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One Who Is to Come"
In 1973, one of the questions which arose in the congressional hearings regarding the Watergate fiasco was, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
It is the kind of question which has arisen, from time to time and in various forms, in other inquiries into political intrigue. But I don’t think we have to limit the use of that question to the secular world. I think it might also be useful to apply it to scripture. Specifically, I think we might apply that question to John the Baptist’s relationship with Jesus. We know that they were blood relatives, but what else can we say about them?
In the thirteenth through the fifteenth verses of the third chapter of Matthew, we learn, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.”
So what did John know at this time? It sounds like he KNOWS that this is the messiah! And it sounds like they both KNOW what is necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy.
And yet, according to the second and third verses of the eleventh chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, “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?”
What did John know, and WHEN did he know it? Did he KNOW at the moment of the baptism, or did he somehow doubt? Or was he merely seeking assurance that Jesus was the one?
In a purely logical sense, the contradictions between what John says in the third and the eleventh chapters of Matthew can be baffling. But pure logic has little to do with our beliefs.
How often have we found ourselves in situations where we were absolutely certain of something, and then, a short time later, doubted? How often have we made plans that seemed absolutely perfect; and then, a short time later, thought about changing them?
Or how often have we received, in some form or another, signs which would indicate what direction we should go with our lives, but continue to wish for more signs, for stronger signs?
I can still remember that Sunday when I felt profoundly moved to become a full-time member of the clergy. But I also found myself asking, “Is THIS the sign, or should I look for another?”
Now, maybe your lives are neater than mine, but I frequently have the feeling that as soon as I get my mind made up on some complicated issue, I change it. Or I think, “I don’t yet know enough to make a good decision on this.”
Now, that might sound sloppy and indecisive. But I don’t believe that a great God sends us simple answers. On the contrary, I believe that my God requires us to work to find our answers.
And I wonder to myself, what would it have been like to have been with John in that prison cell, discussing with him his ministry and preaching, talking with him about what he believed, struggling with him in answering that question, “Are you the One who is to come?” Because in Jesus, God did not send an easy answer to who the Messiah would be.
We may be able to grab our Bibles, pull out all the appropriate passages, paste them back together, and say, “No problem! Jesus was the Messiah!” But John didn’t HAVE the gospel stories to take apart and put back together.
He was struggling THROUGH the experience.
So...what did John know, and when did he know it? And how did Jesus help him? “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Quite obviously, if you want easy answers, you’re not going to get them from Jesus. But then, what would have been gained if he had given a simple “Yes” to John’s question? Or better, what would have been lost? Because the question itself is not a simple one! When WE speak of “the one who is to come” what are we talking about? What is OUR vision of the Christ?
For each of us there will be different pictures in our minds of who Christ is and what Christ means; but a simple “Yes” to each of us assumes that our visions are all identical.
And Jesus, knowing that John the Baptist has a complex vision of who and what the Christ is, provides the equally complex response: “tell him what you hear and see.” And I think he’s telling us that we’re going to have to make up our own minds; we’re going to have to put things together for ourselves. And sometimes that can be a real struggle.
But Jesus gives us some concrete ideas to work with. “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 notice, that in none of this does Jesus say, “I do this” or “I do that.” He speaks only of the results, of the effects of his ministry. He’s saying, “Here is what’s happening. You draw your own conclusions.”
And I hear a powerful, humbling message in this. I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t look at me; look AROUND you.” I hear him saying that the Messiah has come, and Word of God has come, when we see its results in the healing of humanity.
We can have endless evangelism and revivals; we can ordain millions of clergy; but those events and those persons don’t mean anything unless we can see the manifestation of God’s healing in humanity. And most of us clergy should be less pleased with who we are and more displeased with all that we have not DONE.
When Jesus told John’s disciples what to tell John that they had heard and seen, he also told us the work that we should be about.
And then Jesus closes his message for John’s disciples: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Now, that’s a tough verse to take apart. How could Jesus be OFFENSIVE?
