When does the reminder become the rite? When does response become religion? Or put another way, when does a good thing become a bad thing? A desire become a distraction?
i could probably just give you a quick quip of an answer but what fun would that be? Instead, let's talk about John.
By most accounts and systems of measurement, John the Baptist was a pretty righteous dude. He was prophesied about four hundred years before his birth (Is 40); he's announced by an angel (Luke 1); the Holy Spirit comes upon him in the womb (Luke 1); his father was a priest and his mother prophesied over him so you know he knew who he was growing up and followed the law to the letter, even raised as a Nazirite meaning he was under a vow to God. As signs of this vow, he never cut his hair or touched alcohol or even helped bury his parents! (Luke 1, Num 6) He separated himself even from people and lived in the desert on locusts and wild honey (Matt 3, Mark 1), not even coming too near to the cities when he began his ministry (Matt 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, John 3), which, oh yeah, just in case we had any lingering doubts, he began that ministry when he heard from God! (Luke 3) So chances are, he was what we might term a guy on the inside with God.
And yet in Luke 7 and Matt 11 we see John's faith falter. John is thrown in prison for speaking out against the King about his sins. That's what prophets and preachers do. They expound truth. They reveal what folk would rather keep hidden... their hearts. So this man, who from birth has known his mission, heard the will of God from God's own lips and performed beautifully, so much so that Jesus calls him the greatest prophet who ever lived, is thrown in jail for Obeying God! And that's when it happens...
i truly hope i'm not taking liberties with the text here but i think what happened is this, John was a prophet, yes, but prophets are men. Moses, Elijah, Jonah, these men hit their crisis of faith and they usually came right on the heels of their greatest triumphs, after they'd seen some of God's greatest miracles! God follows a distinctive pattern throughout the Bible. Miraculous, life-changing deliverance followed by signifying altar or rite of remembrance, followed by a people hardening their hearts and going astray and forgetting everything God has done. God sends the Death Angel to Egypt and spares those with the blood of the lamb on their doorposts, He gives them the Passover meal to remind them each year, they get to the Red Sea and start crying, woe is us. So Moses leads the Israelites through the Red Sea, they write songs of praise to God, a couple of days later they are whining about water. God gives them water (miraculously purified by a tree) and God calls them to a vow, so they whine about food. God gives them bread from heaven, every day for forty years, they put some in the Ark of the Covenant to remind themselves and they whine about the size of the giants in the land God promised to them. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So we were talkin' about John weren't we. Sorry John, we kinda left you in jail there didn't we? But so did Jesus! John sends disciples from prison to Jesus and says, "hey cuz, remember me? Um, kinda in jamb here. Was i right to place my trust in you?" Jesus' answer is cool. He's been healing folk all day and did so apparently in the sight of John's messengers. You can almost see him letting the disciples bounce on their tiptoes for a while before he turns to them and paraphrases verses in Isaiah about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the poor having good news preached to them but he leaves out anything about the captive being set free. Instead he says, "Blessed is the one who is not offended by me."
John had seen great things, hundreds if not thousands coming to be washed before the coming of the King. He had seen the King, heard a voice from heaven and seen the Holy Spirit in bodily form descend upon Jesus! If he had died at that moment, he may have died happy. Instead, Jesus knows his heart and he has one last gift for John. A period of repentance. John realizes that his faith is based on God giving him what he thought he was OWED. As soon as something went awry in John's plan his faith faltered. Jesus might be saying, you don't want me for me, you want me for what i can do for you! Jesus suddenly might not be the Son of God because he was in prison, because something horrible happened to my baby, because i lost my job, because i got cancer, because my spouse left me, because no one likes me, no one listens to me, thinks i'm special, because i haven't beaten this addiction yet! Maybe that's why Jesus says that "he that is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he."
God. Is. Always. God.
God doesn't forget this. We do. God doesn't want rites and rituals, He doesn't need them. We need the reminders. We need baptism to remind us of Jesus' death and resurrection. We need to do it ourselves to remind us that as far as God is concerned, we are completely in Christ. We are something entirely new! We forget who God is and we forget who we are! "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!"
So when does the reminder become the rite? When we can no longer remember why we're doing it. When does the response become religion? When we're doing it because we think we have to and not because we want to. When does the good thing become the bad thing? When the good thing becomes The Thing. When is the desire a distraction?
When the desire is no longer Jesus.