As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone* dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet?* Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
11Truly I tell you, 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. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,* and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears* listen! — Matt. 11:7-15
I’m not a boxing fan, but I’d have to have lived in a cave in some very remote area to have gone through the 1970s and 80s without hearing the name Muhammad Ali, a fighter who was born Cassius Clay but who found his religious path in Islam. He was considered the greatest heavyweight fighter in the history of professional boxing, and he wasn’t shy about proclaiming his prowess. He is quoted as saying “I am the greatest. I said that before I knew I was.” He had a lot of confidence, and, during most of his career, he had the skills to back up that confidence. Wherever he fought, people came from all over to pack the arena just to watch the professional in action.
People seemed to have come from all over to see John the Baptist too. While Ali entered the ring with satin robes, a trainer beside him and a retinue waiting in the wings, JB entered his arena in coarse cloth and rope belt with some followers among the crowd. Ali proclaimed his greatness, JB denied any greatness at all. Ali had skills, but JB had a message. JB wasn’t some heavyweight champion, Hollywood star or even a person who seemed to shift with every passing breeze. He had a mission, stayed on point and kept repeating it, evidently with some positive results.
The Jews had been waiting for Elijah to return as a signal that the Messiah would be close behind. Jesus, however, proclaimed that JB was indeed Elijah the messenger. Of course, we see it as Jesus’ veiled announcement that he was the messiah for whom they had been waiting and that JB as Elijah had come before him just as the scriptures said. I wonder what kind of reception that statement got once the people unpacked it, as we would say today.
The Jews have been waiting for Elijah for a very long time. There are stories about people who have celebrated Passover faithfully for years with the traditional full wine glass and open door in case Elijah comes by and their discouragement that he never shows up. The stories usually go on to say that a rabbi tells them to do something for other people, like taking food boxes to the poorest house in town and celebrating with them. When the person does that and still no Elijah appears at the door there is more disappointment until they visit the rabbi, complain and are told that to that poor family, the person himself is Elijah. I wonder, was that a tradition in Jesus’ time?
While the Jews wait for Elijah, Christians wait for Jesus to return and usher in a new age, an apocalypse, a rebirth. For Jesus, though, that second coming wasn’t about a rapture or a mass exodus to heaven for both the living and the dead. It was about recognizing the kingdom around them and doing the work to make it so. It was about belief in the here-and-now, not necessarily the hereafter. It was about seeing the Messiah present with us and Elijah in every person we see, including ourselves.
JB as Elijah didn’t have a fiery chariot kind of exit. His was much bloodier and more public. As great as he was to his followers and to Jesus, JB died at the hands of a bitter woman, a girl child and a man who didn’t see a prophet like Elijah but only saw a troublemaker. Prophets are often seen as troublemakers. The Old Testament is full of them, yet we can read their messages and hopefully take them to heart as they too are a part of the kingdom work we are supposed to be doing. Jesus’ first coming didn’t put a stop to that work, only refined and redirected it. The Elijah/JB in us needs that same refining and redirection.
Come to think of it, maybe I should start looking for a bit of JB/Elijah in me as well. There’s a world out there that needs a lot of kingdom work before Jesus comes back. No special ordination is necessary, no campaign chest, no public relations firm or even a lot of chutzpah, just a quiet, steady something that will make the world a better place for everyone. Maybe I can also be just a bit of an example to someone else to look for their inner Elijah and stop in somewhere for a glass of wine and a message of hope for people who could sure use it.