“Are You the One Who is to Come?”
December 11, 2022
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.***
“The War on Christmas.” We have heard about this a lot in recent years. In 2015 Starbucks was criticized for removing the word “Christmas” from their holiday coffee cups. But according to the Pew Research Center, judging by numbers alone, Christmas is hardly under threat no matter what public figure raises talk about a war on Christmas. 92% of all Americans, regardless of religious background, celebrate Christmas in some form. Christmas imagery still largely dominates the media and entertainment landscape in the United States.
Yet, for some there is a concern that if we are not vigilant, we will lose the very Christ of Christmas himself. Then there is this reading from Matthew 11 that casts something of a doubt-filled pall and a sense of uncertainty over the season. While not about Christmas, this reading takes us to John the Baptist who was the forerunner of Jesus.
Now a few years after meeting him out in the countryside with his bold and dramatic proclamation of preparing a way for the Messiah, John is in trouble, Through no fault of his own, he is in chains with lots of time to reflect. He begins to wonder if he had made a huge mistake out in the wilderness with the crowds that assembled to hear him preach. Was Jesus for real?
John, up to this point, has never given us a clue that he would ever doubt Jesus. John, whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit. (Luke 1:13 But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.) John, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary. (Luke 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit).
John grew up with prophetic expectations ringing in his ears, feeling the exhilaration and the burden of his calling as “the forerunner.” He took to the wilderness and in time, “prepared the way of the Lord,” baptized the Messiah with his own hands, and proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom to anyone who would listen. All this — before he was even thirty years old.
Can you imagine what the people who encountered his ministry at its apex must have said? “What a promising young man! How powerfully God’s hand is on him! What do you think he will accomplish next?”
Now, sitting in prison John is uncertain if he has staked his life on the wrong promise and the wrong person. When faithless king Herod rejected his wife to marry his brother’s wife, John once again honored his vocation of truth-telling, and condemned the marriage. The next thing he knew, he was rotting in a prison cell, wondering if everything he had dedicated his life to was a sham.
To find out if he had been duped, John dispatches a delegation of his own followers to ask Jesus an explosive question: “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else? You know, someone better?” Someone who is going to right the wrongs in this world?
As far as John can tell, the Messiah has changed nothing. He was supposed to make the world new. He was supposed to bring justice, fairness, and order to human institutions. He was supposed to finish the costly work John started so boldly in the wilderness — to wield the axe, bring the fire, and renew the world.
But nothing has worked out as this disillusioned prisoner thought it would, and all he has left as he paces his cell is an anguished question for the would-be Messiah: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? In other words: “Lord, I have staked my entire life on you. Has it all been for nothing?”
John’s question is the same question with which we often wrestle. How do we recognize the one who is more powerful than us? What does God’s Messiah look like in the midst of our life? How do we recognize the kingdom of heaven coming near to us? What does the kingdom look like in the situations and circumstances of our life?
All through Advent the message to us has been to prepare, be watchful, stay awake, get ready, he is coming, the kingdom is here. So, what are we looking for? That is John’s question. Jesus, am I looking for you or another? At times it is our question, too. Think about the many ways in which that question comes up for us.
“Are you real God and if so, why is this world such a mess? Why is my life so hard and marked with sadness and loss? Or maybe the question comes in the midst of our comforts and easy living: “How do I know God’s will for my life, is there something more than this? “Did I make the right decision and should I be seeing more purpose to my days?” Sometimes we say or hear someone else say, “Well God has a plan and someday we’ll understand.” That comment reveals our inability to recognize the kingdom, the Messiah, in the particular situation in which we find ourselves. Those other examples describe our searching to recognize and identify God with us. They reveal our desire to align our lives with the kingdom.
Beneath all those comments and questions, beneath John’s question, is the longing to know our selves, to be made whole, to live with meaning and significance. It is not about getting the right answer but about living the right relationship with our selves, with each other, and with God. What does that look like in the context of your life? There is not a one size fits all answer. That is why Jesus does not directly answer John’s question.
Jesus does not say to John, “Yes, I’m the guy.” But to the delegation John sent to Jesus, this is the message returned: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receives 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.
John will have to decide for himself is Jesus really is the Messiah. So do we. Jesus rarely provides a direct answer. More often than not he answers a question with another question. What do you hear and see? Look around. Pay attention. Watch and listen.
Jesus is not denying us anything. He will not let himself be categorized, or localized. The kingdom is larger than its historical coming. The one who is more powerful cannot be confined or limited by time and space. The Messiah brings life not an answer to a question. So instead of giving John a yes or no answer, Jesus describes what to look for, how to recognize the kingdom, how to identify the coming of the one who is more powerful.
The kingdom, the one more powerful, the Messiah, comes to us in a way that is unique and particular to our life and needs. For the blind, the kingdom comes as sight, for the lame as walking, for the deaf as hearing, for the dead as rising, and for the poor as good news. These are descriptions, not limitations or definitions. While there is one kingdom and one Messiah, they come to us in multiple and varied ways according to our situations and circumstances.
This means that the kingdom and the one whom John announced come to us in ways that are tangible, practical, and relevant to our lives. If they do not, what difference does it make that they even come? Who cares if the kingdom has come near but it does not affect my life? It does a blind man no good to tell him the kingdom is coming to you and it is all about hearing.
So maybe we should stop looking for “the” messiah, “the” one, as if there is only one way, one answer, one expression of God’s life and presence among us. Instead, let’s start looking for the places in our lives to which Jesus says the kingdom is coming.
Let’s look for the work Jesus describes happening; new life arising, hope and encouragement being given, and healing taking place. Let’s open our eyes to see the fruit of the kingdom and the strength of the one who is more powerful than us.
So, what do you hear and see? Look around. Pay attention. Watch and listen. Have you ever had new insights into your life, discovered beauty in a place or person you thought it couldn’t be, seen new opportunities? Then you know the blind receive sight and the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Have you ever felt yourself crippled by grief and loss, depression, or addiction to the point you just can’t move? Then one day something happens you take a step, and another. It may be slow but you can see change and progress. The lame walk and the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Remember those times when you had no place of belonging because shame or guilt reigned. Then one day you experienced forgiveness and discovered the original beauty of your creation. You accepted that you were acceptable. If you know what that is like then you know lepers are cleansed and the kingdom of heaven has come near.
How about those times in life when it seems a part of you has died? Maybe it is a relationship, a dream, or a loved one. You feel incomplete, numb, broken. Something is missing. One day you sense a new vitality. There is energy and enthusiasm. Life, though changed and different, has returned. In those times the dead are raised and the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Sometimes it seems as if we have nothing left to give. We are empty. There are no reserves. We cannot do it on our own and we face our own poverty. We are poor and in need of good news. Someone speaks a word of hope, encouragement, or love. Those are words of good news that reveal the kingdom of heaven has come near.
These and so many more are the moments of our life when we recognize the coming one, when we see and know that the kingdom of heaven has already come near to us, brushed against us and changed us. These are the moments of our awakening, our anointing, to share in the life and work of the Messiah, to participate in the kingdom of heaven, to take our place as members of the Body of Christ. They are moments of recognition to the One who is to come, and in him we recognize our selves.
So, tell me, what do you hear and see? Look around and look at your life and recognize the one who is to come.