Now when John the Baptist was in prison heard about the activities of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the Expected One (the Messiah), or should we look for someone else who will be the promised One?” Jesus answered, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive [their] sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed by healing and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed joyful, favored by God is he who does not take offense at Me accepting Me as the Messiah and trusting confidently in My message of salvation.” (Matthew 11:2-11)
The Season of Advent can be a very confusing time for some people:
- on one hand, we all wait with wide-eyes for the birth of the Christ child
- on the other, we are waiting for the second Coming of Jesus at the end of the world.
Indeed, a major part of the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus will return to earth and all believers shall be drawn to him and into eternal life. And in the liturgical year, Christ’s ‘Second Coming’ is celebrated during the Advent Season when we are usually more focused on the birth of Jesus.
Today we enter the third week of Advent – with it the anticipation of the Birth of Christ. In just a little over one week we will be sitting here celebrating Jesus’ birth that nativity story from so long ago. You would expect the readings to center on that blessed event in Bethlehem.
But today’s scripture is not foretelling the birth of Christ.
In today’s scripture, we find John the Baptist languishing away in prison. John was considered a fanatic and zealot in his own time, so, when Herod Antipas married his brother Phillip’s wife after divorcing his own, John had much to say, about it, far and wide. John, of course, would rail against this; it was his life’s business to prophesy and accuse! In an attempt to silence him, Herod had thrown him in prison. He has been there for over a year and must have felt abandoned and out of the mainstream. He heard rumors that the Jesus he had baptized and proclaimed to be the Messiah was traveling the countryside preaching and prophesying. The time of the Messiah must surely have come. His hopes high, John is sure that Jesus will ‘ride up on a white horse’ and rescue him from prison.
But what was actually happening? What do his messengers tell him about Jesus?
He hears that Jesus is busy performing miracles, preaching mercy and compassion and love. This is not what he expected of the Messiah!!!
Jesus was not proclaiming himself the Messiah King,
. . . not bringing about the destruction of Rome
. . . or overthrowing Herod’s rule.
Instead of preaching revolution and smiting evildoers he is proclaiming good news to the poor and destitute, the broken-hearted and downtrodden, the captives and oppressed. He was even saying people who believed in Him would be persecuted!
Even though they were cousins and had known each other since the womb, John was no longer sure that THIS Jesus was the Messiah he had foretold. He was certainly not doing what he expected Him to do.
So, John sent his disciples to speak with Jesus. After all, John had been prophesying that the Messiah would come with fiery judgment, pitchfork and axe in hand. But here was this man, preaching and teaching hope and love and healing, not fomenting revolution.
What was going on here?
Imagine you were John, foretelling the reign of the Messiah, only to find out that He was not the revolutionary you had predicted – or at least not in the sense John expected. Jesus was preaching and healing, not riling up the citizens to revolt. There was no message of revolt in his teachings and stories. He stressed compassion and inclusion of everyone in the Kingdom of God.
The Jews had been waiting a long time for the appearance of the Messiah with the expectation that he would save them from Roman oppression and restore them to their rightful kingdom. This Jesus was certainly not acting like that Messiah! Disappointed, John wanted to know if Jesus was that man . . . or if there was another Messiah coming.
He must have thought:
- Had he been wrong about Jesus?
- Was he looking like a fool?
Some folks may have thought so then, but today we know better . . . that even John didn’t fully realize what the Kingdom of God would be, and indeed sometimes, we forget, too.
The scripture goes on to say that Jesus affirmed John and his prophecy. Jesus reminded John that he was ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, in camel skins, eating locust and honey. He reminded him that his calling was as a preparer – he had called many to the wilderness to be baptized. He was more than a prophet; he was a forerunner, reformer, a preparer of the way.
Those times for which John was baptizing people and foretelling had truly come to pass. Just as Elijah foretold of Jesus’ birth, John was foretelling of Jesus’ life on earth. John’s purpose was to prepare the people for the arrival of Jesus among them.
- That prophesy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus: a Jesus that was a man of words and compassionate actions, not one of authority and military might.
- A man of the spirit, not of the sword
Jesus sends the disciples back to John, telling them to tell him what they had seen. Tell him about:
- Healing the sick
- Casting out demons
- Raising the dead
- Forgiving sins
- Preaching to the poor.
We can only hope that when the disciples returned and told John what they had seen, he remembered the prophecies of Isaiah that we heard about in your reading today about the marvels that would take place in the desert. And he remembered his faith in that man he baptized so long ago.
But wouldn’t it have been natural for John to have been a little upset that he was sitting in prison suffering for an itinerant preacher who gave mercy to anyone who asked (even Romans) and would lead his followers into a brutal death? Possibly John sent his disciples to Jesus to try and prod him into the action that John had expected from the Messiah.
This Jesus – this Messiah – was not what John the Baptist expected. He was not coming to destroy Rome; they could and did do that without his help. He was here to establish the Kingdom of God.
A Kingdom of God where everyone is welcome, all are loved, and mercy and compassion flow like waters.
This is Rose Sunday, or to the Anglican community ‘Stir It Up’ Sunday. In the Collect, we ask God to ‘stir up his power’ in us. And we got our blood flowing when we sang one of my favorite hymns: Sound the Trumpets!! Spread the Message!!!
We need to be prodded and poked to strive for a sinless life. We need to be pushed forward to who is coming. We need to be reminded in this Advent Season that our King and Savior comes not only as a human child, but promises to return again to triumph over death and make that possible for us also. That our Lord comes twice to bring eternal life and peace and in an everlasting Kingdom.
This Kingdom of God is what we are waiting for as we continue this Advent Season. As we anticipate the birth of that little baby in Bethlehem, let us keep our eyes fixed on the real prize:
The Kingdom of God!!
Delivered at In The Garden Ministry, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 11 December 2016