Third Sunday after Advent, (Year A), December 15, 2013
Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Last week, we heard all about John the Baptist at the height of his ministry. And what a figure he was! He knew that the Messiah was coming, that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. He knew the time had come to prepare the way. Certain of his mission, John the Baptist preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and he was not afraid to call out and challenge people who did not heed his call. He wasn’t afraid to challenge the powerful, and point out their sins. That, of course, was why he was put in prison and would later be executed: he offended too many powerful people, particularly the king, Herod Antipas, and his wife Herodias.
Today we hear of John the Baptist near the end of his life, after his ministry is over, not long before he would be executed by the king. And now, he is not nearly so confident. Before, he thundered and proclaimed the Word. Now, humbled by his experiences, he seeks and asks of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Are you the Messiah, the one I was sent to prepare the way for? Are you the fulfilling of our hopes and dreams? Will I see God’s promises fulfilled before I die?
How many of us have been in John’s shoes? I know I have. There have been times in my life when I was so sure of myself, of my calling, of my role in life. I thought I knew what God wanted and I felt secure in my knowledge. In seminary, my first internship went bad and I had to resign half-way through the year. Some of it was my fault, but other parts of it were things beyond my control. A mid-year evaluation said I was failing in all but two categories. And then I had six months to wait before I could continue with my training. Six months to sit and stew over what went wrong. Six months to pray, and cry, and wrestle with my thoughts and dreams. Six months to wonder—was God really calling me to ministry? It had seemed so clear. Was that just arrogance on my part? Self-delusion? What happens next? I never lost faith in God, but for a while I lost faith in myself, and in my ability to know God’s will. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt like you had no idea what God was doing, when it seemed like God was doing something completely the opposite of what you expected?
I have a lot of sympathy for John the Baptist, stuck in prison, his life in ruins at his feet, wondering if Jesus really was the Messiah. John had been expecting someone a bit more powerful and forceful, I think. Like most people of his day, John probably thought the Messiah would be a king like David, who would drive out the Roman invaders and their puppets the Herod family, and establish a just and righteous kingdom that would last forever more. Sins would be judged, righteousness and repentance rewarded. Remember John speaking of the fire and winnowing that the Messiah would bring? A new order based on God’s law, rather than human law; God would take a far more active hand in the world than he had up to that point. Such a coming reign of God would require armies, and political and military might as well as religious purity and piety. And such a coming reign of God would certainly not allow prophets such as John to languish in prison for the “crime” of preaching God’s word.
Jesus’ ministry didn’t look like that. Jesus’ ministry was about preaching and teaching, about healing and forgiveness. Jesus worked miracles, yes; he had great power … but he never once used that power to raise an army or act like one would expect a king to act. Jesus taught people about God, and about God’s love for all people and all of creation; Jesus taught about forgiveness; Jesus taught about righteousness; Jesus taught about a kingdom of God that wasn’t like any earthly kingdom had ever been or ever would be. But Jesus’ ministry wasn’t much like John had pictured it. And so John asked: “Are you the Messiah sent from God?”
We know that Jesus was the Messiah, of course; but Jesus didn’t give John a direct answer. And when Jesus’ own disciples asked who he was, Jesus turned the question around on them. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus could have told John, “Yes, of course I’m the Messiah! You knew that when you baptized me, and you believed; don’t doubt now!” I’m sure that would have been comforting to John, and to those who followed Jesus. Simple, black-and-white, no ambiguity. A clear confirmation of who Jesus was and what he was doing. But that wasn’t what Jesus did.
Instead, Jesus summarizes his ministry: 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. What do you see when you look at Jesus? What do you hear him say? All these things Jesus was saying and doing—are those the actions of the Messiah? And if so, what kind of a Messiah is he? The prophets had predicted the Messiah would do many things that Jesus did—healing the sick, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and bringing good news to the poor—but there had been other healers and miracle workers before Jesus. Not quite on the same scale as Jesus, of course, but the prophet Elijah had multiplied a small amount of grain and oil into a supply that fed a family for years, healed a man of leprosy, and even brought a boy back from the dead. There had been teachers before Jesus, too.
Jesus was far greater than those who came before him, and he fulfilled the prophecies, but he didn’t act like people expected the Messiah to act. He was a king whose kingdom was not of this earth, a Messiah whose message was of peace and reconciliation, a lord who cared for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow instead of the powerful people, a judge who came not to condemn but to save. In the course of his ministry, Jesus offended many powerful people, just like John—and just like John, he ended up dying for it. Yes, Jesus was the Messiah—but his ministry, his reign, don’t fit into the nice neat categories we humans like to put things in. We like success stories. We like stories about underdogs who beat their powerful opponents. We like happy endings. We like clear answers.
Jesus seldom gave clear answers. He spoke in riddles, metaphors, parables, and symbolism. His response to John was actually a lot clearer than many of the things he told those who came to hear him. We tend to forget that—we’ve had two thousand years to interpret his words; it was a lot different for the first people to hear him. And even for us, Jesus’ words aren’t exactly straightforward.
Why did Jesus do that, I wonder? Why not make things simple, clear, and direct? Surely, that would be an easier and better way to get people to listen to his words and follow him! No doubt, no ambiguity. Surely, if God is leading his people, God could give us a clearer road map to what God wants us to do! Why are there times of doubt in our lives? Times of uncertainty?
“Go and tell what you hear and see,” Jesus said. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus didn’t give an easy, simple answer. Instead, Jesus told John to look around him. To see the signs of God’s kingdom even in the middle of a broken, sinful world. Jesus’ answer requires John—and us—to think and to watch, to keep alert and to trust. God’s kingdom is coming. Indeed, it is close at hand. That kingdom where the oppressed find justice, the hungry are fed, the eyes of the blind opened, that kingdom is near. It comes through Jesus, the son of God, the Messiah, the king of kings and lord of Lords, who will come to judge the living and the dead, and to bring hope and healing through the Resurrection. The kingdom is not here yet, but it is coming.
The thing about Jesus’ answer, here, is that you have to pay attention. You have to stay awake, watching for signs of the kingdom. You can’t just confirm that you’re right and go about your business; you can’t just memorize the right answers and forget about it. You have to watch, and listen; you have to wrestle with what you see and hear. We are not called to hearing the story of Jesus’ birth once a year, we are called to watch for Jesus’ coming every day, everywhere we go. And then we’re called to tell people about it. To spread the good news that the kingdom of God is near. May we always be watching for the signs of God’s kingdom.