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?”Matthew 11
Here we are, ten days before Christmas, gathered together on this Third Sunday of Advent, with anticipation building for the big day, and we have a gospel reading about a man in prison, awaiting execution, wondering if Jesus really is the one. Kind of dark, don’t you think?
It would be tempting to avoid it. Skip over it and get to the joy of the birth of our Savior. But I think that would be a mistake. Kind of like avoiding the crucifixion and jumping right to the resurrection. So, I am going to invite us to join John the Baptist in his prison cell for a little bit, before we get to the good news. Because there is good news here. It just doesn’t start with the good news.
John the Baptist in Prison
It starts with John the Baptist in prison. John was put in prison by King Herod, after he confronted Herod for acting unlawfully when he married his brother’s wife. His wife, Herodias, convinced her husband to have John arrested, and eventually beheaded. But at this point in the story, John is in prison. Which I don’t really think bothered him. He spent his adult life in the wilderness, clothed in camel’s hair, surviving on locusts and wild honey, and preaching fearlessly, without worrying about the consequences. Prison was probably the least of his worries!
No, what bothered John was something completely different. It seems that he was beginning to doubt, beginning to lose his faith. He had devoted his adult life to preparing the way for the Messiah, Jesus. But he wasn’t seeing any evidence that Jesus was the one. Because Jesus was not doing everything expected of the Messiah. Rome was still in power. Herod was as corrupt as ever. Jesus had not yet restored the Kingdom of Israel. And it seemed unlikely that he would – not in the way people expected. And people like John the Baptist were still finding themselves being oppressed and imprisoned. Here is John the Baptist, in prison. And he can’t help but wonder if Jesus really is the one. And if so, why he hasn’t done all that the Messiah was expected to do.
We don’t usually think of John the Baptist as being a role model for doubters, but maybe we should. He is doubting his faith. He is wondering whether Jesus really is the one. And he is no doubt questioning the very purpose of his life. Because he has devoted it to preparing the way for Jesus. And now, he is in prison. And Herod is still King. And nothing seems to have changed. But, what John the Baptist does next is what, I believe, makes him a good and worthy role model for doubters. Because what he does is very simple, but profound: He sends word by his disciples to ask Jesus a question – one of the most poignant and heartfelt questions in all of Scripture:
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Are you the one? Before John the Baptist dies, as he surely knows he will, he wants to know, he needs to know: was his life lived in vain, or did it have a purpose? Is Jesus the one, or not? But what I love about what he does is that he asks Jesus directly.
When we doubt, what better thing to do, than to pray – to ask the questions that are leading us to doubt, but to ask them directly to the one we doubt? So, that is what John the Baptist does. Are you the one, Jesus?
And then, Jesus answers. Not directly, but he answers John’s question, by saying:
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.
Jesus answers by John by quoting the very book of scripture that inspired John to cry out in the wilderness, that inspired him to prepare the way of the Lord, the Book of Isaiah. And Jesus invites John’s disciples to look around and tell John what they hear and see. Scripture being fulfilled. Maybe not in the expected ways, but in ways that are promised by the prophets of old. The Messiah may not be overthrowing Herod, but he is healing the blind, the lame, and the deaf. He is raising the dead. He is bringing good news to the poor. These are real, tangible signs that God is at work in Jesus; that he is the one that John was waiting for, and that John devoted his life to. Jesus is the Messiah. And blessed are all who believe it.
Jesus’ answer, of course, doesn’t get John out of prison. It doesn’t change the circumstances of his life. But what it does is far more significant: it gives him hope. It is much like Jesus’ answer to the thief who was dying on the cross next to him, when he asked Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus doesn’t let that thief off the cross; he doesn’t change the circumstances of his life. But he makes him a promise that is far more powerful: Today, you will be with me in paradise.
And that is what faith is all about. It is not about changing our circumstances; it is about giving us hope.
And we can still doubt, even when we have faith. Just like John the Baptist, we can find ourselves in a place where our faith starts shaking and crumbling. But when we do, Jesus invites us to look around. See this beautiful world. Take a breath. Receive again the gift of our very existence. Trust God. Trust God’s slow work. Trust God’s promise of presence. Believe that God so loved the world that God’s son was born for us. Bask in the beauty of this world. Kneel with wonder and in adoration of the child in the manger – who grew up to heal and to teach and to proclaim good news; who died, and who rose again, and who promises to return to bring the kingdom of God in all its fullness to a world that longs for this, even when it doesn’t know it.
Pay attention, as the poet Mary Oliver says, because that is the beginning of devotion. Then, be astonished by this beautiful world that God so loves. And finally, tell about it.
Go and Tell
Jesus tells John’s disciples what he surely tells us today: Go and tell John what you hear and see. Go and tell those who doubt what you hear and see. Go and tell those who are in prison what you hear and see. Go and tell those who are grieving, those who are lonely, those who are struggling in life, those who are fighting any kind of battle – and isn’t everyone? Because this life can beat us all up at times – Go and tell them what you hear and see. Go and tell one another what you hear and see.
Because God is active in this world. God loves this world.God is present in this world. And blessed are all who see it, all who believe it. And when you do, you’ve got to tell others. Because that is how God works. Through us.
Greater than John the Baptist?
By the way, Jesus says something rather odd at the end of today’s gospel reading. He says:
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.
No one is greater than John the Baptist. Of course. He devoted his life to preparing the way of the Lord. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. He shared with all who would listen that the Lamb of God was coming into the world, to save us from our sins. And John the Baptist also stood up to power. He stood up to those who were abusing power, particularly to King Herod. And he was killed for it. “Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
And yet, Jesus on to say, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Huh? What is Jesus saying here? How can this be? We are all, every one of us, greater than John the Baptist?! How can that be? What does that mean?
Here’s what I think it means: I think it means that we are greater than John the Baptist because we live in a post-Easter world. John was killed before that first Easter. He was killed before Jesus died on the cross; before he was raised on the third day. Before he ascended into Heaven, and sent the promised Holy Spirit. In John’s earthly life, he died before he knew how the story ended. His question – Is Jesus the one? – was answered for John by what Jesus was doing in his earthly ministry. But John’s question – Is Jesus the one? – has now been answered for us, post-Easter, in a way that exceeded the hopes of all. Because the Messiah, Jesus, was raised from the dead. He showed the world that death no longer has power over us. He showed us what we all will experience when he comes again. When the kingdom will come in all its fullness. When God will wipe every tear from every eye, and put an end to all suffering, pain, and death.
We who are blessed to live in this post-Easter world – we know how the story ends. And we can share that story with others. And that makes us greater than John the Baptist, according to Jesus. Every one of us. Or, if you don’t want to think of us as greater, think of us as simply more blessed. Because we know how the story ends: for Jesus, for us, and for the world. We know it because we have been told it, and because we believe it.
And because we believe, we are called to share this good news. We are called to share our faith. And to answer the question that everyone, at one time or another, is bound ask: Are you the one, Lord, or are to wait for another? Yes, Jesus is the one. The world’s Savior. he resurrection and the life. Thanks be to God. Amen