible: What does this passage mean? What does it teach us about God? How might we preach a sermon about it? The interesting part of Hebrew, what it’s all for, finally begins.
And it was especially interesting, when I was at Pittsburgh Seminary, 100 years ago, because the professor, while being good at teaching Hebrew, was particularly good at interpreting it, drawing out its meaning, preaching from it. He’s written several books on how to preach the Old Testament. It was at this point that the language came alive; and along the way the students heard from him some fascinating things about the Old Testament passages they read together, things we would never pick up from our own reading.
One of the things I remember him pointing out during my time with him is that Biblical writers—both Hebrew and Greek, Old Testament and New—wrote mostly about actions, as opposed to thoughts and feelings. They wrote: “She did this, she did that, then she did this,” as opposed to “she thought…” or “she felt…” or “she wondered…” Their style was to write very little about what’s going on inside people, just about their actions.
When Abraham thought God wanted him to kill his only son, for example, and only at the last second was stopped by an angel, the text says “Abraham took the knife. The angel said ‘Do not hurt your boy.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram and offered it up instead.” Not a word about any relief or joy or any other feeling, in Abraham or his son! When the Hebrew people were leaving Egypt, the text says “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord divided the waters. The Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming walls around them. The Egyptians pursued, and the waters returned and covered them.” Nothing about awe at what God was doing, or nervousness about stepping between those walls of water, or panic on the part of the Egyptians. He did this, they did that, they did this. Just actions. No thoughts. No feelings.
It may be that this Biblical style of writing—actions, rather than thoughts and feelings—is one reason we don’t tend to think about Jesus’ feelings very often. What was he thinking as he carried out his ministry? What was he feeling? Did he ever fall in love? Did he find some people really annoying? Did he have special feelings for certain people; special relationships?
We are told very little about Jesus’ feelings; there is much more about his actions, what he did. But one of those actions, which we just heard about, and which we’ll come back to in a little bit, leads me to believe that he did have special relationships, special friendships, special sets of feelings—and that one of them involved this person John, John the Baptist. Today, as we continue our series on the events of Jesus’ life, we’re going to look at a special relationship in that life: Jesus and John.
What do we know about the relationship of Jesus and John? First of all, we know that they were related. When Jesus’ mother Mary receives the announcement about Jesus’ coming birth, the angel says to her, “your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son,” and that son is John. Since Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, Jesus and John must have been relatives. The Bible doesn’t say how they were related; we don’t know if they were close, or fourth cousins twice removed, living many miles apart. John and Jesus, while related, may not have gotten together much as they grew up, or even have known each other. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, there is no indication that they did.
It’s quite possible, in fact, then, that the first time John and Jesus ever met was when Jesus came to him to be baptized. John was out in the wilderness, preaching to people to confess their sins, repent of them, and be baptized in the river as a symbol of those sins being washed away and a new form of life begun. And as he preached and baptized, John spoke of another person to come, someone much more powerful, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, who would clear the threshing floor of any bad or useless material and burn it in unquenchable fire. “Drain the swamp,” someone might say today.
And when Jesus appeared, Matthew indicates, John recognized that he was that one, somehow saw that this man, whom he may or may not have met before, was that promised Messiah. So he resisted baptizing him, considering himself the inferior, the less powerful, the one in need of cleansing. But Jesus insisted that John baptize him, and when he did, a voice from heaven confirmed what John had perceived: “This is my son, the Beloved,” it said. And throughout the whole episode, we have not one word about what Jesus felt—when he saw John, as he conversed with him, as he was baptized, even when he heard that voice from heaven. We still don’t know anything about his feelings.
Our next episode about John and Jesus, however, the one which was our first reading today, does for the first time reveal some feelings. In the first half, John questions, from prison, through a messenger, whether Jesus really is the one to come, or whether there will be another. This may seem strange, in light of his instant recognition of Jesus at the time of the baptism, but remember that John had described a figure wielding fire, purging threshing floors, hewing down trees to their roots, revealing God’s wrath. The reports he had heard of Jesus’ ministry to date contained no such episodes, so probably began his doubts. Is this the one, the one of judgement and fire?
