A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on January 23, 2011.
When Jesus heard the news that John the Baptist was taken into prison, something must have reverberated deep within him. Something profound must have been set loose in his soul and he had to do something in response. What did he do? He left home and moved out into the world with his own message. He sensed the shock of hearing about John’s imprisonment and it stirred him to leave home and begin his ministry.
There’s a kinship between Jesus and John that’s obvious in this and several other gospel passages. Jesus and his cousin John acted like twins separated from birth, each sensing and feeling what the other experienced.
They were like the sun and the moon, each having a role to play in the heavens, each having a light to shine into the darkness of the world. The moon rises in the evening sky, shining its light, while the other waits for its own unique time to shine. The moon, the lesser light, rises and shares a reflected light not of its own; but after its time of shining, it relinquishes itself to the greater light of the sun.
The moon rises in the evening sky and mirrors to the earth below the light shined on it by the power and energy of the sun, the greater light. The moon then relinquishes its light when the sun dawned. Even if the moon is still visible in the sky, it steps back and allows the sun to have its rightful place. The direct light of the more powerful, burning sun overpowers the moon’s weak reflection.
John came in power preaching of the One who would follow. He admitted he had no voice or power of his own but he came to prepare the world for the Promised One’s arrival. He told people he wasn’t even able to untie the sandals of the One who was to come. He was the lesser light and he had no internal confusion or struggle about his role.
Jesus took up the message that was now silenced in John: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). He had to make a statement in response to John’s capture and imprisonment by the Roman government. The movement stirred up by John needed the sure and certain affirmation from Jesus that a larger power was at work in the world. When John’s voice was silenced, Jesus was compelled to see to it that the message continued to be preached.
The moon’s reflection of the greater light from the sun could not be darkened by the mere whim of human resistance. And so the light Jesus had come to release into the world was ready to dawn. The dawning of that light would not stand in the shadows out of fear of the powers of the world.
In John, Jesus knew the world would want to silence him as well. Perhaps Jesus sensed his vulnerability to the powers of the darkness of the world and inside he shuddered. Perhaps he knew that at some point the powers would turn their attention on him because of the challenge he brought to the world. A part of his solidarity with John was the reality that his own life would one day be threatened. He would either face that fear head-on or shrink back into the darkness and let his light go out.
Jesus responded to the silencing of his prophet-predecessor by courageously stepping forward to preach the message of repentance. There is an internal freedom and a power from within that Jesus demonstrates in this story. The power we sense comes from inside Jesus, not a power from outside. There’s a prophetic power that grows out of his calling … the calling that God has brought him into being for this moment and for this purpose. He sensed his own power to be and to do and it was enough to make him respond to the assault on John’s ministry. Jesus faced the demons of darkness that sought to silence him and he responded with a freedom and a power that only God can give in that moment: And so he began his ministry of preaching and teaching and calling others to follow him.
He moved about the Galilean region teaching in the Jewish synagogues and proclaiming to his fellow countrymen that a new day had dawned. In his freedom and in his power, he began looking for followers to join him in his life’s crusade. In his freedom and his power, he reached out to his first followers by saying to them simply, “Come, follow me … put down your nets because I want to teach you to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19).
Why is it we don’t move about in the world with that same sense of freedom and power? Why are we, the modern followers of Jesus, so meek and mild when it comes to shining our lights in the darkness? Why are we afraid to upset the status quo and challenge it with the authority God has given us in the world?
What was painfully clear to Jesus was that there was a cost for that kind of freedom. People who live fearlessly and who live in freedom can attest to the cost of that freedom. There are always people around us who want us to live in conformity to the powers of the status quo. But the calling of God to John, and to Jesus, and to everyone who wishes to follow Jesus is a calling to a costly life of divine freedom.
When I ask why it is that God’s people can’t seem to muster up the freedom and the power to face the world’s darkness, you and I both know in our hearts it is because we are not yet free. And if we’re not free, it’s because we haven’t been willing to pay the price to be free.
Clarence Jordan tells the story of the time in the late 1950’s he had been invited to preach to a North Carolina mill-town church that had been swallowed up by the city’s industrial growth. The thing that stood out for him was that the church would seat about 300 and he guessed that there must have been 600 people there and it was an even mix of folks, both blacks and whites. He also noticed that they were sitting anywhere they wanted, blacks and whites together, both in the choir and in the sanctuary.
At the end of the service, the pastor got up and said, “Now, we’re going to have dinner on the grounds.” The choir sang, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” and then they all went outside for a dinner-on-the-grounds picnic. Jordan really trembled then because it was one thing for them to worship together, and it was quite another thing for them to eat together. He thought for sure that they would all go out back, behind the church, but they didn’t. Instead they spread their food out on tables right out on the front lawn of the church, where the whole town could see them.
Jordan went over to the pastor, and said, “You know, this is a rather amazing thing to me. Were you integrated before the Supreme Court decision?” The pastor said to him in return, “What decision?” He went on to explain, “Well, back during the Depression, I was a worker here in this little mill town. I didn’t have any education. I couldn’t even read and write. I got somebody to read the Bible to me, and I was moved and I gave my heart to the Lord, and later, I felt the call of the Lord to preach. This little town here was too poor to have a preacher and I just volunteered. They accepted me and I started preaching. Someone read to me in there where God is no respecter of persons, and I preached that.” Jordan said, “Yeah, how did you get along?”
“Well,” he said, “the deacons came around to me after that sermon and said, ‘Now, brother pastor, we not only don’t let a nigger spend the night in this town, we don’t even let him pass through. Now, we don’t want that kind of preaching you’re giving us.” Again, Jordan asked, “What did you do?”
“Well,” he said, “I fired them deacons.” “How come they didn’t fire you?” Jordan asked. “Well,” he said slowly, “They never had hired me. I just volunteered.”
“Did you have any more trouble with them?” Jordan continued. “Yeah. They came back at me again.” “What did you do with them that time?”
“I turned them out. I told them anybody that didn’t know any more about the gospel of Jesus than that not only shouldn’t be an officer in the church, they shouldn’t be members of it. I had to put them out.”
Jordan asked, “Did you have to put anybody else out?” “Well, I preached awfully hard, and I finally preached them down to two. But …” he said, “those two were committed. I made sure that any time after that, anybody who came into my church understood that they were giving their life to Jesus Christ and they were going to have to be serious about it. What you see here is the result of that.”
Jesus shuddered when John went to prison because he understood this wasn’t a game. It was a calling that demanded a total commitment of body and soul to being faithful to the calling of God. And so, he had a choice to make and a response to offer: To live free and to be faithful to the calling of God for his life or to shrink back and to stay at home.
Matthew gives us Jesus’ response when he tells us Jesus was so free and so certain of his power he offered the opportunity for others to join him in the march of freedom. How it we respond?
 Dallas Lee, editor, The Substance of Faith and Other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan, New York: Association Press, 1972, 43-44
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).