Nathan is just not good enough.
In the Charles Yu short story collection, Third Class Superhero, Nathan is not good enough to be a superhero. Oh, he has a power...of sorts. But he works a thankless job to cover his room and board because his power is too meager to qualify him for full-time heroics (which pays a lot better).
I’m not going to tell you much more about Nathan, because you need to pay Amazon so Mr. Yu can pay his bills. Believe me, the stories are worth the money—a bargain.
What I am going to do is tell you that I know actual people like Nathan. They don’t have special powers, not even third-class powers, but they do suffer from a similar problem. Life has been signaling something to them—for a while.
They’re just not good enough.
It’s hard to accept that the thing you’ve invested yourself in—that goal you’ve had for your life, that career you’ve been working hard to build, that relationship you’ve been pursuing—is never going to be a reality; that the window of opportunity is not just closing, it’s nailed shut. And, as hard as that is, there’s worse.
As difficult as it is to face our shortcomings, it is even worse to have to hear about them from someone else.
That’s what happens in this week’s selection from the Gospel of Matthew. John the Baptist looks out over the crowd and gives the most unusual “alter call” I have ever heard: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
As unwelcome as this sounds, I believe John was doing them a kindness. He was shocking them into a realization. Like Malachi before him, John saw them for what they were:
Not good enough.
John knew their need, even if they had not yet grasped the situation. They had to understand their need for Jesus, and why repentance was the beginning of fulfilling that need. God had not been “in their midst” for hundreds of years—and they were the reason why.
The people in John’s audience were like those in Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. Goldsmith tells middle managers the behaviors that helped them achieve current positions may actually prevent them from advancing further in the organization. To get that career-boosting promotion will require a different approach. Similarly, John’s audience needed to grasp that their behaviors would never bridge the gap between themselves and God, to realize they needed an entirely new approach.
When we read this same story in Luke, we learn that many responded to John by coming forward and asking: “What then should we do?” The shock treatment worked. They began to see their need.
It’s a lesson for us, too, this Advent. As we look forward to the coming of the Lord—to that time of rejoicing, exulting, singing, shouting, thankfulness, and prayer—we must first recognize our need. We must recognize that part of preparing for the coming of the Lord is accepting that we need Him.
We, too, must also be willing to ask: “What then should we do?”