Saint John the Baptist in Prison (1565-70), Juan Fernandez de Navarrette, Oil on canvas, The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg
Matthew 11: 2-11
2 Ὁ δὲἸωάννης ἀκούσας ἐν τῷ δεσμωτηρίῳ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ Χριστοῦ πέμψας διὰ τῶνμαθητῶν αὐτοῦ 3 εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἢ ἕτερον προσδοκῶμεν; 4 καὶἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πορευθέντες ἀπαγγείλατε Ἰωάννῃ ἃ ἀκούετεκαὶ βλέπετε: 5 τυφλοὶ ἀναβλέπουσιν καὶ χωλοὶ περιπατοῦσιν, λεπροὶκαθαρίζονται καὶ κωφοὶ ἀκούουσιν, καὶ νεκροὶ ἐγείρονται καὶ πτωχοὶεὐαγγελίζονται: 6 καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί.
7 Τούτων δὲπορευομένων ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγειν τοῖς ὄχλοις περὶ Ἰωάννου, Τί ἐξήλθατε εἰςτὴν ἔρημον θεάσασθαι; κάλαμον ὑπὸ ἀνέμου σαλευόμενον; 8 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατεἰδεῖν; ἄνθρωπον ἐν μαλακοῖς ἠμφιεσμένον; ἰδοὺ οἱ τὰ μαλακὰ φοροῦντες ἐν τοῖςοἴκοις τῶν βασιλέων εἰσίν. 9 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατε ἰδεῖν; προφήτην; ναί, λέγω ὑμῖν, καὶ περισσότερονπροφήτου. 10 οὗτός ἐστιν περὶ οὗ γέγραπται,
Ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου,
ὃςκατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου ἔμπροσθέν σου.
11 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐκ ἐγήγερται ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶνμείζων Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ: ὁ δὲ μικρότερος ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν μείζων αὐτοῦ ἐστιν.
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’4 Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
7 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 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.”
11 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.
The passage for our Bible study this morning is the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday after next [12 December 2010], the Third Sunday of Advent (The parallel text for this reading is Luke 7: 18-28; see also Luke 16: 16). The full set of lectionary readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-10 or the Canticle Magnificat; James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11.
On the Third Sunday of Advent, the pink candle is lit on the Advent Wreath, recalling John the Baptist. The first two, purple candles, recall the Patriarch and the Prophets. Now John is seen as the final link in this long chain. The dreams of the Patriarchs and the hopes of the Prophets are about to be fulfilled. And in a note of joyous anticipation, the liturgical colours may even be changed from purple to pink.
The Advent Wreath and our lectionary readings help us to think of the four weeks of Advent as a season of anticipation and waiting.
But what if we were waiting and what we were left waiting for never came? If we were left waiting, forever lonely and empty, sitting by the side of the road like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot? Or like Eleanor Rigby waiting lonely by the window? Or like John the Baptist, waiting in prison.
John asks questions
Last week, we were looking at the Gospel reading for the Sunday of Lent (Matthew 3: 1-12), we were at the point where John the Baptist is baptising in the River Jordan, and Christ is about to arrive and to be baptised.
Last week, when John the Baptist burst on the scene, he was all fire and vengeance, full of confidence and certainty, announcing the coming of Christ with hope and expectation in abundance.
In that reading, he gave us a fairly accurate model for Advent, full of energy, like children decorating the Christmas tree and full of expectant excitement, waiting for Santa Claus.
But today we have moved forward. Now John is tired, discouraged, questioning. That early flush of hope, marked by powerful enthusiasm, almost aggressiveness, has given way to questions and doubts.
At an early stage in his public ministry, John knew who Jesus is. After all, he baptised him in the River Jordan. He was all-eager, all-energetic. Now we come across him once again, cast down, cast into prison by Herod the Great. He has started to express his doubts. Is Jesus really the one he was looking for?
What happened to those wild dreams John had last week?
What happened to the dreams John had of the coming Christ would chop down fruitless trees and throw chaff into the fire?
Consider this: is this how Christ has behaved in the intervening weeks?
Has Christ spent his ministry throwing chaff into the fire?
I imagine it seemed not so to John as he watched the pattern of Christ’s ministry unfold.
Instead, look at what Christ says he has been doing in his Messianic ministry and mission.
John has spent his entire ministry, risking his own life, preparing the way for Christ. But now he has his questions. And so John sends several of his own disciples, to ask those cutting, searching questions in this reading: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Listening to those questions, we might ask whether John really recognised Christ when he came to the Jordan that day and was baptised, whether he had been anticipating ehat the messiah would be truly like.
In the passage we are looking at this morning, John the Baptist has now been arrested and is in prison at Machaerus, a fortress about 8 km east of the Dead Sea. I imagine that in his prison cell, John was discouraged and in doubt. How he manages to I don’t know, but he sends his messengers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one ...?” (verse 3).
You can imagine a crowd gathering and eagerly awaiting Christ’s answer. It is surprising, then, that Christ does not give a simply answer, “Yes.”
