“Truly 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” (v. 11:11).
What does that mean?
Not only was John the Baptist God’s prophet, he was also Jesus’ relative—perhaps even his first cousin once removed. Or maybe not so close… who knows? In any case, there’s no need to get too worked up about it… it’s really not that important. What’s important is that John was Jesus’ relative (so, arguably, a “cousin” in our southern vernacular) and John was in jail… locked up in Herod’s dungeon awaiting the king’s judgment. Jesus was no doubt worried for his cousin and yet, rather than focusing exclusively on the here-and-now, he took the opportunity to remind his disciples of a greater truth, a more glorious vision of the future than could be found in any earthly kingdom: Jesus pointed his followers towards the kingdom of heaven. In Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses a variety of similes to describe the coming kingdom for those with ears to hear: “The kingdom of heaven is like “a mustard seed” (v. 31) . . . and “leaven” for bread (v. 33) . . . “a treasure hidden in a field” (v. 44) . . . “a pearl of great price” (v. 45) . . . and “a fisherman’s net” (v. 47). Y’all have heard these parables, and I urge you to go back and reread Matthew 13 when you get the chance. These similes offer a tantalizing glimpse of what is to come in a kingdom, the least of whose citizens is greater than John the Baptist. It’s not that John, or any of God’s faithful, will be excluded or treated as second-class citizens in God’s kingdom (cf. Isa 11:9)—we will be changed into creatures worthy of that kingdom. The Apostle Paul describes this in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord, as though reflected in a mirror, [will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 3:18).
God’s kingdom has been much on my mind and heart this week. This past Friday, I attended the funeral of a dear friend’s father, who had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer three years ago… and given only six months to live. But Rich or Richie, as he was known to his family and friends,was a person of deep and abiding faith in Jesus, and said that if, by fighting it, he could help researchers save the life of one person, he was OK with that. And in so doing, he got two-and-a-half more good years with his family. A wise person once told me: if you’re still here, God’s not done with you yet. Injury and disease and disability are not from God, they’re just part of being human. But God never wastes anything. Sometimes, like Richie, we may have an inkling about what we’re fighting for. But in other cases, we may never know how God uses our pain and sickness, or even our deep sadness, to bring help to the helpless, hope to the hopeless and justice to the marginalized in this lost and broken world. All we can do is trust.
This is a tough time of year for many of us. I recently commemorated the third anniversary of my own father’s passing. I expect… I know… there are others here today who are grieving the loss of their own dearly departed. Some, like Richie, were regular members of a church family. Others, like my own dad, were a little more “nuanced” in their approach to faith. It’s kind of crazy… but sometimes “church,” in the conventional sense, can be a barrier to those seeking a deeper knowledge of God. Sometimes it’s serious, “stumbling block” -level stuff… you know what I’m talking about: the stuff Jesus says we’d be better off having “a great millstone fastened around our necks and drowned in the depth of the sea” -level stuff (Matt 18:6-7). But other times it can just be “family drama.” My maternal grandmother often described marriage and family as “a dear and difficult business.” Similarly, the church is comprised of dear and sometimes difficult people, and the strife between them can be off-putting. Sometimes it’s tough to discern who Jesus really is through all of the clutter created by his followers, isn’t it? And that’s OK. God speaks to different people in different ways, and church is not the only place that happens. So, sometimes, folks want to have faith… and be able to trust God to have their back… but they hesitate. Maybe they have more questions than answers.
And it makes me smile to think that even John the Baptist had questions about who Jesus was… and what he should do about it. And if John had questions, I guess it’s OK for us to have them too. But you know what really makes me smile? It’s the thought of my dad… and Richie… and a whole host of others whom we’ve loved and lost crossing the threshold from this life to the next, having all of their questions resolved in an eye blink—when they’re transformed from one degree of glory to another—as they enter God’s kingdom. What precisely does that look like? I can only imagine. I believe that Jesus, through the parables, has painted us a picture of what the kingdom of heaven looks like, though we can only see it “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). But while we have life and breath within us, it’s up to us to do our part in helping to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth… and in so doing, ready ourselves for entry into the heavenly kingdom that has been prepared for us by our Savior.
I’d like to share the video of a song entitled “I Can Only Imagine,” written by Bart Millard of the band “Mercy Me” on the occasion of his own father’s death. The song helps me visualize—albeit through a glass darkly—what it must be like to cross the threshold from this life to the next, and be changed from glory into glory, so that we may be made worthy for the Kingdom.
You can watch the video here.