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?” Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As 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? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly 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.
Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)
This week’s reading takes a bit of a somber turn. John the Baptist is currently being held in prison by Herod. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Herod was confused by John’s teaching, but he enjoyed listening to John. Herod had married the wife of his brother, and John spoke against it often. Yet, Herod kept him around because he enjoyed listening to him. John was essentially a knick-knack that Herod was keeping on his mantle. You know, like that one thing you got from your uncle 5 to 10 years ago that your spouse wants to get rid of but you can’t let it go because it’s kind of interesting? That’s John, except he’s in a dark and dirty prison eating bad food. I imagine his spirits are getting pretty low and he’s a long ways away from when we last heard from him prophesying in the wilderness. While he is sitting in prison, John sends some followers to ask Jesus if he’s the one everyone is expecting. Or, is somebody else coming? John wants to know if Jesus is the Messiah. John wants to know if his proclamations about Jesus were right. John is starting to doubt himself and his statements about Jesus being “the lamb of God.”
John wants to know if he is living in the already or the not yet.
It seems to me that John might be struggling with the expectation inherent in his prophetic message. He went out into the wilderness, preaching repentance and baptizing countless people in preparation for the coming Messiah. When Jesus shows up to be baptized, John essentially pronounces him as such. After baptizing Jesus the clouds open, a dove comes down and God shouts a blessing. Some of John’s followers start following Jesus and Jesus begins his ministry.
Pretty miraculous stuff…yet here is John sitting in prison wondering if it all meant what he hoped it did. He’s wondering if things are going to happen as he expected them to, as he felt Jesus was going to do and as he felt the scriptures were promising.
Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the LORD of heavenly forces.
Malachi 3:1 (CEB)
The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself.
Isaiah 61:1-3 (CEB)
Inherent in the expectation and “coming” of Advent is the realization that we are still waiting. Around the Advent wreath we have lit three candles, yet there are still two more to be lit. The wreath has not yet reached it’s full potential. John was sitting in prison, hoping that Jesus was who he said he was. He had seen the first few “lights” of Jesus ministry yet the last few seemed to be hidden from him. In the timeline of Jesus ministry John was living squarely in the already and not yet. Jesus had come, he was walking around healing the lame, giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. Awesome stuff was happening. Yet, there was the lingering promises of the freeing the captives (of which John was one), vindication, joy instead of mourning and praise instead of discouragement. For some, those promises had indeed been fulfilled. For others, even John the Baptist, they seemed still unfulfilled.
As we enter that last few weeks of Advent, maybe you too are discouraged as we seem to be living more in the not yet than the already. Sure Jesus has come, sure we look forward to his second coming…but things are pretty tough right now. The holidays are generally a time of celebration, but there are many of us who have a tough time celebrating during this season. Families are not always the happiest of people to be around. Maybe there’s a new empty chair this season. Maybe you live far away from family that was previously very close. In many ways we can feel like John sitting in prison wondering if Jesus is who he really said he was. Wondering if Jesus is who we thought he might be.
Wondering if Jesus is who we once proclaimed him to be.
In this third week of Advent, I pray for those of who identify with the questions and seeming unmet expectations of John. I pray for those who feel like they are in prison and can’t experience the joy Jesus is bringing to others. I pray for those who in spite of the three candles already lit, feel the immense weight of the two candles that are dark. I pray for those who live more in the not yet.
I pray that even now the light of Advent will already begin to dawn in your hearts and minds.