Jesus’ Opening Act

The most common format for concerts in popular music for decades has been for there to be an opening act, occasionally more than one, followed by the headliner act. The idea behind it is a mutually beneficial experience for all the acts involved. The opening act is usually relatively unknown but up-and-coming, and so it plays to a larger audience than it would be able to draw on its own, and hopes to make some new fans in the process. The headliner act gets the benefit of someone “warming up the crowd” and not having to carry the entire night by itself, and presumably seems even more impressive when compared to the more modest set of the opening act.

But it doesn’t always work that way. If you have any interest in music history, one of the more entertaining rabbit holes to go down is the historic mis-matches between headliners and their opening acts.

Simon and Garfunkel, the folk duo famous for their restrained and poignant harmonies over an acoustic guitar, once had The Doors open for them, who were the epitome of psychedelic 1960s rock, and had one of the most audacious lead singers in rock history. The Ramones, who essentially founded punk rock as a movement, once opened for Toto, an early-80s soft-rock group best known for earnestly crooning, “I bless the rains down in Africa,” and representing everything punk rock was rebelling against.

But probably the most notorious of these was in 1967, when the Monkees were on tour. The Monkees, as you may know, didn’t even begin as a band, but as a TV cast; they were created by producers to star in a TV show that was basically a copy of the Beatles as depicted in their movie A Hard Day’s Night. So the music that was written for them was tight, up-beat, and catchy pop songs in the standard form of early-60s pop songwriting, and wholesome enough for television standards in that era.

Yet for some reason, when they went on tour to promote an album of their songs from the show, they chose Jimi Hendrix as an opening act. Hendrix, of course, is arguably the most revolutionary guitarist in the history of rock music: he demolished the kind of sound that the Monkees embodied by re-inventing blues-based rock, employing wild distortion and effects on his guitar to fuel screaming, free-form solos in ways that nobody had ever heard before or even believed was possible, all accompanied by an outrageous performance style.

Who would have ever thought this pairing was a good idea? Well, The Monkees were eager to be taken seriously as musicians and thought Hendrix would help with that, and Hendrix was a star in British rock clubs but still unknown in the U.S., so he thought it would help build him a U.S. audience because the Monkees were so popular. But, naturally, it was a disaster; Monkees fans were confused and even scared by Hendrix, and he ended up quitting halfway through the tour.

John the Baptist, essentially, is Jesus’ opening act. And he has often been interpreted as one of these mismatched acts with their headliner: the Ramones to Jesus’ Simon and Garfunkel; the Jimi Hendrix to Jesus’ Monkees. Just think about the way the two of them are typically depicted in Western art. There’s Jesus, wearing a snow-white robe with a bright-blue sash, his beard neatly trimmed, his shoulder-length hair shining with cleanliness and care in the sunlight, smiling gently as he reaches out his hand in invitation.

And then there’s John, wearing filthy animal skins cinched around his waist with rope, a mass of long, wild, jet-black hair and beard covering his head, face and chest, looking like Hagrid from Harry Potter if he had been marooned on a desert island and lost a couple of hundred pounds. Jesus is full of kindness and love, calling for people to embrace the kingdom of God; John is full of wrath and judgment, calling for people to repent before it’s too late.

But there are several important things that are wrong about characterizing John and Jesus that way. First, if you ever find yourself comparing Jesus to the Monkees or Toto, you’re doing something wrong, both musically and theologically. Yes, Jesus had some catchy, upbeat hits like “love one another” and “judge not, lest you be judged” that everybody likes, even people who aren’t really a fan.

But he also said things like “love your enemies” and “you can’t love both God and money,” which nobody wants to listen to. And his performance style could get pretty outrageous; just ask the moneychangers whom he chased out of the Temple for corruption with a homemade whip after overturning their tables. Second, John’s call for repentance is not in opposition to offering love and kindness; they are both expressions of grace. We just don’t usually hear it that way. We are confused and even scared when John says outrageous things like, “bear fruit that is worthy of repentance…every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

A lot of that is because of how repentance has been weaponized by some expressions of the church. I remember sitting in the fundamentalist church of my paternal grandparents when I was about seven years old and listening to the preacher talk about the passage in the book of Revelation in which Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

Now that verse, in itself, isn’t actually scary; Jesus wants to come with us, and if we open the door and let him in, we can share in table fellowship with him. But in the hands of that preacher, that verse became a spiked club that he began waving wildly about. He shouted at us, threatening us with eternal, fiery damnation if we did not go and answer Jesus’ knock and open the door of our hearts by getting on our knees, repenting of all our sins and depravity. And if we didn’t, we would be gathered like kindling chopped from a tree and stacked up for a bonfire.

He even went into the old trope about repenting before we left the service because we might get hit by a bus on our way home and then it would be too late. Traumatized, I carefully buckled my seatbelt for the ride home, praying not to encounter any buses, and later that afternoon managed to get my mom alone. “I don’t understand,” I said; “how do I open the door of my heart? How do I know if it’s open?” She replied, “I know that was scary, honey, but you don’t need to worry. Your heart’s been open your whole life. And what that preacher may not know is that even if the door gets closed, Jesus has the key.”

That preacher, like many people, unfortunately, thought of repentance as the means of achieving salvation by taking an inventory of all the things that we have done wrong, all the things that are wrong with us, and presenting it to God. That’s what Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, believed while he was still a Roman Catholic priest and monk, before he had his theological epiphany that led to him starting the Reformation.

The story is that Luther was obsessed with ensuring his own salvation through repentance, and so he would go to confession for hours, detailing even his slightest failings and shortcomings. Finally, when he ran out of things to confess, he would start walking back home, only to remember something he forgot or, worse, realize that he was taking satisfaction in how well he had repented. That, of course, was a sin of pride, and so he’d turn around and head back to the confessional again to repent of that.

He did that, day in and day out, until one day when he was preparing a set of lectures on the book of Romans and he came across the verse that says, “the righteous shall live by their faith,” and it was like lightning struck him; he realized that salvation is not something we earn or achieve, but something that we receive through faith, which itself is a gift from God. That insight led him to question a number of things about the church, which ultimately led to him nailing a list of those concerns on the door in Wittenberg, which began the Protestant Reformation.

Luther finally figured out what that preacher I heard did not: that repentance isn’t about that we can earn God’s grace, because grace, by definition, cannot be bought, bartered, negotiated or earned. No, grace can only be received, which means that repentance isn’t about how awful we have been, but about how different we will be because we’ve already received God’s grace. The word that gets translated as repentance literally means, “to change one’s mind,” but it has a deeper sense of changing one’s direction, one’s orientation of life. That’s how both John and Jesus mean it; John may be Jesus’ opening act, and his style and sound may be a bit different, but they’re singing the same song in the end: that the call to repentance is an extraordinary gift of God’s grace.

Perhaps the deepest promise of Advent is that it is not only possible to change the orientation of our lives and our world to one that aligns with God’s gracious and loving purpose, but that God both invites and intends us to do so, and is already at work to make it happen. Which means that all the things about our lives and world that are out of alignment with the abundance of life in Christ won’t stay that way, but will be reformed and reshaped until the path is clear.

Or as Isaiah puts it: “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” May it be so for each of us this Advent as we prepare the way of the Lord in our own ways, in and for our own lives and this world that God loves so much.

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