Was Jesus disappointed that John doubted? That he questioned? That his former conviction was no longer as strong? Again we are not told what Jesus felt. But he did answer: Tell John the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, the poor receive good news. All this fulfilled Scriptural prophecies of what the Messiah would do, and John would know that—and have his answer. He had been right about who the Messiah was; he had only been mistaken, as were so many others, about what the Messiah’s mission was: he had come not to punish, but to heal.
It is in the second half of the passage that we see that glimpse of Jesus’ feelings—feelings of respect, of admiration; words of great praise: Who was that out in the wilderness? he asked. A prophet? Yes, and more even than a prophet. The prophet, the last and greatest prophet, the forerunner of the Messiah. “And among those who have been born, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” If Jesus did experience any disappointment from John’s question, it certainly doesn’t show in this tribute; Jesus obviously has great admiration for John.
And then in Matthew 14, our second reading, comes the report that John is dead. This time again, it seems, we have no feelings revealed on the part of Jesus. Or do we? “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there into a boat to a deserted place by himself.” He withdrew, to a deserted place, by himself. It is in this action, I think, that we find Jesus’ feelings. He left his ministry, left even his disciples, and went off to be by himself. To process the news that John is dead. To ask, “Why?” perhaps. To come to terms with this development, quite possibly. To pray, probably. In short, Jesus withdrew, I think . . . to mourn. His friend had died.
Jesus would withdraw on other occasions. When he heard John was in prison. When he was in Gethsemane—among others. I think he withdrew now to mourn.
Jesus had lost a person he cared about—whom he admired, respected, who had been there as he began his ministry, whom he liked. Jesus suffered a sense of loss. Because Jesus was human. He too had special relationships in his life, as do all human beings. He too hurt when they were gone.
What do we do when we receive the sudden news that we’ve lost someone we care about? We try to find some way to process the news, to make sense of it, to understand it, to work it into our thoughts and feelings, integrate it. We ask “Why?” We may want to question those who were present, or doctors; we may want to sit God down for a serious talk. We try to come to terms with this new development; ideally, our gathering for visitation, and our funeral services, and our meals together afterward, all help us make the adjustment, gradually, over time, to life without that person in it. We pray—in our services, certainly; in private, when we’re ready. We mourn—and here we see Jesus, I believe, in his withdrawal, sharing in what we do, sharing in the human response to a loss, being one of us.
In the complicated tension we Christians have between Jesus being a person and Jesus being God, we can lose our sense, sometimes, of his humanity, and what that means—of the ways he was like us. We can wonder: Does God understand what I’m going through now? Can God sympathize—an eternal, life-without-end, conqueror-of-death God? What does God know of what it’s like to lose someone, to feel like they’re gone forever?
Well here we see that God, having the experience of Jesus, does know that feeling: he’s gotten the news that a person he had feelings about, John, is gone. Jesus wept, we read, at the tomb of Lazarus, another special friend. And God watched a son die, we remember, later, in the closest terms we have for that relationship. God does know.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Since the children of God share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things. He became like his brothers and sisters in every respect. And because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. He is able to deal gently, since he himself is subject to weakness. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” End of quote.
The news of John’s death, quite possibly, was one of those occasions of tears.
He was one of us. He understands. He sympathizes. He is with us in our times of loss, having felt what we feel. He comforts with the experience of one who has needed comfort himself.
He became “like us in every respect.” He “shared the same things.” He suffered loss. He prayed with cries and with tears.
As we come to those times when we have doubts or questions about God, as John did when he was in prison, we can know that Jesus responded to those doubts from a friend with words of high praise, not blame. And as we experience the loss of friends or loved ones, we can know that Jesus comes to us having experienced that same feeling of loss. He has been one of us; he understands who we are, as he comforts us.
Thanks be to God.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for becoming one of us, for experiencing things we experience, for sharing our condition and feelings, including the difficult ones. May this knowledge that you know and understand be of comfort especially to those who are mourning the loss of a loved one now—as you did. Amen.