Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11 (Year A, Advent 3)
As a cynical and sarcastic pessimist, I have a soft spot in my heart for what I call The Old Curmudgeons of the Bible. Many of you have heard me refer to The Apostle Paul as That Old Curmudgeon, and in today’s gospel reading, we continue the story of my second favorite curmudgeon in the Bible: John the Baptist. The Old Curmudgeons of the Bible don’t mince words. They don’t have time for trigger warnings. And they don’t take anyone’s crap. They don’t take crap from the reigning religious authorities like the Sadducees or Pharisees or even Jesus’ own brother after he makes his way to top the hierarchy in Jerusalem. They don’t take crap from any of the Herods or even from the churches one of them planted in Corinth. They have work to do and truth to tell, and they don’t let anything get in the way of that. And in today’s gospel reading we discover that John isn’t taking any crap from Jesus either.
In fact from last week’s Gospel reading to this week’s reading, we’re at something of a loss. Last week John is in the wilderness preaching truth to power and baptizing people in the Jordan. He’s not taking any crap from those Pharisees and Sadducees when they show up to find out why everyone is running to the middle of nowhere. He’s telling the people who flock to him about the One who is coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This Coming One is going to do some major house cleaning when he shows up. If we continued through the rest of Matthew 3, we would’ve read of John hesitating to baptize Jesus, saying Jesus needed to baptize him.
Then we hit this week’s reading in Matthew: “While John was in prison, he heard about the works the Messiah was performing, and sent a message by way of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” And all of us go: “Huh? What happened?” How did John wind up in prison? Why is he sending his disciples with this question? What happened?
The funny thing is we don’t find out why John is in prison for a few more chapters in Matthew. We have to make it to chapter 14 before we discover why John is no longer preaching by the Jordan. There we discover that John took on Herod Antipas, who happens to be the son of Herod the Great, the king responsible for slaughtering the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem to make sure he stayed on the throne. The son isn’t much better. Herod Antipas continuously raised taxes on the people to live a more lavish lifestyle and further consolidate his own power against his brothers.
One of the ways he consolidated his power against his brother Philip was by marrying Philip’s ex-wife, Herodias after their divorce. According to the family laws in Leviticus, this was incest and not to be done. Matthew 14 tells us Herod arrested John and threw him in prison because John had been telling him: “It is against the Law for you to have her.” The Jewish historian Josephus reported that Herod Antipas arrested John because he was afraid “John might stir the people to insurrection” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 388), which means John might have also been telling Herod Antipas that he shouldn’t be exploiting the people to make himself richer.
So now we know why John is in prison. Now comes the bigger question: why is John now questioning who Jesus is? “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” When you’re doing research to preach on this passage, it’s quite entertaining to read how some scholars try to explain this away. They don’t want to admit that even John the Baptist had his doubts. Instead it was John’s disciples who had the doubts, and that is why John sent them—for their own good. I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that John was having his doubts, given the circumstances.
John’s been arrested and he’s in prison for preaching the coming reign of God and holding Judah’s leaders accountable. He had been telling everyone that when The Chosen One came “That One will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing-fan will clear the threshing floor. The grain will be gathered into the barn, but the chaff will be burned in unquenchable fire.” Some major housecleaning was supposed to be happening: Judah’s enemies were supposed to be overthrown, God’s kingdom was to be established, and peace would reign. Jerusalem would be the center of the world, and people from everywhere would come and worship God.
But none of this was happening. Jesus is spending most of his time wandering around Galilee, healing people and teaching in synagogues, hilltops, and by the sea. He doesn’t seem too interested in taking on the Herod family or Rome, for that matter. So John asks, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?”
I like that John’s question doesn’t seem to phase Jesus. Of course, Jesus knew he wasn’t acting like the Messiah that John and many of the people had been expecting. He hadn’t made himself king, he wasn’t raising an army, and he had not once talked of driving the Romans out. The only time he had talked about Rome to this point was to tell the people when a Roman soldier commanded them to go a mile carrying their packs, the people were to go two. Jesus was not the Messiah, the Son of Bathsheba and David, John and others were expecting.
Jesus pointed John in a different direction. He wanted John to know that his definition of what The Chosen One looked like wasn’t the only description of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Our reading from Isaiah this morning states: “Say to those who are faint of heart: ‘Take courage! Do not be afraid! Look, YHWH is coming, vindication is coming, the recompense of God—God is coming to save you!” And when God comes, she will open the eyes of the blind and unseal the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will shout and sing! On hearing John’s question, Jesus’ response was to point to what he was doing: “Those who are blind recover their sight; those who cannot walk are able to walk; those with leprosy are cured; those who are deaf hear; the dead are raised to life; and the anawim—the ‘have-nots’–have the Good News preached to them.” Look at my works Jesus said. It was almost as if Jesus said, “Stop focusing on just the one thing you want and see everything I’m doing.”
Then Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them: What did you go out to the boondocks to see? Why did you traipse out to the middle of nowhere? Was it to watch the reeds blowing in the wind? Was it to see men like Herod dressed in their finery? No, they went to see the man Herod had thrown in prison. They went to see John who spoke truth to power, even when it cost him his freedom. They went to see John who didn’t mince words with anyone—not even the religious leaders. They went to see John who didn’t take anyone’s crap—including Jesus. When Jesus didn’t live up to ideal, he wanted to know what was going on, and if he should move on. In his own way, Jesus told him to stay and stick it out. Then Jesus went on to praise John—doubts and all: “So what did you go out to see—a prophet? Yes, a prophet—and more than a prophet!” John was the promised Elijah who would make the way for God to break into our world in a new and joyous way: he proclaimed that God had come among us and would set things right. And because of his ministry nothing would be the same.
I hate that the lectionary does not finish this story. Jesus goes on to challenge the crowd he just praised John in front of: “What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but your wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes eating and drinking, and they say, “This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.”
There’s a warning there for us this Advent season as we once again wait for Christ. What are we waiting for? When Christ comes will it be as we expected? Or will we be disappointed like John because Jesus didn’t come the way we wanted him to? Or will we be like the crowds who can’t decide what they want. They run out into the wilderness to see John, but his tough, ascetic lifestyle and his warnings of the coming judgment of God don’t sit well with them, and they return to their homes. Then Jesus comes inviting all to the banquet of God and bringing God’s love to everyone: insiders and outsiders, and that kind of inclusivity makes them run home too. We don’t really want everyone to get in, do we?
But that is the vision of both Jesus and Isaiah: everyone has a place in God’s kingdom, and when God comes everything changes. Deserts bloom. Wildernesses burst into gardens. Wastelands bubble up into pools of water. We help each other as we “strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees.” We assure the faint of heart: “Don’t be afraid. God is coming.” And when God comes the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame dance with joy, and the mute sing. Isaiah’s vision is of a joyful community making sure everyone gets on the Sacred Path that not even those of us with no sense of direction can get lost on. We can’t get lost because we’re going together, and we’re taking care of each other on the way. And when that happens, God comes.