The Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35, Psalms 22:23-31 and 99, 1 Corinthians 4:15, Matthew 11:2-10
William II was the son of William the Conqueror, who invaded England in 1066. He ventured north to drive the Scots out of a territory then known as Cumberland. When he concluded that chore he ordered the construction of Carlisle Castle as a base for securing his newly won possession.
As anyone who has seen “Braveheart” could tell you, the Scots would not go quietly. The region remained in dispute for centuries and the castle changed hands many times. During one stretch of English control, soldiers captured a border chieftain who had been making mischief, and worse, for some time.
The English commander did not execute him. He was not nearly so kind. Instead, he stuffed this son of the wild into a little cell and left him there for years. The little cell had a little window, set too high in the wall for a man standing on the floor to look out.
On the window ledge, it is said, are two depressions worn into the stone by the chieftain’s two hands as, day after day, he hoisted himself up to gaze out of that window at the familiar green dales over which he would never ride again.
John the Baptist could have commiserated with him.
We find John today in his own prison. The king, Herod Antipas, has clipped his wings and thrown him into the hole. The historian Josephus places the Baptist in the fortress of Machaerus, in the mountains near the Dead Sea.
Before we consider his plight, let us locate him here in chapter 11 in the context of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus has encountered little opposition to date. The evangelist has spent the last six chapters recounting the Lord’s works, including His miracles of healing.
But now as we scan the horizon we see storm clouds stacking up. Unhealthy reactions to the Lord’s ministry are cropping up, some born of misunderstanding of his mission, some of outright rejection flaring into hostility.
John sits in his cell, brooding. Herod has confined him for many months, perhaps for a year. Like the border chieftain, he is a rugged man, born to the wilderness. He has lived on locusts and wild honey with the canopy of stars for a roof.
His disciples remain faithful. They bring him reports. He puzzles over what he hears of Jesus. Was it not John who had branded the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and proclaimed:
“And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:10-12).
So said John the Baptist, declaring God’s own judgment on all hypocrites. But where is that judgment now? This Jesus from Nazareth has been serving up blessings of healing with a ladle the size of the Big Dipper, but where is His wrath?
Is He the one of whom Isaiah foretold, the One who would set the captives free? For here hunkers John the Baptist, wrongly imprisoned for speaking truth to power. Where is God’s judgment on Herod?
And there’s more. Jesus does not keep the fast, like a faithful Jew. What He does keep is questionable company – tax collectors and harlots. John gazes into a metaphorical mirror and asks himself, “Am I a false prophet?”
Did not the angel Gabriel appear to his father Zacharias in the Jerusalem temple, declaring that his barren wife Elizabeth would bear a son in their old age – “and you shall call his name John”? Would his mission not be to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”?
John’s very reason for being is called into question. He has waited, patiently and faithfully. He has baptized this Jesus, believing Him to be the promised Messiah. But now?
He dispatches two of his disciples with a question for the Nazarene: “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
Scholars divide sharply over its meaning. I once considered, briefly, becoming a scholar . . . but no. It’s not that I’m not smart enough. I’m not confused enough.
In truth, I owe a great deal to scholars, but here is an example of their muddying of the waters. Some insist John posed the question in order that his disciples might gain the benefit of Jesus’ answer. On this reading, John himself never suffered any doubt or perplexity.
I once accepted this interpretation but I have swung over to another view – he said, sounding scholarly. It seems John was truly struggling: Can this Jesus be the promised Messiah? He sends his boys to pose the question.
Jesus’ answer seems enigmatic:
“The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
Yes, well, miracles are fine and good, but the ancient world knows sorcerers who seem to pull off miraculous feats. This is no proof, unless . . .
With this Jesus, it seems, there’s always an “unless.” When others are thinking in material terms, He is thinking spiritually. So maybe busting John out of jail isn’t part of Jesus’ program at all. Maybe Herod isn’t his true captor. Maybe there’s an “unless” now, too.
Unless those prisoners He has come to liberate are shackled not by man . . . but by sin. Jails and jailers, shackles and chains, can confine the body but they can never stitch up the soul. Might it be that sin is the tyrant Jesus has come to confront?
Disease and infirmity issue from sin. They were not part of God’s design. And at His first advent, Jesus has come not to judge but to heal.
Recall all those rules and regulations in the Levitical code, all the oozings and scrubbings, all the banishments from the camp where God dwelt in the tabernacle until ceremonial cleanliness had been restored. God was showing His covenant people that He would tolerate neither sin nor the symptoms of sin in His presence.
God, you might have heard, is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.
Now comes the Great Physician, bringing the balm of grace. He will rub it gently into the lesions of those suffering under the curse of sin. Will you admit your fallen nature, your sinful state? Then you will invite the divine Healer to come in.
Or will you deny the disease that infects you? Then you will bolt your door and close Him out, despising the gift He brings.
By His miracles of healing, Jesus is destroying the forces of the evil order of this world. To sin is human, to heal divine. He has preached the gospel of grace to the poor, those shunned by the rich and powerful. And His apostles have amplified His message.
More than that, He has shunned power itself, the hammer so many in Israel want their Messiah to wield. No . . . “by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
He is flipping the world’s standard of greatness on its head. Are you listening? It is not the warrior but the Healer who will overcome. His great triumph will occur not on a battlefield . . . but on a cross.
