Last Sunday’s Advent focus was on John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness and his fervent call: “Repent!” This week we find John in a far different place, both physically and symbolically.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. –Matthew 11:2-11 NRSV
John is in prison because he dared, in good prophetic fashion, to speak truth to power to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. Herod desired a young woman to be his wife. She was both his step-niece and already the wife of his brother, so there was sufficient moral, ethical, and legal grounds for John to speak up. It’s somewhat reminiscent of actions taken centuries before by another prophet, Nathan, when King David desired Bathsheba, wife of one of his military commanders. David, of course, heeded Nathan’s call to repent. Herod proved to be a far different ruler. Eventually John’s head would be served up on a platter–quite literally!
Despite the Gospel writer’s identification of John and Jesus as cousins, these two were very different individuals. As such, they (and their respective disciples) looked at the political, social, and religious situation in Roman-occupied Judea in radically different ways, as well. Many Jews of the time were looking for a “messiah” to defeat the hated Romans militarily. That would lead to the reestablishment of an independent kingdom and Davidic reign. John was probably not the only one asking Jesus if he was “the one.” And so John sent some of his disciples to inquire about that, but Jesus gave them an unexpected response.
Sure, it would have been simpler for Jesus to reply, “Yes, I am!” Instead, he told them to return to John with their own witness: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Those are all things foretold by ancient prophets, particularly Isaiah. It also reflects the words of the Psalmist:
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord! –Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV
There is one striking omission, however: “The Lord sets the prisoners free.”
John’s time was coming to an end as Jesus’ time as center of attention was beginning. We would do well to spend some time considering Jesus’ concluding sentence in this short passage from Matthew 11: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
What could Jesus have meant by that somewhat cryptic remark? One way is to understand that the arrival of Jesus meant the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. And though the prophetic ministry and testimony of John was greater than anything up to that point in history, it would pale in comparison to those who would come later, testifying of the emerging presence of that kingdom on earth.
We modern-day disciples of Jesus wait during Advent for the coming of the Christ Child, knowing full well what it means to the world, something even John could not experience. But seen from a different perspective, our advantage becomes a huge responsibility. We have been challenged and commissioned by the risen Christ to bring ministry in just those ways identified by the Psalmist: to execute justice for the oppressed, to give food to the hungry, to set the prisoners free, to open the eyes of the blind, to watch over the stranger, to uphold the orphan and the widow.
And this week we remember the words of Isaiah, proclaiming everlasting joy:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. –Isaiah 35:1-10
How will we answer when people come to our congregations and ask, “Are you really God’s servants, or should we look elsewhere?”
P.S. Although I do not write this weekly blog as part of a marketing effort related to my two books, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile (Isaac’s Press, 2017) and What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaac’s Press, 2010), if you’d like to check them out you can find them on Amazon here and here.