James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, And Matthew 3:1-12 (last week’s gospel)
Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King, Alleluia, we are going to see the King – Amen
Thus far in our Advent journey, we have thought about the patriarchs – the significant figures from the earliest Old Testament times – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David etc. They remind us how God was working with his chosen people, but these characters and their stories also pointed to the day when a different way through Jesus would come and that was always in God’s heart and plans.
Last week we thought about the prophets – Messengers from God who spoke into their timeframe things for their times and things for the future and who spoke what God put on their hearts to say. We heard the words of Isaiah last week in our reflection.
Today, we are going to think about John the Baptist. John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus, just before he came Jesus recognises this role for John towards the end of today’s gospel reading. Just to recap a little on the material in last week’s Gospel reading – What kind of man was John? He was quite wild and lived a simple dedicated life in the desert. He was viewed as a radical and an extremist but he must have had great integrity – he visibly practiced what he preached by living a simple life out in the desert
There must have been something quite charismatic about him. He did not come to the people. They flocked to him! Describing the crowds coming out to be baptised by him – travelling out to the wilderness – literally out of their comfort zone! the crowds that came. Also they include the great and the good of his day. Amongst them the Pharisees and the Sadducees (who were the religious leaders of the day). He was particularly tough with them asking them not to rely on the lineage with Abraham. He called them a brood of vipers (which was very insulting) and that they needed to bear fruit worthy of repentance. To really mean what they were saying and doing, and be changed by it.
John was a rare combo of visible integrity and charisma, and tough truth telling. Remember he was in the in between times between the old ways and the new ways of Jesus. He didn’t get to see fully what happened next either, and what he was preparing the way for as he was beheaded before Jesus death and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
In today’s gospel reading, we have John sending people to Jesus whilst he is in prison and asking a question Are you the one who is to come or we to await another? he says. His present when he did this would have been very harsh. I have to say I have puzzled over the question John asked this week – And how to interpret it… We will never know for sure in my estimation what John’s motives are in asking Jesus this. We have to remember we are in Matthew’s gospel, so language of Jesus as the Messiah is much less explicit than we have been used to in our journey mainly through Luke in 2022. I have 3 theories about this question.
My first theory is this – Is John looking for certainty for his followers and himself in a tight spot? Hence asking – Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another? Desire for certainty would be a natural human response when the going gets tough as we know too well we want the way forward to be clear. For me the ongoing lack of certainty has been one of the most draining things in our journey thus far in the 2020s….
My second theory is that John is airing his doubts here. When he asks Are you the one who is to come or we to await another? Again doubt is a very natural reaction – we might describe this as a wobbly moment in view of his present circumstances. He is not the only one around Jesus who doubts him. This is also the same John who witnessed and reluctantly undertook Jesus’ baptism, but also we have in Matthew’s gospel account of the baptism in chapter 3 the most vehement reaction – That John would have prevented him – saying I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me? So it is not the first time John was doubting or unsure.
My third theory is that John had different expectations of Jesus. When he asked Are you the one who is to come or we to await another. As was customary in John’s day – that if he was the Messiah – he would come to rule with power and would overthrow Herod and the Roman Authorities. What John had heard of what Jesus was doing it was far from that! John was hoping to see judgement on those imprisoning him in his life time, which John did not get to see…. John could have also been doubting his own calling if this didn’t happen that way. Had been doing and saying what God needed him to all those days in the wilderness?
Probably the key to this passage is understanding that the way Jesus came and what Jesus came to do needs to be from Jesus’ perspective not John’s. Particularly the picture we have of him in Matthew’s gospel is that it doesn’t meet the expectations of John and others around him. Jesus came to turn things inside out and upside down, to reset the balance right enough but not by using the power and might they were hoping for and expecting.
For Jesus message was to be primarily about love, compassion and mercy. This is visible in his answer to John in our gospel today. He like John relies on the words of our old friends the prophets and explains some of what he has been about. Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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.
All of which is lifted from the words of Isaiah Jesus read at the start of his ministry in the Nazareth temple in Isaiah 61 (but that story is not in Matthew’s gospel). It is partly how these are worked into Matthew’s account through this and a brief narrative before the sermon on the mount.
Jesus came to bring a radical message sure enough. To bring comfort to the uncomfortable and downtrodden, and to challenge the comfortable, rich and those with power (particularly those who had twisted God’s love into something to suit their own ends).
But this message was not with power and might, but with love, compassion and mercy. I hope the answer Jesus gave was of some comfort to John and helped him with his certainty, doubt or expectations. John would certainly have understood what Jesus was getting at as he was well versed in his own calling in the words of Isaiah. That final remark And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me – is a form of language we recognise as a beatitude (Blessed are statements at the start of the sermon on the mount). He is saying in language John would have got – John understand this differently – this is about love, compassion and mercy and that is what God’s kingdom should be about for us.
Love and compassion – having hearts on fire with love for God, and sharing that love with others and mercy – being merciful, quick to forgive and forget – not brooding and storing up a list of how others have wronged us. Let it go!!! This is also about understanding that God’s plan for us is what matters
In the Advent group this week we pondered the difference between us wanting to do work for God, and God working in and through us. Us wanting to do work for God can soon turn into us trying to organise God and remain in control (which does not work). The latter God working in and through us – has us working openly and wholeheartedly to God’s plan for us and works as God has intended….
As we continue our Advent Journey – Let’s not succumb to uncertainty, doubt and our own agendas and expectations, instead let’s overflow with love, mercy and compassion. Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995