If John the Baptist – the one anointed to prepare the way of the Lord – deems mercy too timid a mission for the Messiah, even he has failed to mine the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.
But may he question his Lord? He must question Him. How else will he find clarity? The early church, feeling her way along the Way, prized highly the questions of the faithful. And so must you, too, pose your questions to your Lord.
But do your inquiries proceed from a humble heart that longs to know and to grow? Or from a haughty spirit that aches to denounce and discredit? There lies the rock before you; will you build upon it or stumble over it?
“And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” Interesting word. Variously translated, as here, “offended,” “fall away” and “made to stumble.” The Greek is skandalidzo and, yes, we get “scandal” from it.
Are you scandalized by the offer of a medicine that will heal your sin-sick soul? Do you feel you have no need for it? I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and I reckon I can look after myself now, thank you very much.
Or are you sagging under the weight of your sins and prepared to confess your brokenness beyond repair – unless you find a Healer, a Savior?
For the sake of clarity, let’s draw a distinction. We’re using “questions” to mean honest wonderings about how God works and why He allows evil in His creation as opposed to “doubts,” which challenge whether He exists or has the power to save.
By all means, bring your questions – open questions, sincere questions – for what is the Christian religion? Is it unthinking assent to a list of propositions. Or is it life with God?
For if it is life with God, it will engender questions. The answers, which will come in God’s time, will either fortify belief in the short term or challenge it over the long haul. This is the way of growth in Christ. If you prefer a fancier term, call it sanctification.
Are you scandalized by God’s insistence that you are a sinner in desperate need of Him? For if you have no need of healing you have no need of the Great Physician. If you are sufficient unto yourself you must rely on yourself for a cure . . . and may God have mercy upon your soul.
If you are fallen, broken, shattered . . . if you are crippled by sin, if you are a spiritual leper, then you may hope. And if you invest your hope in the One – the only One – who has the power to salve the ravages of sin, you have salvation.
Are you scandalized by the suggestion that you might have gotten the Christ wrong? You have begun well, and in good company. You’re walking the path John the Baptist once trod.
Now, you will avoid stumbling if you rethink your expectations of the Messiah in the context of the person of Jesus.
The living Word – the perfect representation of God – has appeared. Where your image of Messiah does not match the fact of Jesus, conform it . . . and you will not fall away.
Jesus will not rebuke the Baptist for his questions. In fact, He bears witness to the one who has borne witness to Him, for questions about Jesus imply questions about John.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?”
The cane grass along the Jordan’s banks sways to and fro in the breeze. Is that what you expected? When the word of this prophet baptizing many in the river reached you in your home or in the Jerusalem marketplace, did you set off into the wilderness in search of a frail, irresolute, vacillating man?
Of course not. John boomed his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” His truth was as rough as a rasp. This prophet of God did not shrink before Herod but called out the king for seducing his brother’s wife and then divorcing his own to marry her.
For this reason he wastes away in a cell today.
“But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.”
John had dressed in a hair shirt – camel’s hair – not the luxurious, even effeminate, garb of those who dwell in Herod’s palace. His clothes were as rough as his gospel. Did you anticipate a dandy living the lonely prophet’s life in the wilderness? Of course not.
Over the centuries, the ways of the courtier changed little. Marjorie and I watched a BBC series on the life of Queen Elizabeth I. The men of her court wear ruffled collars and tights. They fawn over her, speaking so obsequiously that . . .
Well, let me just say it: Sometimes I think they’ll make me give up my supper.
The Lord’s questions should be moving His hearers toward a correct understanding of John.
“But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: `Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.’”
That was God speaking through the prophet Malachi. There He said: “And he will prepare the way before Me.”
Make no mistake, Jesus is claiming to be God. All who doubt who this Nazarene is can no longer doubt who He claims to be. He has said it clearly and almost casually: Heavens to Betsy, gonna be a hot one today. And, by the way, I’m God.
And, yes, John is that messenger sent to prepare His way. He is a prophet . . . and more than a prophet?
The Old Testament prophets preached repentance. As did John, but unlike them he was the herald of God who now has come in the form of a man.
The Old Testament prophets proclaimed a coming Messiah. As did John, but unlike them he saw Him face-to-face. More than that, he baptized Him in the River Jordan. Yes, more than a prophet.
Yet even he had his failings, his questions. Jesus is patient with him, as He will be with Peter, who is chief among the apostles but still riddled with anxieties and confusions and fears . . . and questions. Jesus is patient with them . . . as He is with us.
Beloved, we are not prophets, you and I – not in the same sense. But like John the Baptist, we will have our Lord’s commendation. He will speak well of us. He speaks well of us today, pleading our case with His Father.
In the last day, we will find that He speaks better of us than we do of ourselves, that every word we have uttered in His favor has earned a reward. Does Matthew not later report that when Jesus comes again He will separate sheep from goats, placing the sheep at His right:
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, `Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 25:34).
He has not left us captives to sin. He has brought healing to this corrupted creation. And when He returns He will not leave us prisoners in a fallen world. No, He will escort us into the very throne room of God the Father Almighty. This is the One we await in this Advent season. Amen and amen.