By Jon Jordan
Advent may be one of the most important seasons in the Church year for modern Christians. Other seasons have much to offer us: Lent asks us to fast, to go without something essential in order to strengthen our moral muscles. Easter asks us to feast, to celebrate the new life we have because of the Resurrection of Jesus.
But when the church celebrates Lent and Easter, there is less cultural competition. There is not another “season” competing for our attention.
Advent is different.
In Advent we are asked to slow down at precisely the same time the rest of our culture is asking us to speed up. We are asked to pause and reflect while culture is telling us to go-go-go. We are asked to focus on what we need most as fallen humans, while much of the cultural Christmas season is encouraging us to focus on what we want, and doing what it takes to make sure others know what we want.
Advent is especially important for Christians today because of how it flies in the face of much of what our other calendars during this busy holiday season are telling us to do.
Advent brings some well-known and some not-so-well-known biblical figures to the forefront.
This is Mary’s season. We meet Elizabeth and Zechariah. The Old Testament prophets, often ignored because of their funny names and strange messages, take center stage.
Advent also highlights one more person: the last prophet of the Old Testament, who also happens to be the first prophet of the New Testament: John the Baptist.
So who was John the Baptist?
He was the cousin of Jesus, older by just a matter of months.
I think it is fair to say he was that strange cousin all of us have.
He spent most of his adult life living alone in the woods. He wore camel’s hair for clothing, and ate a diet that primarily consisted of locusts and honey.
His message was odd and jarring: change your ways, because what you are doing is not fit for the kingdom that my cousin is about to bring.
He challenged those in authority, and never backed down. (He was thrown in prison and eventually beheaded for telling Herod he has no business marrying his brother’s wife.)
But this strange cousin of Jesus also had an impressive highlight reel:
- While John and Jesus were both in the womb, John leaped for joy when Mary came near. Recognizing the Savior of the world while you are still in the womb is an impressive feat.
- He was a well-known traveling preacher, and amassed a significant following of disciples.
- Jesus repeatedly calls him “the greatest.”
- John baptized Jesus. Can you imagine adding that to your resumé?
Most of John’s life was spent preparing the way for Jesus to do what Jesus came to do.
I share this list to give you a picture of who John the Baptist was, and to help set the stage for the scene from his life that the Church has asked us to reflect upon on this third Sunday of Advent.
Because the scene in our gospel reading this morning does not appear to be among John’s greatest hits.
Prior to Matthew chapter 11, John had found himself in prison, put there by Herod himself. (Roman rulers don’t like being challenged by Jewish prophets.) John begins to hear about many of the wonderful things Jesus was doing, and yet he still found himself rotting in prison.
Imagine spending your life preparing others to meet Jesus, and then after you baptize him and his ministry takes off, you are left behind.
If this happened to one of us, we might also find ourselves saying what John the Baptist said in Matthew 11.
John sends a message to Jesus: “Are you he who is to come, of shall we look for another?”
Are you really who I said you were?
All those years I spent preparing people to receive you — are you going to keep your end of the deal?
Or do I find a better Savior?
Word travels back to Jesus, who hears these challenging words from his cousin.
It is worth pausing here to notice something about Jesus. The Son of God, who has always existed, leaves his throne in heaven to become a baby. To live and die as one of us. And in the middle of his ministry he is critiqued by his own cousin. Challenged by a strange prophet.
Herod responds one way to this sort of challenge. He throws John in prison and in just a few chapters will have him beheaded.
Jesus, thank God, is different. He sees past the harsh question, and has compassion for the person behind the question and the situation he finds himself in. You can hear it in his response.
This is far from the main point of the passage, but I know I can learn quite a bit about how to respond to critical questions from Jesus here.
Jesus does respond. He sends a message back to John:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.
If that response sounds familiar, it is because you were paying attention during our first reading. Isaiah, a great Old Testament prophet, paints a vision of what it will look like when the Messiah finally comes to his people. This list (“the blind will see, lame will walk, lepers will be cleansed”) and other lists like it are found all throughout the Book of Isaiah.
John, sitting in prison, would have been very familiar with this list, and other lists like it from Isaiah.
So familiar, in fact, that he would have heard what Jesus said, and what Jesus intentionally left unsaid. Part of Jesus’ answer would have actually stung a little.
In several other places throughout Isaiah, places where a list like the one we read this morning are found, Isaiah adds something else. It is not just the blind who see, and the lame who walk, and the dead who are raised.
In Isaiah 42, 49, 51, and 61, the vision of the Messiah’s work includes something more.
Here is a glimpse from Isaiah 61:1:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.
According to Isaiah, the Messiah will give the blind their sight, will heal the brokenhearted, will make the lame walk, will raise the dead, and will set prisoners free.
As John sits in prison listening to the messengers sharing Jesus’ words, he notices what Jesus left unsaid.
Jesus listed everything from Isaiah except the one thing John wanted to hear most.
I really don’t know. As it often does, the Bible leaves some things unanswered, causing us to reflect more deeply than we would have if the answers were given simply.
This question has fascinated (and haunted) me for about a decade now.
Here is what I think might be part of what is happening:
Jesus did give sight to the blind; but those of us living on this side of the Cross and Resurrection know that he also gave true spiritual sight to those who were spiritually blind. Opening physical eyes was part of Jesus’ work; but he came to do much more.
Jesus did cleanse lepers from their diseases; but he also cleansed people from diseases of the heart that they did not even know they had. Healing physical diseases was part of Jesus’ work, but he came to do much more.
Perhaps Jesus is telling John that his ministry must include setting all captives free — especially those who are enslaved not by prison walls, but by the destructive power of sin.
Jesus left John the Baptist hanging because Jesus’ true work was not yet accomplished. And he needed John to know that.
Jesus does not come into our lives today to do the work we think he should be doing. He comes to do the work that needs to be done.
And sometimes that work stings a little, because it is not what we want, but what we need.
I think we have at least two things we can ponder this week from what we have read this morning.
Like John the Baptist, you might find yourself feeling like Jesus has forgotten about you this holiday season.
He hasn’t. Jesus doesn’t forget about people. Look at Matthew 11:7: “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John.”
For whatever reason Jesus waits until the messengers return to John to do so, but he has some wonderful things to say about John. It is clear that Jesus remembers, knows, and cares deeply about John, even while he is in the depths of prison.
So if you get to the point that you feel like Jesus has forgotten about you, return to this passage. He hasn’t. He just has something bigger in mind than you think.
Finally, as we close it is worth going back to John’s greatest hits.
What was his message that prepared people so well to receive Jesus?
John’s message was the first sermon of the New Testament.
And it has to be a daily message we repeat to ourselves.
We find ourselves doing and saying and thinking things that hurt ourselves and others. We might want to stop. We might not.
Either way, John’s message is for us:
Turn from the destructive patterns you find yourself living in, and walk another step toward Jesus.
Because Jesus has come. And he will come again. And he is in the business of setting captives free.
The hope of the world is that through Jesus, the way we are now is not the way we will always be.
Let us pray.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
The Rev. Jon Jordan is priest associate at Church of the Incarnation, and serves as the headmaster of the Dallas Campus and theology department chair for Coram Deo Academy, a school in the classical Christian tradition.