"The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
John was anticipating a radical, apocalyptic judgment. Instead, he hears reports that Jesus is healing the sick, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor - signs of power and significance, certainly. But are they signs of the Messiah?
It seems that this is the fundamental issue in this text. What is the Messiah supposed to look like? Does Jesus fit the bill? And Jesus himself highlights the importance of this question: "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." Even John, who was "more than a prophet," had to face the possibility that Jesus was not the Messiah he wanted. Even John could take offense at Jesus. How much more so for all the crowds - and how much more so for us today?
Since we are in the season of Advent, perhaps we can frame the question this way: For whom are we waiting, after all? What are we expecting of this baby we call "Emmanuel" and "King of Kings" and "Wonderful Counselor" and all the rest? Are we expecting judgment, to find mercy? Are we expecting political power, to find none of it? Are we expecting moral righteousness, to find someone who eats with riffraff (v. 19)? Can we face the real tension between offense and faith?
(I think there is also an interesting nuance here if we take the theological position that faith is not up to us. In other words, rather than reading this as a choice between offense and faith, what happens if we accept the faith itself as a gift from God?)
Kierkegaard, in his fashion, wrote an entire book on the phrase "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." I'm going to go home and look at his account as well.