The Blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

July 02, 2012

John the Baptist: A Pole Vaulting Olympian

Drew Larson

It’s the summer of 2012, which means the Olympics are just around the corner. So let’s talk about Christmas. And pole vaulting.

Pole vaulting is the most confusing event in the track and field universe. I can’t even imagine how it originated. It looks like a witness protection program for tightrope walkers (“You’re looking for somebody who holds the stick like this? No, I hold it like this. Completely different guy. Sorry.”). And it’s the ultimate compromise sport. Is it the high jump for adrenaline junkies? Is it hang-gliding for people with control issues? Pole vaulting occupies an athletic midpoint somewhere between “You can’t hold me, shackles of gravity!” and “Whoa, humans flying?  Let’s not get crazy here.”

Pole vaulters are also the greatest because they’re completely unflappable. These guys are like fighter pilots—they never seem surprised about the crazy stuff they’re involved in, like using a 17 foot mammoth tusk to hurdle something. I would never get used to this, not even if I had pole vaulted for my entire life. There would always be a moment where I’d look down, realize that I’m carrying a giant spearing device, and think, Wait, why am I holding this?  Was I eating Asian food in a gamma radiation field? Am I in the X-Men?

But the best part is, thanks to pole vaulting, summer is the perfect time to talk about Christmas.**  Right now you’re saying to yourself, “Why talk Christmas now? That was a while ago. Heck, we just finished Easter. Use the ‘Holiday’ app on your iPhone if you’re confused, which you clearly are.” 

**I’m a trained professional. Stay with me.

Moved by Joy

The worst time to talk about Christmas, of course, is during the actual Christmas season. The Christmas season—and bear in mind that I love Christmas like rookie carpenters love bookshelves—can get pretty loud. Trying to meditate on the birth of Christ during December is like attaching a message to a carrier pigeon and then releasing it into a jet propeller.  

But a summer Olympiad solves the problem. Right now, in the utter absence of anything Christmas—or, for that matter, much else—pole vaulters everywhere are gearing up for their ultimate leaping competition. Which gives us a perfect chance to talk about history’s greatest jumper: John the Baptist. 

Before he lived in the wilderness and ate organic honey, John the Baptist was a baby. More specifically, he was Elizabeth’s baby—Elizabeth, his mother, being distantly related to Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Luke 1 records the following encounter when both were pregnant:

A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town where Zechariah lived.  She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.  At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit … [she said] “… When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.”  Luke 1:39-41, 44, NLT

I love this visual: a pre-natal John the Baptist, already active in his role as Jesus’ forerunner, squirming in ecstasy at meeting Jesus. The Greek word used here, skirtao, is a sister word to skairo, which means “to skip.” John, sensing the rhythm of Jesus now alive in the world, is so moved to exuberance that he’s bouncing off the walls of his mother’s womb.   

I say all this to illustrate a specific point about Jesus. It’s the foundational truth of Christianity, one that we sometimes forget: 

People were glad when Jesus showed up.

Over and over, the Gospel writers record events in which people are excited that Jesus has knocked on the front door of their lives. Peter so loved Jesus that he sprinted all the way to an empty tomb. Simeon cradled the infant Jesus in his arms at the temple, the end of a life’s wait for God’s Messiah. Zaccheus climbed a tree, so eager was he to see Jesus. Angels broadcasthis arrival as “good news that will bring great joy.” And John leaped in his mother’s belly.      

How do you respond when Jesus shows up?   

There are days where I’m not so happy when Jesus shows up. My assumption is that, when he comes around, it's because he’s just noticed that I’ve botched it again—probably in one of those ways that has the angels in heaven elbowing each other and going, “Did you see what Pro Soccer Guydid this time?”  Surely Jesus must have seen how I’m living like some spiritual version of Wipeout where I repeatedly face-plant off a discipleship obstacle course, and now that he’s here, like a dad picking his son up after failing out of college, we’re about to have a serious conversation about obedience, responsibility, and mixed metaphors.

I’m not alone in this. When Jesus shows up, we do things. We cringe. We cower. We grovel, bargain, defy, ignore, hide.

We do this because we assume that he comes with bad intentions. Jesus is here. Uh oh, not good news. That’s bad news.

But it is good news. Michael Card, in his commentary on Luke, frames the story of John’s leap and Mary’s subsequent song of praise in terms of hesed. Hesed is a Hebrew word with a difficult translation history (sometimes rendered as “love,” ‘loving-kindness,” or “grace”) that God often uses to define himself in the Old Testament. “The best translation I have found for this untranslatable word,” says Card, “takes an entire sentence: ‘when the one from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.’”  

Why did John suddenly skirtao? Because he was overjoyed to meet Jesus. But what’s so joyful about being around Jesus? Because when Jesus comes, hesed comes with him. And that’s good news. 

Take the Leap

This casts pole vaulting into new relief as a spiritually charged activity. Not content merely to jump, pole vaulters use props to take their leaping enthusiasm to new heights. They just have to soar as high as humanly possible while still technically jumping, because for them, there is such joy in the jumping, and such goodness in attaining a height that they, born without feathers or wings, have no right to ever approach. A kind of skirtao. Jumping with hesed in it. 

People were glad when Jesus showed up because wherever he went, whatever he did, loving-kindness—an intense love, stronger even than God’s passion for justice—followed him.  Who knows why this slips our mind? Maybe it gets lost in endless theological minutiae or in the throes of trying so hard to be perfect Christians. Maybe it burns among the ruins of tragedy in our lives or just evaporates on the long trek of life. Or maybe we just think it’s so basic that it’s not that important to remember. But it is. The consequences of forgetting this are infinitely more dire than Reformed vs. Arminian theology or working out a nuanced understanding of infralapsarianism. 

The New Testament record is, among other things, a wonderful reminder that when Jesus comes to you, it’s a good thing. The hesed he brings is worth vaulting into the arms of. That’s the gift of leaping that you can enjoy all summer long. Merry Christmas.

Drew Larson serves on the editorial and development team at InterVarsity. He blogs at www.casualfootballer.wordpress.comand recently self-published Posterized, a collection of essays on sports, comedy and Jesus.


This was hilarious and moving. Well done.

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