What happened to John the Baptist?
Let’s go back to last week’s Gospel. In the third chapter of Matthew, John was prophesying that the Messiah was coming, saying, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me….He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Just after the end of the Gospel reading for last week, John and Jesus met for the first time, at Jesus’ baptism. John said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He baptized Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove to rest on him. John saw clearly that Jesus was Messiah, the one foretold by the prophets, the one for whom he had been waiting and preparing the way.
Now, this week, we are in the eleventh chapter of Matthew. We find John the Baptist in prison and sending word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
So what happened to John the Baptist? Where did this doubt come from,
this questioning, from no less a person than the baptizer of Jesus?
Matthew tells us that John was in prison and awaiting trial. He had been arrested for his preaching and prophesying of the coming of the Messiah, who would clean out all of the dead wood, burn the chaff, and restore righteousness and justice and bring about the reign of God.
And now here John sat in prison, like so much dead wood. Like so much chaff. Awaiting his fate, and powerless to stop whatever was coming.
I don’t think this is the reign of the Messiah that he was expecting. I think he was expecting that Jesus would come charging in, throw off the yoke of the oppressors, and bring about a new political reality. After all, this was the expectation of the Messiah: that a king would come from David’s line, ushering in a new era of peace, righteousness, and justice that would last forever. And John may have been thinking specifically about his own situation, too. He may have been thinking that the Messiah would get him and his followers out of prison, overthrowing Herod Antipas and bringing about the new kingdom foretold by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even by himself.
Instead, the stories that came to him were likely stories of Jesus preaching throughout Galilee to the crowds that followed him. He may have heard of Jesus teaching the people a new way to pray, and of Jesus healing people and performing miracles. He may even have heard of Jesus forgiving sins and proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God. But he would have heard very little about Jesus overthrowing the government.
In the face of unmet expectations, it’s maybe not so hard to understand why John the Baptist was questioning whether Jesus was the long-expected one.
One of my favorite Advent hymns is “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.”
Do we really believe that? Or do we ask, with John, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Take a moment and reflect on your life. Think about the ways you love to spend your time,
the things that bring you life. Are these the things you spend your energy doing, or do you spend most of your time and energy doing things you would rather not be doing? How’s your stress level? What governs your decision-making about how to spend your time: fear, or joy?
Fear of missing deadlines, of losing connections, of missing opportunities now or in the future,
of not being seen as compassionate or responsible or whatever adjective you use to describe yourself in your head?
We frequently find that we are in a prison of our own making. We are so busy navigating our way through our lives, acting in a way that we think we ought to act in order to fulfill our own understanding of who we are, that we miss what is going on around us. We find that we are so busy putting one foot in front of the other that we don’t pay attention to the walls closing in around us: the walls of fear, of expectation, of obligation and responsibility.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if someone else were to come along and fix everything for us. Is Jesus the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Jesus’ answer isn’t quite what John expects. He says, “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.” In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “I can’t answer for you. You have to come up with an answer on your own. All I can tell you is what you already know.”
But Jesus points the way for John. John is given an opportunity to reflect on the walls that have closed in around him. Matthew tells us he has been imprisoned and awaiting his fate
since the start of Jesus’ ministry; any word he has of Jesus’ acts would have come to him second-hand. He appears to be doubting and in need of reassurance, as we all are from time to time.
And I think Jesus provided just that – not by placating him or telling him what he wanted to hear, but by re-engaging him, by prompting him to think again about what it might mean that the Messiah had come. Jesus provides a catalogue of miracles that he has performed, each one seemingly more miraculous than the last: those who could not see to navigate the world around them are able to do so. Those whose only hope of making a living was to sit by the city walls and beg are now able to work. Those who were so sick they were banished from society
for fear of contaminating others are now declared clean and welcomed back into their families.
Those who could not hear their employers or their loved ones or the prayers of the priests are now able to fully participate in the life of the community. Those who were dead have found new life and with it, hope for the coming resurrection. Those who were in a prison of poverty, so that all they could do was put one foot in front of the other and try to make it through one day after the next, now find that they, too, have hope for a better future.
And if what John is looking for is the coming of righteousness and justice and the eternal reign of God, maybe the person of Jesus is even better than a political figure who would turn the world on its ear. Maybe John finds renewed hope in a God that won’t spring him out of prison,
but will do something even greater. Maybe John discovers that this good news is for him – good news not just for a season or a political cycle or for those oppressed by the Roman empire, but for all people of every time and place.
“Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art, dear desire of ev’ry nation, joy of ev’ry longing heart.”
Jesus’ message to John is also pointing the way for us today. Jesus’ invitation to John to reconsider his imprisonment is an invitation to us, too, to reconsider what our prison walls are made of. Jesus’ litany of the miracles he performed is an invitation to us to consider where we see Christ at work in our world today.
I invite you to think about all of the families that were served at the ministries that we support this year. Think about the St. James food pantry, and the MLM pantry and the other regular services they provide, and the Christmas store, which served over 850 families. Think about the Gathering Table. It’s easy to see our part in all of this – the items we collect and make, the volunteers who serve, the people who do the drop offs and the organizing, the administrative work that goes into it all. But I’d like to invite you to take a step back. Think about Harvesters.
Think about the grocery stores that donate goods to all of the food pantries around the city. Think about the schools that hold canned food drives. Think about the farmers who grow the food, and the plants that process it. Then think about where you see Jesus at work in the world today.Think about how you see Jesus at work in the world today. Think about what would happen if you stopped giving your time, your talents, your treasure. Would Jesus still bring the good news to the poor?Is Jesus bringing the good news to you?
Let me ask you again: what governs your decision-making: fear or joy? Are you driven by a sense of “if I don’t do it, no one will,” or are you driven by gratitude and joy?The joy of catching glimpses of the bigger picture, of our place in the grand scheme of things? The joy of knowing that we are able to contribute, even if only in a small way? The joy that comes from knowing that even if no one will fix all our problems, we are the recipients of hope, a hope that has been the joy of every longing heart for thousands of years? The joy of seeing Jesus at work in the world around us?
We are tempted sometimes to ask John the Baptist’s question of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As he did with John, Jesus points the way to the answer for us. Jesus has come. Jesus is among us. Jesus will come again.