Last week we saw John the Baptizer at the height of his power and career. Crowds were coming to see him and to be baptized by him. Even the movers and shakers were coming—the Pharisees and the Sadducees. How do think he was feeling as he saw the response to his preaching, the adoring crowds and the changed lives. As evidence of his power, we hear him attacking the religious insiders with language of great drama and violence.
Now, some weeks or months have passed and John is in a very different position. Herod had arrested him because John had criticized him for marrying Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife. Another important point to note is that in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry only after John is arrested. In other words, John doesn’t actually see Jesus’ preaching and healing ministry in action. He only hears about it second hand.
John is in prison, waiting. In the Roman world, prison was a place of waiting, not of punishment. Prisoners were waiting to find out what the judgment would be, whether they would be found innocent or guilty, and what their punishment would be. Execution, sentenced to the galleys or the mines? John was waiting.
John had been waiting for a long time, not to find out his fate. He, like Israel, had been waiting for the one who was to come; he was waiting for deliverance. And so, from prison, he asks that question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This probably seems like a very strange question for casual readers or hearers of the gospel. The story we know, if we know it, is a story in which John the Baptist knows who Jesus is. As Luke tells it in his gospel, John and Jesus were cousins, and John recognized the Messiah when both were still in their mothers’ wombs. Luke says John leapt in the Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit her. The Gospel of John is even clearer. When John sees Jesus walking, he says to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
So why would John want to know, “Are you the one who is to come?”
I think it’s simple, really. As we saw in last week’s gospel, John was looking forward to a great reckoning; the day when God’s justice would come down to vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. John had prophesied, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John was now in prison, hardly evidence that God was making things right. And Jesus, the one whom John had baptized, the one in whom he had placed his hopes, had continued John’s preaching. He, like John, was proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. But there seemed to be no signs of its arrival.
So, John, lying in prison, wonders. He wondered whether everything he had been about had meant anything; whether his preaching had been worth it. So he sent two of his followers to ask the question. It’s an obvious question, but still it’s a very interesting and important one. And it is a profoundly “Advent” question. Advent is a time of already but not yet; it is a time when we recognize Christ’s presence among us, Christ’s having come among us as a human. But at the same time, we are looking ahead to that final reckoning. Like John, we are looking ahead for that time when God makes all things new; when God’s justice rolls down like water, and God’s righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
John’s disciples asked Jesus the question, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ reply is not a simple and unambiguous affirmative. Instead, he instructs John’s disciples to tell him what they have seen, “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.”
As readers of the gospel, as people who know the story, this answer seems obvious and to the point. Jesus is alluding back to prophetic scripture, to the Book of Isaiah. It is language that is echoed in the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus’ public ministry begins with his reading from Isaiah: “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.”
As readers of the gospel, we know about Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus had restored sight to the blind, healed a paralytic, and performed many other healings.
We hear this passage and we think it’s all so obvious and we may even wonder how John the Baptist could have had any question about who Jesus was.
But think about it a moment. Think about all of the suffering in the area where Jesus was preaching and healing. He may have performed some healings, but there were many other people who continued to suffer and the oppressive yoke of Roman occupation was as harsh as ever. Did Jesus’ answer convince John’s disciples? Did it convince John?
Like John, we are living in a time of already but not yet. We believe and proclaim that Christ has come into the world; that Christ has ushered in something quite new; that his death and resurrection have changed everything.
At the same time, we continue to see the suffering and injustice around us. Many of us experience great suffering and pain in our own lives. It may so overwhelm us that we despair.
Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is his answer to us. In the midst of the world’s suffering, in the midst of our own pain, he challenges us to see signs of his coming; to look for signs of God’s coming reign; signs of his healing power. Those signs may be faint; they may be overwhelmed by the bright lights and glare of the world.
Like John, we want to see clear evidence; we want to see God coming in glory, destroying evil, beating down the devil. We want to see the carnage and a complete and total victory.
Instead, we are pointed toward this. A few people are healed; a few hear the good news and are transformed. God’s reign breaks in, tentatively, quietly, almost unnoticeably. So we have to pay attention.
There are signs, but we need eyes that will see them; ears that will hear them. I invite you to look for those signs, to imagine what such signs might be in our world today. In the midst of the suffering in the world, in the midst of all of our troubles, where do we see Christ’s healing power? Where do we see God’s justice rolling down? Where do we see God’s reign breaking in and transforming lives and the world?
In food offered from our pantry? Or the meal and music provided at our First Monday meal? In the shelter offered to a homeless man or to a family? In the compassionate service that moves a homeless person from the street to permanent housing? In the reconciling witness of MOSES and other organizations that help formerly incarcerate people rebuild their lives and relationships?
Look for those signs, in the world, in the lives around you. Become those signs, to the world, to the lives you encounter. God is here among us, healing us and the world. Christ will come again to make all things new. May we rejoice to see his coming; and may we see the signs of his coming in our faith and in our actions.