2 Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
4 Jesus responded, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5 Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.[a] 6 Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.”
7 When John’s disciples had gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces. 9 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you.[b]11 “I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Common English Bible).
In this season of Advent we’ve been invited to take on a spirit of anticipation. Week by week we are reminded that God’s realm is near at hand. In the reading for the second Sunday of Advent we find John the Baptist preaching throughout Judea, calling on all who would listen to “repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” That was John’s message, and it is our message. He came with a mission to prepare the way for the coming of the kingdom. This is the good news – the human realms that stand against the ways of God will soon fall. But in this week’s reading, John finds himself in Herod’s prison. He’d done his part. He’d challenged the authorities. He pointed toward another, who would baptize with Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew3:1-12). But it appears that the kingdom hasn’t come as quickly as John had anticipated, and doubt had begun to creep in. In Matthew 3, a passage we’ll encounter once we reach Epiphany, John will baptize Jesus and God will commission Jesus, but now locked behind bars, John is beginning to wonder if he’d just imagined all of this. Knowing that his life was about to end – could he have been wrong about Jesus? Had his ministry been a failure?
Jesus receives the question and answers it by pointing to the work of God in the land – the blind see, the crippled walk, skin diseases are cleansed, the deaf hear, while the dead are raised and the poor receive the Good News. Jesus is fulfilling promises found in Isaiah 35:5-6 and 61:1. While Matthew doesn’t mention it (Luke does in chapter 4), Jesus is claiming the mantle of the Spirit. Interestingly, Jesus also doesn’t mention the imprisoned here as is found in Luke 4 and Isaiah 61. John isn’t getting liberated. His fate is sealed, but there are signs everywhere that the realm of God is present. Jesus wants to assure John that he is the one. Despite appearances, he shouldn’t give up hope. I’m not sure that this word would have resolved all of John’s concerns. If we were in his position, we might be wondering about our own situation.
It is at this point that Jesus moves to commend John to the people. He uses three images to describe John. Or better, he asks the crowd who they expected to see when they went out into the Wilderness to see John. Did they go expecting to find a “stalk blowing in the wind”? Or did they go out expecting to find one who was dressed in finery of the rich, clothing meant for the palace? No – they went to hear the man who was dressed in animal skins and ate locusts. Or, did they go expecting to find a prophet of God? It is the latter they expected to find. Prophets were not known for their demeanor. Prophets, from Elijah to Jeremiah, were all outsiders. This should give those of us who preach pause. Are we ready and able to take up the prophet’s mantle? When faced with social and cultural pressures to conform, will we abide by the wishes of our “clients” or share the word of God? It is important that we who preach in America don’t face any real danger because of our preaching. If we venture too far into politics we could lose our congregation, our tax exempt status, or possibly our job. But none of us face the kind of dangers faced by German preachers during the days of the Nazi tyranny. None of us face imprisonment or death. Pastor Julian Jan, preaching the Sunday after Kristallnacht in 1938 asked where the prophet was in Germany in the aftermath of this horrific event. He declares that God had sent prophets to remind the people of their duty to do justice and not shed innocent blood. But “they are today either in concentration camps or muzzled.” On the other hand, those who come to the houses of princes “are preachers of lies.” Those who spoke out against this action were “ridiculed as traitors to our nation (Volk) and have lost their income – and painfully our bishops have not recognized their duty to side with those who have spoken the word of God” (Dean Stroud, ed., Preaching in Hitler's Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, p. 111).
But John is more than a prophet – he is the one whom Malachi spoke of – the messenger who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah (Mal. 3:1). He is, that is, Elijah reborn. And yet, in spite of his greatness and holiness, when it comes to the kingdom he is the least of those in the kingdom. It would seem that as the realm of God comes in its fullness, John will recede more and more into the background.
Jesus and John are clearly joined together in the Gospels. One begins the process and the other finishes it. Matthew says nothing about John’s birth or his relationship to Jesus – Luke seems hard pressed to make Jesus and John cousins, since they come from different tribes and lineages. Whatever questions Luke raises by his stories, Matthew isn’t interested. What he wants us to know is that the Kingdom of God is coming. It is close at hand. John did prepare the way, but it’s time for him to recede and let Jesus come to the fore. It may be difficult to be the forerunner, the way maker, but such is his calling. And Jesus has his calling – though like John, Jesus will also face human judgment – but that is still in the future and Jesus will continue to bring into our midst the realm of God, inviting us to participate with him in this work.