John the Baptist created a massive quake in Jewish circles in the first century. Today we'd describe his movement as something between a Billy Graham revival and a Lady Gaga concert. He had both the fascination of a strangely dressed rock star and the awe of a judgmental preacher. Biblical and secular historians are consistent in describing massive crowds headed out of the cities into the desert when John started preaching and baptizing. Jesus echoes these descriptions by asking three times, "What did you go out in the desert to see?" The assumption is all the people listening, or at least the vast majority, had actually gone to see John and to be baptized by him. No one in those days would have denied that there was something big happening in John's ministry. The question was, what authority was behind John the Baptist, and was his movement legitimate?
Jesus goes on at length here to challenge people's thinking about John, and to lay out how he himself sees John's ministry. Luke tells us that there is a significant divide between the common people who had been baptized by John and those (religious authorities) who refused his baptism and thus "rejected the purpose of God for themselves." Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus turned this question succinctly on his detractors: The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from man? (See Luke 20:4 and parallels in Matthew and Mark.) The rulers at that time answer Jesus, "We don't know" because they recognize their culpability in rejecting John's baptism, but they also fear the people. In their defensive pride, they dodge the question poorly.
Jesus makes clear that God was behind John's revival, and not only that, but John was the specific individual sent to prepare the way for Jesus, to stir up people's spiritual sensitivities so they were ready for the Messiah. The confusing phraseology of verse 28 is designed to point out that as a divinely chosen agent, John wields great power in purely human terms -- but anyone who submits to God's rule and serves at the pleasure of the King of Kings is far more powerful.
This passage is a great example of the Bible's view of "judgment." We sometimes see Jesus portrayed as a judge, sitting on a throne and passing sentence, with the good people who receive his favor going to one side and the evil people who receive his condemnation going to the other. In fact, judgment -- and Jesus' role as judge -- are much simpler and less dramatic, but equally powerful. The Jewish religious leaders condemned themselves because when God showed up, in their arrogance they sat back in judgment over John and refused his baptism. That's the judgment. They already chose sides. We see people judging themselves throughout Jesus' ministry by their response to him. He is the "judge" in the sense that by representing God and his kingdom, by standing for God and not for any human faction, he provides people an opportunity to choose.
This pattern repeats itself over and over even today. Whenever God shows up, we are judged based on a) whether we have eyes to see him and his activity, and b) how we respond. So in the 1970's and 80's, a massive Christian charismatic renewal swept the world. Churches all over the world responded very differently to this renewal. In East Africa, the Tanzanian Lutheran Church embraced this charismatic dimension while still trying to be theologically responsible about it. Across the border, the Kenyan Lutherans rejected it, claiming that any kind of charismatic activity was inappropriate for Lutheran Christians. The Tanzanian Lutheran churches grew and flourished, multiplying hundreds of times over. The Kenyan Lutheran church to this day is a very small, very rigid affair. Kenya has experienced massive religious revivals, but the Lutheran church there has remained outside this God-given growth.
Whenever God shows up -- in a strong preacher, in a pastor and group of church leaders trying to lead into mission, in a church leader striving to create a strong staff / leadership team, for example -- people have the opportunity to respond. Some will get on board and say, "I see God doing a great thing here." No surprise, others will reject change and along with it, reject these leadership moves. At an extreme, they will rise up to reject these leaders. Accusations fly. Leaders are broken and lambasted. In many cases, people's rejection of a particular leadership agenda for positive change means they are rejecting a God-given opportunity for growth and renewal. The public conversation becomes about personalities and reputations.
We should not be surprised by these sad situations. Jesus himself went to the cross in a very similar chain of events. Given that, how should sinful, imperfect human leaders expect anything less? The miracle in all this is that God gets his own way, no matter how hard he has to work to make it happen. So John ends up imprisoned and executed by Herod, but the revival he initiates paves the way for Jesus' ministry. Jesus goes to the cross, and his crucifixion becomes the ultimate opportunity for us to judge ourselves -- to submit to him and receive the embrace of his nail-scarred hands, or to stand aside and do things our own way, rejecting God's purpose for us. Jesus' resurrection becomes the ultimate example of God enacting his kingdom in spite of our rejection. Our judging God -- and that is really what it comes down to -- cannot prevent him from being king.
In the end, John is an amazing example of what it means to surrender our own human power and authority. In John's gospel, John the Baptist says of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John, the ultimate revival preacher, submits his agenda and his authority to Jesus. That is not a bad way to start each day -- to simply say, "Jesus, I want your way today. More of you, and less of me in my life."