Matthew 11: 2 -11
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 offense 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.
Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
This is, I am willing to bet, a slightly less familiar version of John the Baptist for the majority of us, myself certainly included. Yes, we are accustomed to thinking of John as that eccentric out there in the wilderness vividly proclaiming the need for repentance, a man whose diet makes Whole Foods look like Taco Bell by comparison. Yes, the John with whom we are more familiar is the fiery, prophetic John, a figure of towering religious authority who possessed enough strength to shout down the religious bureaucrats of his day for the shallow performance of their religious task. We are, I think, more aware of the John who is in control, a man so completely enthralled by God’s Kingdom that he seems even beyond life’s cruel uncertainties, the sort of man to whom we implicitly give our trust, so convinced is he of his message’s importance, its fundamental truth. This is after all, a prophet with whom we are dealing. One who has been drawn so near to God that his words thunder with the authority of divine things.
But we have before not this man of uncompromised confidence, but a man now mired deeply in his own insecurity. A man who was once the great center of crowds greedily pushing forward to hear his message, that man is now crowded not by other bodies, but by isolation, choking on the thickness of his own loneliness. Oh, but even that physical and psychological aloneness is not the whole story. Instead, John’s unwavering certitude as to what the Messiah was going to do seems to be crumbling. He had prepared the way for this Christ, calling others to repentance as his divinely appointed mission indicated that he must. He had been called as a prophet and given a prophet’s sermon: repent for the judgment of God has drawn near. But as far as the Messiah for whom he had cleared a path was concerned, well, John was starting to have his questions, starting to wonder whether this Jesus was in the fact the long promised Messiah.
While this might not be the most familiar version of John the Baptist, I think it is certainly a more relatable image of him. Personally, I cannot exactly see a lot of my life story in a man living off the land and proclaiming God’s ever-nearing judgment. Though the requirements for seminary were many, this was not one of them. However, a person who has lost enough to begin questioning whether or not God is real and acting in the world, that, I dare say, is a nearly universal human experience. Who is God to us when the sluggishness of the economy makes unemployment a very real threat? When the decidedly rosy picture we have of ourselves as virtuous and caring people is ensnared by the little compromises and temptations that make up modern life? Or when our children get sick and there is nothing we can do to help them? Or perhaps most of all, when our bodies start to succumb to age, and begin to break down as we, day by day, minute by minute, slump towards the grave? Yes, it is easy to praise God when we believe that we are in control, loudly and defiantly alive, and that God is acting in accordance with our wishes and expectations. But where is God when we are thrown in our prisons of doubt and decay, and everything that has made us who we are is being stripped from us? When those things for which we worked so hard to achieve and to gain, be they status or money or degrees or retirement savings, who is God when those things are robbed from us with alarming ease? In these moments, be they realized or anticipated with corrosive fear, we can hear John’s question as real. This question is not a theoretical exercise in a Comparative Religions course, nor is it a verbal wink from a man who already knows the answer and asking it simply for the benefits of others. No, with the urgency of one who needs some good news and needs it desperately, John’s question exposes the fear of a person who has lost control and might just be beginning to lose faith: “Are you, Jesus, the one to come, or should we be expecting someone else?”
The question, though, cannot really hold the answer, which may be why Jesus, in the words of the poet Emily Dickenson, tells the truth, but tells it slant. Yes, Jesus is the one for whom John is waiting, the hopes and fears of all the years are indeed met in his person, but that does not make him any easier to recognize, even for the prophet John. For, it is not that John is wrong about the need for repentance; it is just that he does not yet have the full story. The fulfillment of this story must end with mercy and not judgment, the gathering together rather than the scattering apart. Not the condemnation of sinners, but the forgiveness of them. And John, just like any other human being, cannot see this without the Holy Spirit to create the faith that receives Jesus as the Christ. As Jesus will go on to imply, it is only through birth into the kingdom of heaven, that is the birth of baptism, that humanity can receive Jesus as the Christ, and this includes John. Yes, the Messiah surprises even the one whom God has appointed as his fore-runner, and how astounding is that? Even the one who Jesus calls the most righteous of those born of women, even he needs help, needs reassurance. And it is not some because Jesus is somehow ineffectual as the Messiah, but because his power is put towards a very different use. Oh, it is not because he is weak that we cannot see him, but because his strength is used not to destroy, but to quite literally recreate, redeem the human story that has fallen into bondage. For his is a mercy rigorous enough to cure the blind, to put lepers back on their feet, to restore the hearing of the deaf and return to the poor the dignity that years of hard living has ground out of them. Yes, Jesus’ mercy is potent enough to reach into the grave and call forth the dead. For this is one whose power lies even beyond our control, beyond our expectations.
Just as the Christ and his reign of mercy and healing surprised even this greatest of prophets, so, too, I think we can expect to be shocked by what Christ is doing in our midst and even apart from us, hence his words that the blessed are those who do not find him a stumbling block. Yes, blessed, happy are we in this fact: that God in Christ defies all our expectations, transgresses all our boundaries and comes to us as one powerful enough to condemn, yet merciful enough to save. That the kingdom comes not through human striving and effort, no matter how well intentioned, but through the gracious gift of God who is always present, always active in healing the sick and offering comfort to the sad. Blessed are we when the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to see that the shattering of our expectations of what God is allowed to do and not do (oh, we are a presumptuous people indeed) that when these false and vain restrictions are torn apart, the space is created in which we can see that God is always, already at work, in our lives and in the life of the world, and that we are given the strength to go out and join the work that God has already begun: to care for the vulnerable, to attend to the needs of pained and suffering. Yes, blessed are we to see that the Christ who alone has the authority to fling wide the gate of our suffocating prisons, that that Christ has sat down next to us on our mourning benches, and he will remain with us always until that great day when the prison itself shall be destroyed and we will walk hand in hand with the one whose scars testify to the fact that he knows us. He knows us in our pain and anxiety, our fear and our weakness. Blessed are we, for there is no one else we should be expecting. In Jesus’ name, amen.