Instead, Christ invites John to answer his own question: does Jesus fulfil Isaiah’s prophecies? (verses 4 to 5). Instead, Christ points John, his disciples and his messengers and those who are listening, to the signs of the Kingdom (verse 5). Echoing the words of the Prophet Isaiah, he points out that the blind, the deaf, the lame and the lepers are being healed and that good news is proclaimed to the poor.
These notions of rescue are also found in Isaiah 29: 18-19; 35: 5-6 (part of the Old Testament reading for this day); and 61: 1. Remember how Jesus reads Isaiah 61: 1 in the synagogue at Nazareth and interprets it as being fulfilled in him (see Luke 4: 18-21)?
Anyone can claim to be a herald of the coming kingdom, but only in the presence of the Messiah are the true signs of that Kingdom going to be evident.
Christ is not making idle claims; he is pointing to incontrovertible evidence. Yet there are some who take offence at him (verse 6). The Greek word here means not merely taking offence, but being scandalised. Perhaps, in the loneliness of his prison cell, even John the Baptist is disappointed, scandalised, feeling betrayed, because his expectations of the Messiah do not seem to be fulfilled.
Could John be that fickle, could he be “a reed shaken by the wind?” (verse 7).
Christ did not come to those people who had the details of his arrival all worked out. He comes to the blind, the lame, those with leprosy, the deaf, the poor, the dead.
He comes to the down-trodden.
He comes in humility for the humble.
He comes for those who did not have it all worked out for themselves.
He comes for those who know they need him.
John’s disciples have already repented and turned around once. Now they are going to have to repent and turn around again.
Christ comes to reverse things. What was dead is now raised. What was blind now sees. What was lame now walks. With the coming of Christ, our lives are changed. We know that Christ has come when people are changed.
The crowds knew that John was a sturdy, fearless man, who sacrificed personal comfort to be loyal to God and to speak the prophetic word people needed. On the other hand, in the Servant Song (Isaiah 42: 1-4), we hear:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”
Whatever expectations others may have wanted to project onto him, Christ is neither a warrior nor a king, he is not majestic, he does not “wear soft robes” (verse 8).
As a rebuttal to those who have their doubts, Christ refers to the signs of the Kingdom to be found in the words of Isaiah.
John is “more than a prophet” (verse 9), for he heralds the dawn of the final era of history and announces the coming of the Kingdom.
Now Christ validates John’s ministry as that of a true prophet. Christ’s sending is the commissioning of the ministry of an apostle; the messenger is one who brings good news, the Gospel. In addition, by quoting (verse 10) a prophecy from Malachi, who says: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me ...” (Malachi 3: 1). However, Christ’s quotation agrees precisely with neither the Hebrew text nor the Septuagint translation. II Kings 2: 11 tells us that “Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” Malachi 4: 5 foretells his return: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
Christ even identifies John as Elijah returned (verse 14). At the time, pious and religious Jews understood the time of the prophets had come to an end. But they took Malachi’s words to mean that Elijah would come again.
Elijah comes again, in a poetic way, at the Last Supper, when Christ blesses the Cup of Redemption, the Cup of Elijah (Kos shel Eliyahu ha-Navi), which is associated with the coming of Elijah and the Messianic age.
Christ criticises those people who went out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness with a variety of incorrect expectations. What they actually saw was greater than they could have imagined. Yet even John, great as he is, only points the way to an even greater reality (verse 11), for Christ, unlike John, is in the Kingdom. John announces the imminence of the Kingdom, but he himself still stands within the old order.
Verse 12 verse is difficult. The final struggle has begun. God’s power is at work through Christ to establish his reign. But his Kingdom is suffering violence; violent people are trying to seize or snatch away this blessing and keep people from accepting God’s rule.
The time up to and including John the Baptist was the time of prophetic promise. Now this promise is starting to be fulfilled (verse 13).
When we are disappointed, or our expectations of God’s Kingdom are dashed, perhaps it is because we are not looking for the signs of the Kingdom that are all around us. In this time of crisis, full of opportunity but full of danger for those not alert enough to respond at once, Christ says with stern emphasis: “Let anyone with ears listen!” (verse 15).
Christ came to John the Baptist, but he came in a way that John did not expect. At least John had enough sense to ask the right questions: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” For these are the Advent questions.
John the Baptist baptises Christ in the River Jordan ... a detail from a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Why did John the Baptist not become a follower of Jesus?
As he was his cousin, as he had foretold his coming, as had seen and heard all the signs at Christ’s Baptism, why did John have questions about the person and ministry of Christ?
John the Baptist asks the right questions, Advent questions: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
These are the Advent questions.
Is Christ the one we’ve been waiting for?
Or should we wait for another?
Is this the present I’ve been waiting for?
Is this the ministry I have been called to?
Am I in the right place at the right time?
Do we really want the gift of Christ this Christmas?
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial with Year I and Year II MTh students on 1 December 2010.