Matthew 11 2-11
Advent is a time for reflection and planning, looking back and looking forward. It is also a time when we can air our disappointments, our doubts and our fears.
That is exactly what we find John doing – he is asking the question ‘are you the one’. After all, he had done his bit. He had lived in the wilderness, getting prepared for his role as a prophet. He had a terrible wardrobe and diet. He had proclaimed a very unpopular message of repentance, all preparing the way for his cousin. Up to that point John believed that Jesus was the one. Now the doubts are creeping in. It’s three o’clock in the morning and John is in prison where it’s dark and lonely. He is a man of the wilderness, of open places, used to being in the wind and the sun. Now he is locked away in a dark and airless cell: no sun to warm him or river to cool him. He begins to worry and question everything he has believed in.
Perhaps he wasn’t the prophet called to proclaim the coming of God’s Messiah. Perhaps he was mistaken about Jesus, maybe he isn’t the Messiah after all and John has failed in his work for God.
John, plagued by these doubts, searches for answers. He sends some of his followers to Jesus to ask him if he really is the 'one who is to come'. "Did I get it wrong? And now I am in prison because King Herod has taken exception to my fiery teaching and particularly when I denounced him for marrying his brother’s ex- wife. I only did what I was told and now I languish in prison."
Not unreasonably John was disappointed. He heard about what Jesus was up to and didn’t like the sound of it at all. Where was the man of fire sweeping through Israel?
Maybe he was thinking, not long now and Jesus will topple Herod and become King in his place – and get me out of prison and give me a place of honour. That was John's plan, but it is as if Jesus is working from another script.
Jesus is befriending sinners and tax collectors, people the Jews regarded as outsiders and unclean. He was breaking the rules of the Torah. He was healing the sick and associating with lepers of all things, he was getting a reputation, and was getting himself into trouble with the authorities, this was not supposed to happen.
John was working from a different script – he was looking for judgement like Elijah raining down fire and destroying the enemy. Jesus knew he was the one and he has turned the page and is one jump ahead of John. For mercy comes after judgement, and healing comes after sorrow. Jesus knew he was the Messiah who would heal the sick, raise the dead and set the people free. He would bring mercy not judgement. They were as different as chalk and cheese. John was puritanical, rigid, austere, unbending, scary, and preaching repentance.
Jesus was warm, compassionate, gentle and humble but their message was the same as Jesus called for repentance as well, but he took it a step further and offered us grace.
Sometimes we in the church and in our own lives can act like John; pointing the finger, letting our attitudes and prejudices hang out demanding judgement for wrongs done to us or others, when we should be offering mercy and forgiveness and living in the light of God’s grace.
There is a lot in our world to be worried and frightened about. There are plenty of problems to occupy our minds at three o’clock in the morning. Perhaps we also wonder if we’ve got it wrong about God, love, hope and new life. Maybe like John we would also like to ask, “Are you the one? Is there really a God?" Were we right to believe and trust in him? Faith has many questions, most of which can’t be answered at three o’clock in the morning.
Perhaps Jesus would give us the same sort of answer he sent to John. Look around you and see what’s happening. Wherever people are reaching out to each other in peace, God is at work. Wherever the weak and vulnerable are cared for, God is there; when hope is offered to those in despair and goodwill is shown to enemies, God is there and his kingdom is breaking into our world. The kingdom of God is here, we are part of it, and in Jesus we see and hear what life in that kingdom is all about.
Sometimes we find ourselves asking the same question as John. "Are you really the one, Jesus, are you really the Messiah?" for life goes on. We look around and there is still oppression, injustice, personal and national calamities. But then we see the grace and mercy of God. Not in the spectacular that was evident in Jesus time, but in acts of grace, mercy and kindness to one another and in answers to prayer, for God is very much alive and well and living in the hearts of his people.
What are our expectations this Advent? Do we expect to celebrate Christ’s birth with familiar stories, carols and traditions? Or are we open to being touched anew by the poignancy of God coming among us as a vulnerable baby? And how would we expect Jesus to behave if he were living among us now? Would we expect to see him with the homeless in shelters or on the streets? Spending time with lonely, isolated and forgotten people? Visiting prisoners who’ve committed monstrous crimes that we think are beyond forgiveness? Speaking out against self-righteousness and hypocrisy among those who claim to be his followers?
What about our expectations of Christ returning in glory “to judge the living and the dead”, as we repeat fervently in our Creed each Sunday, or is that something we tuck away in the back of our minds because we don’t really think it will happen?
So many questions. Perhaps today, more than ever, we need to listen to John the Baptist calling us to prepare for the coming of one who will be more powerful, more holy and more gloriously loving than we can imagine. For if we are prepared when Christ does come again we won’t need to ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” Our hearts will know that he is indeed that one and we will worship him who is Christ the everlasting Lord.
Let us pray:
Lord God, guide us to seek you and to find you in the little things of life. Lead us through what is familiar and help us to understand the mystery of the Incarnation which passes understanding but is the source of our hope. Keep our feet from following other ways, our mind from seeking other mysteries, our heart from desiring any other assurance but faith in Jesus the Messiah.
The third Sunday of Advent