TEXT: Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3)
“Are you the one? Or should we look for somebody else?” That’s what John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus.
I am reminded of a story about a woman who was searching for the perfect anniversary card for her husband.
On the rack in the drugstore, she saw a card that she thought might do. On the outside it read, “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.”
Then she turned to the inside, where it said: “You’re not what I prayed for, exactly … but apparently you are the answer.”
In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people had been praying for a Messiah—a deliverer, a Saviour—who would conquer their enemies and establish a kingdom of righteousness.
This Messiah would be a mighty warrior and king, and through his power the Jews would reign supreme in the region—in a land of peace and prosperity.
With force of arms, he would drive the occupying Roman armies out of Israel, and the nation would be once again great, as it was in the days of King David. That’s the kind of Messiah the people had been praying for.
Then along comes Jesus, a poor carpenter with questionable friends. He claims to be the long-awaited Messiah—but he wants to set up a very different kind of kingdom. And so we can forgive even Jesus’ strongest supporters for asking, “You’re the answer to our prayers? Really?”
For his whole life, John the Baptist had been praying for—and preparing for—the advent of the Messiah.
In anticipation of the arrival of this great figure, John had been harshly criticizing the ruling religious establishment; and to the ordinary people, he had issued a stern call to repentance.
John’s idea of the Messiah was of a warrior-king, someone who—like John—would preach hellfire and brimstone. John had even said the coming Messiah would baptize his hearers with the “Holy Spirit and with fire.”
But in today’s gospel, John is languishing in prison. King Herod had put John there because he wanted to shut him up. Herod Antipas, you may remember, was the puppet-king whom the Romans had put in place.
More than that, Herod had stolen his own brother’s wife, Herodias—and John had publicly condemned the king as an adulterer. Herod saw John as a threat—and Herodias hated him!
So, John surely must have known his days were numbered—unless the Messiah could pull off a revolution … and quickly! But it didn’t sound like Jesus was putting together an army.
In fact, from the reports John was hearing, Jesus was doing exactly the opposite. Far from preaching hellfire and brimstone, this Messiah was performing acts of mercy, and telling people, “Turn the other cheek … Love your enemies … Do good to those who are persecuting you.”
John was confused. Jesus simply did not look like the Messiah he had been expecting.
At this time of year, as Christmas approaches, we also have expectations about how things should be—don’t we? We have idyllic visions of the yuletide season: of families coming together; of happy people singing Christmas carols; of full churches; of love and happiness everywhere. But it rarely works out that way.
And, when the often-grim reality of life collides with our idealistic visions … Well, it’s disappointing. It leaves us with a sense of emptiness and—very likely—with a great many questions.
Some of these questions may be very troubling. We are told that the child born in Bethlehem came as the Prince of Peace. He was born to usher in the Kingdom of God, but the world is still not peaceful, or just, or happy. If the Kingdom really is here, then why can’t we see it?
Has the coming of Christ into the world really changed anything? Before Jesus, there was famine, sickness, violence, and injustice. After Jesus, there is still famine, sickness, violence, and injustice.
Perhaps the human race is a bit more civilized and more sophisticated now than it was 2,000 years ago, but our basic nature appears to have remained untouched.
We are still selfish, prideful, and hostile toward those who are different. If Jesus brought in a new era … where is it?
These same hard questions came into the mind of John the Baptist. John, you remember, was supposed to be the forerunner of this new era. He was, after all, the first person to declare the arrival of the Kingdom. John said it even before Jesus did!
John said other things, too. Things like: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10).
The wheat and the chaff will be separated, John said, and the chaff “will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John envisioned a mighty and powerful Messiah who would come to sweep away wickedness and destroy everything that was evil.
He thought Jesus would set the world straight, so that justice and righteousness would become the status quo. The oppressed would be liberated, and the hungry would be fed. Those who resisted—those who refused to believe, those who continued to sin—they would be swept away and cast into the fire.
That’s what John expected. That’s what John proclaimed. That’s what drew crowds to hear his message and be baptized.
Then Jesus arrived on the scene. John stepped aside and said, “O.K., Jesus—go for it! Bring in the Kingdom! Wipe out the old age, and bring in the new!” And …
Nothing happened. Jesus did not throw anyone into unquenchable fire. He did not wipe out the sinners. No. Instead, he visited them in their homes and ate dinner with them!
Instead of finding himself living in a new era, John found himself in a prison cell, alone with his questions and doubts. Sitting in the forlorn squalor of Herod’s dungeon, John knew that his time was running out. He did not want to die still wondering about the Messiah, so he sent word to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
What a sad question. It is a question that cries out for an answer.
“Are you who I thought you were? Are you the Messiah, or should I wait for someone else?”
John’s question might just be our question, too. It’s a question that is compounded by two millennia of dungeons, injustice, suffering, disease, abuse, exploitation, and death. Is this really the new world of Jesus Christ? Like John did so long ago, we wonder about these things. And who can blame us?
Still, perhaps John’s questioning—and ours—is due (at least in part) to a lack of patience. Ours is an era of fast food, instant coffee, microwave dinners, and the internet. We know what we want; we want it now, and we usually get it now. God’s timetable seems much slower than ours.
But, look—as Jesus himself might say: you cannot plant a seed one day and harvest a crop the next! Maybe that’s the message we need to hear.
Oh, I know … even saintly patience has its limits. In the face of agonizing questions and frustrated longing, to simply say, “Be patient” …
Well, that sounds all too glib, doesn’t it?
“Are you the one, or should we look for somebody else?”
In response to John’s despairing question, Jesus offers a re-examination of current events.
Remember what he told John’s disciples? He said: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” (Matt. 11:4-5)
Jesus invites John—and he challenges all of us—to consider the positive happenings in the world. Our natural tendency is to ask, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”
But Jesus wants us to ask another question: “Why is there so much good in the world?”
How do we account for prosperity and liberty? How do we account for compassion and concern? When it comes to our personal experience of life, how do we account for our own good health and—when they occur—for amazing recoveries from illness? How do we explain unexpected good fortune? How do we account for the love and support of family and friends? Or for the compassion of complete strangers?
Here’s what I think. It seems to me that the good and just and joyful aspects of life are bits and pieces of the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that comes, not by force, but by the birth of a child in a barn located in the back lot of a cheap hotel.
The Kingdom of God was present then, in that common—yet extraordinary—birth. Today, the Kingdom of God is present within each of us. And every time we reach out to others with love, the Kingdom grows a little bit larger. Each time we stand up for justice, the Kingdom’s arrival is that much closer.
In this Advent season, let’s not forget that the Christ-child is indeed waiting to be born—born within our hearts. And yes, he is the One!
Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come! Come to our hearts. Come to our homes. Come to our nation, and to our world.
In God’s good time, may it be so. Amen.