You can listen to this on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.
What a difference a few months can make. It was just last week that we heard the story of John’s bustling ministry down by the riverside. John was a baptizer, but more than that, he was a prophet. To say he got it honest would be an understatement. His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, was from the priestly tribe of Aaron. Even before he was born, John was already in touch with the power of God, leaping in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary the Mother of our Lord. Thirty years later, John was out in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan River, baptizing people and calling them to repentance in preparation for the Messiah who was coming. Matthew tells us that John’s life and ministry were the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier. He was the one who was sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare a path. As Bishop Russell told us, John’s job was to smooth out peoples’ hearts in preparation for the love of God that was enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
There on the shores of the River Jordan, John the Baptizer seemed so confident. He was even willing to challenge, head on, the religious leaders of the time. He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” right to their faces. He promised them that judgment was coming upon them and upon the whole world. The one who would follow him was coming with a winnowing fork, and the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire. When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John balked at the idea. He wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, and yet he was faithful in his call, and watched as the heavens opened, and the dove descended, and the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
If anyone had reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, it was John the Baptist, and yet here we are, just a few months later, and doubt seems to be creeping in. Of course, a lot has happened in the meantime. John is no longer working down by the river. His brash preaching style went too far when he openly challenged King Herod’s marriage. See, Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been married before – to Herod’s brother. Aside from being generally uncool, this sort of marriage arrangement was unlawful, and John made sure Herod knew about it, which of course didn’t sit well with the King or his wife, and so John’s ministry came to an abrupt end when he found himself arrested and put in jail. We can’t be sure how long John was in prison by the time our Gospel lesson for today takes place, but context tells us it’s been a while, and John has had plenty of time to think. Too much time, in fact.
While it was the state that could put you in jail in Roman occupied territories in the first century, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to take care of you once you were there. Food and clean clothing came to prisons from their families and friends, which meant that communication lines with the outside world were wide open. While John was behind bars, he was able to keep up with what his cousin Jesus, the Messiah, was up to. The first thing he heard was that Jesus decided to set his basecamp in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, at least a four days hike from Jerusalem. Why had the Messiah who had come to save Israel from her captors, to set her free from oppression, and to restore right religion in her Temple decided to set up shop so far from the seat of power? John could not have been too happy with this turn of events.
Next, he would have heard of the crowd with whom Jesus surrounded himself. Guys like Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, all small-time fishermen from Capernaum and Matthew, a tax collector from the same backwater burgh. Who were these people? What could they possibly do to help Jesus in his role as Messiah? They weren’t military strategists. They weren’t men of much means. There wasn’t anything about any of them that was particularly impressive. What good could possibly come from Jesus hanging out with this ragtag group of country bumpkins?
Eventually, word came to John about Jesus’ ministry; how he was preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Certainly this made John feel a little bit better, their messages were in agreement, Jesus must have been on the right track. Not long after that, however, heard about a big sermon Jesus gave from the mountainside. “Blessed are the poor in spirit?” “Blessed are the meek?” Blessed are the peacemakers?” No, no, no! This wasn’t right at all. If Jesus was the Messiah then he was supposed to come with power and might. His message was to be one of revolution and God’s vengeance of those who had led Israel into sin. What was Jesus doing?!?
Finally, he heard of the miracles. There might have been just a little relief in John when he heard that Jesus was tapping in to his God given power, and yet, the miracles he was doing, what was the goal? Healing a leper? The servant of a Roman Centurion? A couple of blind men? Even raising the daughter of a synagogue official from the dead? To what end? What was Jesus up to? Why was he wasting his time on these small time parlor tricks? Why lavishly waste the power of God to help a Centurion or synagogue leader?
John had heard enough. After months of bouncing around a jail cell with nothing but thoughts to fill his time, John needed some reassurance. Was Jesus really the one he had been waiting for? Was the scene at his baptism for real, or had he imagined it in a hope filled hallucination? Is Jesus the Messiah or not? And so John sent a few of his disciples to go and ask Jesus plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus stops short of answering “yes” to the question, but this might be the closest thing we ever get to a straightforward answer from Jesus. Note that his response is exactly what caused John to ask this question in the first place, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.” What John has seen and heard has him doubting the whole enterprise, but Jesus turns it on his head. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.” Like John in his ministry, Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah. There, in the thirty-fifth chapter, Isaiah describes what the restoration of Zion will look like, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
John, like many others in his day and ours, had fundamentally misjudged what God was going to be up to when his Kingdom came to earth as it is in heaven. Instead of coming with power and might, God comes to us in the form of a child, born in a stable, to a frightened, unwed mother. Instead of overthrowing the religious and political powers-that-be with armies of men and violence, Jesus took down the power of evil by being crucified by those very same powers-that-be. In the years in between, God didn’t coerce, he didn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he didn’t do favors for the elite. Instead, Jesus ministered to the poor, the vulnerable, the meek, and the outcast. Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to precisely those who never thought it could be for them so that he could bring the Kingdom of God for everyone: even John the Baptist, even a Centurion, even a Synagogue official, even you and me. This Advent, we once again prepare for God to come to earth in a most unexpected way and to bring about his Kingdom for a world that desperately needs it. We may doubt God’s way of doing things, and we would be in good company, but Jesus reminds to see, to hear, and to take part in his work in the world about us: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have the good news brought to them. That is good news my friends, Good News, indeed. Amen.