As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Have you ever had an experience where you seemed to know what was going to happen before it did? I can’t explain this, but I have. There are times when we seem to sense what’s coming. I see this on display in a trivial way in sports all the time. The commentator will say something like: “Tom Brady hasn’t thrown a third down interception in 49 games. He’s the active leader in this category . . . . ” He will go on and on explaining just how long 49 games is, who was in office, what was popular, etc . . . and then the ball is snapped, and almost like it was scripted Brady throws an interception. Or, it’s the bottom of the 9th inning in the world series, two outs, and the only hope of winning is at the plate. The commentator begins explaining how no one has hit a walk-off home run to win an elimination World Series game in 80 years. He goes into incredible detail about who accomplished this feat last, explaining how different the world is now, and so on, making it clear that what he’s describing is next to impossible. And then, a young batter full of swagger and bravado steps up to the plate and smacks a walk-off home run. Coincidence? This kind of thing gets conspiracy theorists going – but it happens all the time.
Jesus seemed to be in a similar position. He knew what had happened and he knew what would happen. He knew what happened when sin and darkness was confronted with its undoing, with pure, unadulterated goodness and light. Peter, James, John, and Jesus were descending down from the famed mount of transfiguration (where one of the strangest scenes in the New Testament plays out). Having just witnessed Moses and Elijah speaking to Jesus, they ask Jesus why the prophets say that Elijah must come first, before the Messiah? Rather than answering directly, Jesus informs them that Elijah has come, wasn’t recognized (or welcomed) and he was severely mistreated. “They did what they want with him. They’re about to do the same with me,” he says. The disciples realized, then, that he was speaking of John the Baptist as Elijah.
Jesus knew what was going to happen. Yes, because he was God, but I think also because he was smart and pure enough to understand and see what happens when darkness is confronted with its false, parasitical reality: it rages and destroys all it can. I still struggle to grasp why more of his followers (other than those faithful few women) didn’t get this. He warned them so may times. He prepared them. He pointed to the treatment of the OT Prophets, but most just didn’t get it, they didn’t want to, they couldn’t – who knows. I’m convinced we, living thousands of years later, are just as clueless most times. Jesus was not simply the tame, calm, affirming leader we want him to be. He was the fullness of God. He was God’s love, wrath, creativity, justice, and so much more in the flesh. He not only represented the end of the ways of the world – he was and is the ending. He is pure light that outshines darkness. He is pure goodness that overcomes evil and despair. He is boundless joy. He is justice and judgment – longed for by creation, the poor, downtrodden, and insignificant, and feared by the rich, powerful, and those who benefit from the ways of the world. The prophets weren’t accepted. John the Baptist wasn’t accepted. Jesus wasn’t accepted. His disciples – once they got things figured out – weren’t accepted. Are you? In this passage, Jesus seems to be rhetorically asking his disciples, and, in a way, us, if we understand what the consequences of following him are. Namely, those consequences can be summed up as rejection, mistreatment, and even death. But of course with these, comes the promise of new life.
Advent invites us to prepare not only for a strange Messiah that was so misunderstood and, ultimately, rejected, but also to prepare for our own journey of rejection. The Gospel, after all, is not a hollow message of health, wealth, and prosperity. Advent begins a journey that will culminate at a cross, and ultimately, at an empty tomb. But to get to Easter Sunday, we must journey through Good Friday. To get to Good Friday, we must discover who He is, and to do this, we must begin in a small, insignificant, smelly cave-like stable. Today as you pray, ask God to reveal the elements of Jesus that cause you to doubt, to disbelieve, or to distance yourself from him. Perhaps you do this because you are afraid of receiving rejection yourself. It’s understandable. As you consider these factors, ask God to give you courage for the journey ahead – the journey to the manger, through Jesus’s life, to the cross, and to the empty tomb. Rejection might lie on the road ahead, but with it is Jesus himself. That is a road I’m willing to travel. How about you?