"Are you the one?"
A Sermon for Third Advent
John the Baptist is in prison, not because he messed up, not because he is a criminal, but because he offended the local leader, King Herod, and was thrown in jail. This is sometimes the fate of prophets who speak the truth to power . . and then power silences them. But John cannot stop. John has been given a job to do, by God, and he is not going to stop until he is sure that his job is accomplished. He is supposed to prepare the way for the Messiah to come into the world. He is supposed to level the mountains and fill in the valleys. He is supposed to make a straight path so that there will be no obstacles for the Son of God to bring salvation to the world.
Only, one problem, he is in prison and there are still mountains and valleys and dictator kings and unrepentant people who are not baptized to receive the Messiah into their lives. I think John is worried that he is not going to be able to finish his work as God's prophet and continue preparing the way. The only way John can really rest and accept his fate in Herod's jail is if Jesus is the Messiah and John's work is already done. So he sends a few of his disciples to ask Jesus straight up, "Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?"
This may seem strange to us - didn't John know who the messiah was? If anyone was going to recognize Jesus, wouldn't it be John the Baptist? After all, God sent John to prepare the way, wouldn't God give him a heads up about who is coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire? Apparently not . . In Matthew's Gospel, John and Jesus are not cousins. Mary and Elizabeth are only related in Luke's version of the birth story and Matthew does not bother to give us John's backstory. All we know is that a prophet, very much like Elijah, has been gathering the attention of crowds of people and instead of pointing to himself, he keeps pointing to the one who will come after him.
I imagine John sitting in prison asking God, "Am I done? Should I point everyone towards Jesus, now? What do you want me to do? Get out of prison? Stay in prison? Have I failed? Or succeeded?" Being a prophet is very ambiguous work sometimes.
When the disciples of John arrive in Jesus' presence they ask the all—important question, "Are you the one?" and Jesus could have simply said, "Yes. Tell John thanks so much for everything he has done. I'll take it from here." Instead, Jesus responds, "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." Jesus doesn't claim the title Messiah for himself. He doesn't whip out a photo ID that says, Jesus, Son of God, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, King of Kings. Instead, he simply describes what is happening to the world around him. He says, "You be the judge. Look at what is happening to the world affected by my presence: people see, walk, hear, they are healed of disease, the dead live, and the poor are filled with Good News." Jesus is describing what it looks like when a community is being saved. All the brokenness of our human lives is no longer powerful in the presence of the Savior. All the blindness and pain and suffering and inequality evaporates in the presence of Jesus. If this is effect of Jesus, then I think John will agree, he is the one we have been waiting for. Even in prison, John can give thanks that his work was not wasted. The savior has come and the world is being transformed.
And the world still needs to be transformed. You see, I think that part of the reason why John was a little confused about Jesus' status as Messiah was because John (and others) were expecting a larger than life, power—wielding, take—no—prisoners Messiah who baptizes with fire and burns up the chaff. The world needs some major transformation and the one we have been waiting for is going to use all of his divine authority to overpower the powers of this world and set up the reign of God, Arnold Schwarzenegger style.
Instead, the Messiah God sends into the world will not raise up an army of God's soldiers, calling on the angels and arch—angels to attack the Roman empire and destroy the oppressor. Instead, Jesus will gather crowds of the sick and helpless so that they might be healed and restored to life. The transformation that Jesus brings is an intimate and inefficient grassroots effort to touch the lives of those in need and make them whole again. Jesus brings salvation to the world through the healing of one wounded person at a time. And then that person is sent out into the world to share the good news that has touched their life. This is how God chooses to save us and it is still going on.
When we are feeling overwhelmed by suffering, maybe our own or maybe the pain all around us, it is normal to wish that God would just send that terminator—style Messiah to destroy all the sources of suffering and even promise at the end, "I'll be back." Perhaps, we are feeling like John, imprisoned unjustly by the brokenness of this world, by illness, by poverty, by sin and we want Jesus to come in with his SWAT team of apostles and break us out. But instead, Jesus calls Linda Procter and asks the pastoral care team to send us a card. Jesus asks the meal train to bring us some nourishing food lovingly prepared by Rebecca Couture and her kitchen team. The Daughters of the King add us to the prayer list and even when we are alone, our predicament feels less heavy because others are helping us to carry it. The Eucharistic Visitors come and share communion with us through the bars of our prison and we weep and give thanks that we are not alone. We are united with the Body of Christ. This is how the world gets transformed with the salvation of God. We may never physically get out of our prison, but even behind the bars, the salvation of Christ sets us free. And as we are set free, Jesus asks us to share the good news with others who are stuck in the prison with us. We become the apostles being sent out into the mission field so that the blind will see and the lame will walk and the deaf will hear. We are no longer preparing the way for Christ to come – we are the ones bringing Christ into the world. This is how God brings about the salvation of the world, this is how we are transformed into a resurrection people.
—The Rev. Adrien Dawson
Dec 11, 2016