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.
The horrible possibility lies in the back of our mind that our expectation will go unfulfilled - that what we are waiting for will never happen - that we will forever sit waiting and lonely by the window like Eleanor Rigby. Or like John the Baptist, waiting in prison. Yes, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is back today, speaking differently to how he did last week.
In last week's gospel lesson, he burst on the scene with fire and vengeance, full of confidence and certainty. He announced the coming of Jesus with great hope and expectation. He gave us a fairly accurate model for Advent.
But, today, he represents Advent in another way, in a way that is just as authentic as last week's style. But he is tired. He is discouraged. He questions. John the Baptist is like us. He jumps to hope with power and aggressiveness. But, later, he has questions; he even has doubts.
Listen to John the Baptist later in his ministry. He thought he knew Jesus. After all, he baptized him in the River Jordan but, then, time went by. Things got harder for John. In today's Gospel passage, Jesus has begun his ministry, and John has been cast into prison by Herod the Great. He begins to have his doubts. Is Jesus really the one he was looking for?
What happened to the vivid forecasts of John the Baptist-that Jesus would chop down fruitless trees and throw chaff into the fire? Has Jesus spent his ministry throwing chaff into the fire? No, it seems not. And so John sends several of his own people, his own disciples, to ask the poignant question, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?" John has devoted his entire ministry, even gives his very life, to preparing the way for Jesus Christ, but now he worries that Jesus isn’t meeting the template of Messiah he has been expecting.
John the Baptist is a prophet because he shows us so clearly what happens to our narrow expectations. Jesus came, but on reflection, not in the way John expected.
At least he had sense enough to ask the right question: "Are you the one, or shall we look for another?"
Because that is the Advent question: "Are you the one I've been waiting for, or shall I wait for another?" Is this the present I've been waiting for? Is this the party, is this the family reunion, is this the date I've been waiting for? Is this the job I really wanted? Is this really the house we wanted so desperately two years ago? Is this really the person I loved four years ago? Is this really the person I love now?
Matthew's portrayal of John the Baptist's doubts about whether Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah is heartrendingly poignant. John, the fiery prophet who proclaimed Jesus' coming... John, the fearless messianic herald drawing crowds and rebuking religious leaders... John, the visionary scouring the banks of the Jordan with his call for repentance... that same John is now pacing a small cell and wondering if all his ministry has been for nothing. And so, desperate for some validation - of his ministry, of his suffering, of himself - he sends a messenger to ask a question as momentous as it is simple: Is it you? "Are you the one?"
There is great pathos in this passage of scripture. We don't really know what was in John's mind as he lay in prison, but it must have been hard for him to hold fast to the idea that God's eternal reign was about to be realized in the messiah. John was in prison. How is that a blessing of the coming kingdom? Of course, John had known of Jesus from a young age, but what specifically was Jesus' role? Was Jesus the messiah, or was he the promised Elijah whose role was to announce the coming messiah? Questions and doubts; faith under stress? There is much to learn from this great man.
It is normal for us to feel that doubts equate with little faith, so therefore, we tend to hide our doubts and fears - pretend that they don't exist. Yet, doubts are a normal part of the Christian life. The mystery will remain until we see through the glass clearly. Meanwhile, sticking with Jesus is what matters, doubts and all.
Refusing to give a straightforward "yes" or "no," Jesus instead recounts his credentials, the deeds he has been accomplishing: "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." I wonder how John took Jesus' answer. It's an impressive list, for sure, but it assumes that John didn't know Jesus was doing these things and we’re as sure as we can be that John did know. Or could it be that it was precisely that John did know what Jesus had been up to that was causing him doubts? Given what we already know about John, we might guess that he was looking for something a little more spectacular. Perhaps restoration of sight, health, and even life seem to John a little too ordinary, too mundane, to signify conclusively that God is at work in and through the one John had earlier heralded with such confidence.
If this is the case, then Jesus' answer probably sounds more like a rebuke, “Come on John: have you not been watching and listening? Do you really need to ask?” I suspect that Jesus is telling John that he should reconsider his sense of who and what the Messiah is. John's problem, judging from Jesus' response, is that he hasn't yet recognized Jesus' actions as messianic because he hasn't been trained to see these things as indicators of God's presence. John, according to Jesus, needs to stretch his imagination of what the presence and power of God look like.
And here's the rub: are we any different? Or, to put it another way, what limitations have been placed on our imagination and expectations? I wonder whether one of the reasons many of our traditions are withering is that we haven't been trained to see God at work in the ordinary arenas of our lives. Each week, that is, we come to church, hear the Scriptures read and preached, sing the hymns and say the prayers, and, if lucky, have a sense of God’s presence. But do we carry that experience with us out of church and into our everyday lives? Do we look for God in the ordinary arenas of home and work, economics and politics? Can we imagine that God is using us in our various roles as employee, parent, spouse, friend, citizen, and volunteer, to extend God's love, blessing, and steadfast care of all creation? Can we, in short, see God at work outside of the church?
Let me give you an analogy: a year or so ago the reactions of commuters at an underground station to the music of a busker playing the violin were taped. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of coins into his violin case. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the underground. Except it wasn't an ordinary day. The violinist wasn't just another busker; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million pound Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston's Symphony Hall with people paying $100 a seat to hear him play similar pieces. The question many others since have asked is simple: have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?
I'd ask us the same question: can we detect God only when God is surrounded by stained-glass windows and organ music? I'm afraid that often we can't.
So here's the question. If Sunday after Sunday the sermon has next to nothing to do with life Monday to Friday, and if week after week we fail to use the hour gathered for worship to train our people to see God alive and active in the other 167 hours of the week, how long can we expect people to keep giving us that hour when they could probably find numerous other ways to spend it that would strengthen them for the rest of their week, life, and world? The answer, I think, is given each week as one or more members of the worshipping community doesn't turn up to worship.
We won't know how John responded to Jesus' answer. But we do know that Jesus wasn't finished. After giving his response to John's messenger, he went on to say that John was the greatest of all the prophets. Why? Because at one point he had recognized and heralded Jesus as the messiah. And then Jesus goes even further, saying that the least in the kingdom of heaven - that is, every Christian disciple - is greater than John. Why? Because we have perceived in Jesus' "ordinary" actions of restoration the very hand of God at work to heal, redeem, and save.
John witnessed to the coming messiah, and we too, like John or even Elijah, are witnesses of the coming day. Jesus' answer is an interesting one. John no doubt thought the sign would be much clearer when it finally came. But Jesus, in his answer, points not to world transforming occurrences but instead to very small events. Of course, some of them may be considered miraculous - but always on an individual level. Jesus does not respond by saying what is happening at the level of nations or governments or populations or the cultural movements of the day, (although there is an implicit challenge to all of those). He tells us to look closely and see what is happening in the lives of people. He is at work on a very intimate level. Someone who was blind can now see. Someone else who was lame can now walk. Yet another person who was deaf can now hear. Someone who's had the good news brought to them and now feels hope.