John the Baptist expects the Messiah to bring God’s judgment upon the earth (Matt. 3:11-12). From a prison cell, he wonders whether Jesus is the one who will do this. Jesus’ response indicates that God’s reign is indeed being fulfilled already through healing and restoration.
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The crocuses are always the first signs of spring in our yard. Crocus? Croci?
What’s the plural of crocus? While my mother’s garden had crocus planted in one corner, a predictable place to look and wait for the season of new life – at my house they are all over the yard. In decades old patches I didn’t plant and certainly don’t care for – they just happen and I’m pleasantly surprised when the snow melts and I start to see bits of purple and yellow after a long winter wait for any color other than grey or white.
While Advent is a time of longing and waiting in the shadows for Christ to come, there’s also room for taking some “anticipatory joy” in his arrival. Isaiah prophesies – “the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”
Whether those blossoms of joy are cultivated or volunteer plants – it is joyful none the less. But let us remind ourselves that the crocus, though a joyful sign of the first blessings of a new season – though a colorful and invasive being – is not a large one. Its not a majestic, breath-taking fruit of creation in the same way that the cedars of Lebanon or the mountains and valley are impressive. It’s a glimpse of life – a small short-lived glimpse of new life. It’s seeing that grey March morning and not being sure if you can stand another minute of Pittsburgh winter and then you get a little purple out of the corner of your eye and think – I might just make it.
John the Baptist has been in prison for some time and is looking for hope. Hehas spent his life proclaiming himself hoarse about looking forward to one that is more powerful than he. Jesus, however, is just not wielding the power the way John is looking for, longing for, hoping for. Jesus’ actions don’t seem to be bringing about the kingdom in the way that John expected. The traditional expectation of the Messiah was imagined as a warrior king – to free the people – to vindicate the people – to bring the chosen people home and save them from whatever they needed saving from at the time. But the Messiah-sized rescue, vindication, and salvation John was expecting didn’t come.
Perhaps John is a little wary of this Jesus fellow – and he sends word through his disciples “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Our camel hide-wearing, locust and honey-eating faithful friend seems a bit unsure, even as he hears all sorts of reports of what the Messiah is up to….
Jesus doesn’t fast as often as John’s disciples (9:14) and he’s heard accusations of Jesus being “a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. John claimed that the ax was at the root of trees that bore no good fruit (3:10), but Jesus seems to lack the ability to swing. Rather than raising a powerful winnowing fork and throwing chaff into fire (3:12), Jesus’ actions identify him more and more with people who hold zero social power. Healing and forgiving are important and generate a significant following, but John expects the Christ to be doing much more.
Jesus responds to John’s inquiry with a command – go and tell John what you see – he 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. he doesn’t say to the intermediary, “Tell John that I said such and such.” Instead, he says, “Tell John what you hear and see”
Jesus is quoting Isaiah, but this has literally already happened in the last 10 chapters of Matthew. When Jesus quoted the Prophet Isaiah – John would have known the pattern. Memorizing and studying scriptures reveals patterns of God at work and familiar themes emerge: the eyes of the blind are opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame leap like a deer. But if John knows the 35th chapter of Isaiah he certainly knows chapter 61, “liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” And there he sits captive and in prison….
Not only waiting in the darkness, but now second guessing every choice he’s ever made. Second guessing his calling – his reason for existing? Maybe second guessing whose voice he’s been hearing all this time.
But as Isaiah reminds us – anything’s possible as this kingdom comes – even a desolate and dry landscape can blossom, even a dark and hopeless situation will rejoice. The world will be turned upside down – just not quite as John was expecting…. Jesus is not what John expected. There’s more feasting, less fasting; less condemnation, more grace. At this moment it seems there is more darkness, less light. (Katie Hines-Shah, Christian Century) And yet John sits – confused in the darkness. Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another.
“Mary, did you know?” Is a popular Christmas song, but it’s very clear she did know. With Jesus still in the womb, she boldly prophesied echoing the world of women and prophets before her about how God was gonna turn the world upside down. We’ll hear Mary’s words sung during communion today – trust me, she knew. But John did you know? He certainly heard his father’s song – his father’s prophecy. Which we will sing at the end of the service today…. John, did you think about asking your Aunt Mary?
Jesus’ words remind him and us, during those long periods of dark waiting in our lives, that we might see or hear of joy in the midst of it. Winter is not cast off with the bloom of the first crocus, it is but a joyful sign of what is to come. And when we do see it happening – when we do see those signs of life being renewed, of the tables being turned, and lives turned around, do we believe it is the power of God? That we have seen and heard and read and understood the patterns of scripture long enough to interpret
We wait with patience for the coming of the Lord, even as we rejoice at his presence among us this day: in predictable promised places – in God’s word and the sacraments, in works of justice and love. But we pray that God would open our eyes and ears to the wonders of Christ’s advent among us, in new and surprising places. In the glimpses and the unexpected, may we seek his presence and be filled with joy.