Summary: when John the Baptist hears of Jesus' ministry, he begins to doubt that he is the 'real' Messiah
Today we enter the third week of Advent – with it the anticipation of the Birth of Christ. In just a little over one week we will be sitting in this sanctuary celebrating Jesus’ birth. . . the Advent of the Messiah.
But today’s scripture is not foretelling the birth of Christ. We are dealing with another advent – the advent of the New World, the New Jerusalem. As we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, we are in the midst of the preparations for the coming of the Kingdom of God in the end time.
In today’s scripture we find John the Baptist languishing away in prison, put there because he renounced Herod Antipas’ marriage to the wife of his brother. He has been there for over a year and probably getting very cranky – not that he wasn’t before. He hears rumors that the Jesus he had baptized and proclaimed to be the Messiah was traveling the countryside. His hopes high, he was sure that Jesus would ride in on a white horse and rescue him.
But what does he hear?
He hears that Jesus is out there performing miracles, preaching mercy and compassion and love. This is not what he expected of the Messiah!!! Jesus was not proclaiming himself the Messiah King, bringing about the destruction of Rome and overthrowing Herod’s rule. He was not preaching revolution and smiting evildoers! He was proclaiming good news for the poor and destitute, the broken-hearted and downtrodden, the captives and oppressed. He was even saying people who believed in Him would be persecuted.
Even though they were cousins and had known each other since the womb, John was no longer sure that this Jesus was the Messiah.
He sends his disciples to speak with Jesus. After all, John had been prophesying that the Messiah would come with fiery judgment, pitchfork in hand and with an axe. Here was this man, preaching and teaching hope and love and healing, not fomenting revolution. What was going on here?
Imagine you were John and had been extolling the virtues of this Messiah, only to find out that He was not a revolutionary – or at least not in the sense John expected. Jesus was preaching and healing, not riling up the citizens. There was no message of revolt in his stories. He stressed compassion and inclusion of everyone in the Kingdom of God. The Jews had been waiting with expectation for the appearance of the Messiah that would save them from the Roman oppression and restore them to their rightful kingdom. This Jesus was certainly not acting like that Messiah!
John wanted to know if their waiting was over or if there was another Messiah who would be coming.
Had he been wrong about Jesus?
Was he looking like a fool?
I don’t think so.
The scripture goes on to say that Jesus affirms John and his prophecy. Jesus reminded John that he was ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, in goat skins for clothes, eating locust and honey. He reminded him that his calling was as a preparer - he had called many to the wilderness to be baptized. He was more than a prophet; he was a forerunner and reformer, a way-preparer.
Those times for which John was baptizing people and foretelling had come to pass. Just as Elijah foretold of Jesus’ birth, John was foretelling of Jesus’ life on earth. John’s purpose was to prepare the people for the arrival of Jesus among them.
That prophesy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus:
A Jesus that was a man of words and compassionate actions Not one of authority and military might.
Jesus sends John’s disciples back, telling them to tell John what they had seen. Tell him about the:
Healing the sick
Casting out demons
Raising the dead
Preaching to the poor
We can only hope that when the disciples returned and told John what they had seen, he remembered the prophecies of Isaiah about the marvels that would take place in the wilderness. And he remembered his faith in that man he baptized so long ago. But wouldn’t it have been natural for John to have been a little upset that he was sitting in prison for an itinerant preacher who gave mercy to anyone who asked (even Romans) and would lead his followers into a brutal death. Possibly John sent his disciples to Jesus to try and prod him into the action that he expected from the Messiah.
But Jesus, the Messiah, was not what John the Baptist expected. He was not coming to destroy Rome; they could and did do that without his help. He was here to establish the Kingdom of God.
A Kingdom of God where everyone is welcome, all are loved and mercy and compassion flow like waters.
This is the even that we are waiting for as we continue this Advent Season.
The Kingdom of God!!
Delivered at The Church of the Good Shepherd, Athens, OH; 16 December 2008