‘the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah’ Luke 3:15
How would the Christ be recognized? When the people saw him, how would they know this was the man for whom they had awaited expectantly?
There are New Testament words that lose much in their translation from Greek to English, one of which is the word ‘splanchnizomai’. It’s a strange word that would have conveyed much more to people in past centuries. It’s usually translated as ‘compassion’. Matthew, Mark and Luke all use this word to describe what Jesus felt when he saw the suffering through which people had to go.
‘Splanchnizomai’ means much more than ‘compassion’; it’s a much more forceful word. In past centuries people believed your feelings came from the internal organs of your body and there’s one dictionary I have that translates ‘splanchnizomai’ as having a feeling in one’s inward parts; splanchnizomai is having a feeling in your guts about something.
We know what it means. When we have been very angry; when we have had deep feelings of sorrow or grief; when someone has caused us great hurt; those feelings aren’t just thoughts in our minds, they are feelings we feel inside our bodies. When Jesus felt sorry for people, it was not just a mental process, it was a physical experience. ‘Splanchnizomai’ is about having a gut feeling for people.
The people were wondering if John might possibly be the Christ, but John knew what to look for when the Christ came, he knew to look for someone with a gut feeling for people.
Turn to Matthew Chapter 11 and John wants to know if Jesus is the one who is to come, or should they wait for someone else? Jesus responds in plain terms, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
John recognizes Jesus when others fail to do so. In John Chapter 1, he tells the Pharisees, ‘among you stands one you do not know’. They did not know because they were looking for the wrong sort of person. John knows not to look for politician, not to look for a church leader. John knows to look for Jesus; this man with a gut feeling for common folk.
Jesus’ concern with ordinary people is disturbing to the powerful and important. A Messiah worthy of the name would surely be concerned with the political and religious leadership; they were the ones who exercised leadership and control, what need would be served in a Messiah concerning himself with people who had no power and no authority?
Yet Jesus is unimpressed by their opinion of themselves. Power had corrupted the rulers, none more so than Herod who was to have John the Baptist murdered in a whim of drunken pride, and arrogance had taken hold of the religious leadership who had contrived a whole system of laws to undergird their standing and influence in the community.
The people “were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ”, and what persuades them that Jesus of Nazareth is the one who fulfils their expectations is the fact that Jesus disregards the great and the good in favour of those ordinary people. He understood the realities of their lives: the reality of suffering, the reality of pain, the reality of sorrow, the reality of grief, the reality of being poor. He understands those realities that we feel inside ourselves, those realities that sometimes we are hard pressed even to put into words.
Why this preference for ordinary folk? Why a concern for people who really counted for nothing in the big scheme of things? “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same”, says John the Baptist and Jesus comes in fulfilment of John’s teachings. Jesus calls on his followers to put first the homeless and the hungry.
It is not that God is biased, it is simply that the poor and the suffering are more often concerned with things that are eternal, while the rich and the comfortable become preoccupied with the trivial and the material things of the world. If visual evidence is necessary, compare church attendances in Africa with those in Europe.
Material possessions do not create a feeling in the guts; if we have food and shelter, we should be content says Saint Paul. What creates a gut reaction is the experiences of people. When we stand and we see the suffering of others, when we go through difficult times ourselves, it is something that we experience on the inside.
The people “were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ”, but when the Christ appears, it is those who were able to recognize John as a prophet who recognize Jesus as the Christ.
The religious leaders fail to recognize Jesus because they fail to appreciate the important realities in life. John understands and the common folk understand about true feelings.
‘Splanchnizomai’, the feeling in the guts, it marked the ministry of John the Baptist and it marks Jesus out as the Christ; as the one who is to come; as the one for whom they had awaited expectantly; as the one for whom we wait in this Advent season.