But the Phillips translation may give us a better perspective here: “And happy is the man who never loses his faith in me.” And hear the thirty-first and thirty-third verses of the twenty-sixth chapter of the the gospel accroding to Matthew, according to the King James Version: “Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. “Peter answered and said unto him, “Though all men shall be offended of thee, yet will I never be offended.” And if I read this correctly, Jesus IS speaking of loss of faith. “Blessed is anyone who does not lose faith in me.”
But in this verse do we hear a loss of humility in contrast to the previous verse? I don’t think so. Rather, I think he’s telling us that all that is accomplished comes only THROUGH faith.
That the blessings of sight, or walking, of wellness, or hearing, of life itself all are dependent upon faith.
But lest John’s question of Jesus be mistaken for weakness in the Baptist, “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?”
And he’s asking them, “What did you expect to find there, anyway?” Did they expect to find weakness? And Jesus picks the most fragile thing in nature: a reed. That which is most susceptible to the slightest change in nature. And the question is ironic.
Because what the people went out to seek was the strength of John, and Jesus tone would suggest that they did not expect to find weakness, and that they DID find strength, and that they should not doubt that they found it.
But this not only an affirmation of John; it is also a description of what a prophet must necessarily be; and it is a prescription for what the followers of Christ must be. Because as followers of Christ, we are continually IN the wilderness, and we are looking at not only others but OURSELVES in that wilderness.
And in that wilderness, we must hold to unshakeable faith; for without it we are no more than the reed blowing in the wind.
And Jesus continues to ask questions of the gathered crowd: “What then DID you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.”
And indeed, if that was what they had hoped to see, they were sorely disappointed. For John was instead clothed in camel’s hair and leather. And Jesus is telling his listeners, you won’t FIND softness in the wilderness. Not only won’t they find it, but it is also not appropriate to the wilderness. And in the wilderness of our spiritual lives, softness is the LAST thing we need. You see, John leads not only the SIMPLE life, but also the MODEL life for us.
And although in this modern world we may not be physically dressed in rustic fashion, we need to be spiritually dressed in the toughest wardrobe we can find.
And again, without being direct, Jesus is implying the stability, the strength, the sturdiness of John. But he does not stop here. He asks yet a third time, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”
And in a sense, he is telling them what they already know. They didn’t go to the wilderness to hear someone who was weak-kneed; they didn’t go to the wilderness to hear someone who was soft; they went to hear a prophet! And Jesus is telling them that that is what they got.
But I think Jesus might also have a message in this for all of us Christians today. He might be asking, why do you choose to call yourselves Christians? Why did you choose to belong to a church? So life will be easy and soft for you? So you can feel good?
How would our church life be different if we looked upon it as an adventure into the wilderness? The secular world, like the royal palaces of which Jesus spoke, is filled with soft raiment; we don’t need to go to church for that! And if the reason we attend church is to feel good, we would be disappointed with the preaching of John the Baptist; because he wouldn’t do that for us. Buit do we SEEK prophecy in the wilderness? And I don’t mean just from the pastor in the pulpit! Do we seek new, and possibly uncomfortable, insight in our prayers, in our hymns, in hearing the reading of the scripture? Is our worship for us a wilderness experience that can bring us closer to God?
But Jesus tells us that John was 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.” And you’ve heard that before. It’s from the first verse of the third chapter of Malachi. But hear it again in all its fullness: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” John was more than a prophet; John was the one chosen to prepare the way.
“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.”
And the one who lures us into the wilderness to hear his word, asks of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?” It is a painful question, but in the wilderness of our souls, one that we must be asking. Yet, I do not see it as a question of doubt, but one of faith.
It is not a question asked at arm’s length, seeking some neat objective answer, but rather a question which involves us with Christ, in Christ. And in this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ child, we ask, “Are you the one?” not in ignorance, but in faith, seeking to more fully understand who that one is in our lives.
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