Our Gospel reading today is from Matthew 11:2-11, another interaction between John the Baptizer and Jesus. I’ve had a difficult time with my sermon this week. It’s been a tough one because in some ways I feel like this week’s Gospel reading is the perfect time to talk about the times when the holidays don’t feel all that festive for some of us. And yet, it’s the Third Sunday, and that means we are lighting the rose candle and talking about Joy as an Advent theme. What to do!?
Let’s start with the Gospel reading.
You may recall we already talked about John and Jesus being cousins, and yet they never really seem to relate as having grown up knowing each other at all. We’ve seen the way that John did his work as the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the people and pointing to Jesus… but in today’s reading we are moved a little down the road now and John’s landed in prison.
We mentioned last week that some of the things John and Jesus had in common were the practice of speaking truth to power and ultimately being put to death by the Roman authorities. John had been publicly shaming Herod Antipas and was now imprisoned in the fortress of Macherus, which know from the Jewish historian Josephus, and where we know we will soon be beheaded by Herod.
It’s during this imprisonment that John who proclaimed “Behold the Lamb of God” pointing to Jesus, who said he’s coming to baptize you with the Spirit and fire, and who said he wasn’t worthy to fasten the sandals on Jesus’ feet, now sends some of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Is it really you? Are you the One?”
Does it sound to you like John is maybe at a low point? He’s maybe a bit shook? It doesn’t sound like the John who so clearly proclaimed Jesus in the streets and so surely pointed to the way to the One… it sounds like John is struggling. Maybe being thrown in prison wasn’t in his game plan. Maybe life has thrown him for a bit of a loop.
Sometimes life does that to us, doesn’t it? Sometimes, even when we’re in a season with twinkling lights and happy carols, it’s tough to feel the joy. Sometimes when others around us are right where they want to be, we can feel a bit out of place. I think that’s exactly where John has found himself, in a moment of doubt when he thought all doubt had been settled, in a moment of uncertainty when he certainly had thought he had all the answers. We can relate to that, can’t we?
So, now let’s talk about Jesus.
Do you think Jesus might have been a bit surprised by the question? He could have been like “Hey man, you said I’m the One, and now you’re asking if I am?” I actually love the answer Jesus gives to the disciples to take back to John. “Tell him what you see and hear. People are being blessed, God is on the move.” He doesn’t chide John for questioning. Instead, Jesus broadens John’s view: “Look, John, you’re in prison, and that’s not easy. It’s also not the whole story.” Look at how God is moving and good news is spreading!
And we know that Jesus doesn’t judge or think any less of John for having questions or doubts. He goes on in Matthew 11 to tell the crowd that John is pretty amazing, that no greater prophetic has arisen or been born; John is an Elijah figure among them. I don’t know how Jesus could have been more complimentary of John. When Jesus hears that John has been murdered, in Matthew 14, he goes off to be alone for a while in a deserted place. We may not have a record of their spending a lot of time together, but Jesus values John and keenly feels the loss when he is killed.
We can find ourselves in all kinds of prisons in life, literal ones and prisons of our own making: prisons of doubt and fatigue, prisons of loss, illness and frustration. Prison walls of all kinds can block the light.
Maybe if the rose candle has a chance of leading us to Joy when life has got us caught in difficult and frustrating times, it’s going to be when we, like John, hear Jesus:
- We hear Jesus deciding not to judge or to be angry with us over our doubts and questions, and
- We hear Jesus pointing us to Good News that is bigger than the immediate circumstances of our lives. Pointing John to the news of what God was doing in the lives of other people didn’t immediately change John’s own circumstances, but it did broaden his view of blessing. Sometimes that’s what we need, a broader view of God’s goodness in the world.
Did you notice that all our other readings today from Isaiah, the Psalm and the short bit from James, all assure us that patience pays off. Waiting for God and keeping our eyes on God will lead to joy, even if through some hard days and struggles. Faith never promises to do away with all the struggles or make our lives an easy journey without tough times, but we are promised that Joy awaits, and not only awaits but is begun now, even in these days.
Let’s let that rose candle remind us to look around and notice what God is doing, and in broadening our view of God’s blessing we’ll find some blessing and joy of our own. Whatever prisons would capture and hold our hearts in this Advent Season, may the joy of God’s blessing in the lives around us and our own chip away at those walls until the Light finds us and helps settle our doubts and fears. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd