2 Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
4 Jesus responded, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5 Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.”
7 When John’s disciples had gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces. 9 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you.
11 “I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (CEB)
I remember that one of my teachers at Evansville North High School had a corner of the chalkboard lined off to keep it from being accidentally erased (yes, they still had chalkboards when I was in high school). Inside the border were the words, “There are no stupid questions.” I honestly don’t remember which teacher it was (it’s been 21 years) but I do remember the quote. The point was to encourage us to ask questions, no matter how dim-witted we thought the question might sound.
We learn by asking questions and seeking answers. We find assurance in receiving answers from trusted or knowledgeable individuals. It’s important to ask questions, and when things are not turning out the way we expect, we turn to questions because we want to know why. We want to figure it out. We want to see if there’s some way to get this train wreck moving on the right track again. So, we ask questions.
Especially when it comes to matters of our faith, when we find ourselves in difficult times, we tend to ask questions. The only problem is that, when we have questions about our faith, we don’t want to voice them because they can sound faithless or make us look weak. No one wants to look like they have weak faith. We want to appear strong and confident. Sometimes, we’re willing to keep up that crumbling façade no matter how much our souls and minds and spirits hurt because we’re afraid others might know we aren’t all we’re cracked up to be. We’re afraid of asking what might appear to be stupid questions.
One of the ironies of the Third Sunday of Advent—a Sunday known as Gaudete Sunday, which means Rejoice—is that we’re presented with a text describing a man who likely is not rejoicing; a man who has questions because things are not going the way they ought to go. The Gospel text for Rejoice Sunday tells us about John the Baptist who is now in prison. That’s enough to make anyone doubt. It’s easy to believe in God and God’s plans in the brightness of day when everything is going well and we can whistle Zippity-Doo-Dah. It’s quite another thing when the cold darkness of a cell settles over us after the door slams shut. It’s in those moments when we can start to lose faith.
This is John the Baptist we’re talking about. He was the forerunner to the Messiah, the one sent to prepare the way. He’s the one who wanted to prevent Jesus from seeking baptism from him because he believed he needed to be baptized by Jesus. He knew, full well, who Jesus was. At least, he knew when he was free.
But, when the doors of a prison close him inside, he begins to wonder. He hears things about Jesus, but maybe the things he hears aren’t what he expected. We’re told in verses 2 and 3, “Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3, CEB). Matthew even takes care to use the word Christ here when he describes Jesus. In Hebrew, the word in Messiah. The use of the word reinforces that John knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the one whose way he was sent to prepare, the one who was to come after him, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the one whose sandals he felt unworthy to carry.
This is the one of whom Jesus said, “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces. What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you. I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:7-11 CEB).
Yet, John questions. As if to prove the point that there are no stupid questions, John the Baptist—whom everyone knew was the person who knew who Jesus was—raised his hand. He thought he was sure, but he needed to ask just to make doubly sure. After all, it didn’t look like God’s kingdom was doing much. It didn’t look near. Herod was still a power-hungry jerk who oppressed his own people. He threw John into prison; God’s own messenger was stuck in a cell because of this unrighteous king whose power had not yet been broken. You can almost hear John wondering from his cell, why has Herod’s power not yet been broken? If the kingdom of heaven were coming near, why didn’t things look different? Shouldn’t something look different? It seems the prison cell might have caused even John the Baptist to doubt, to question, to wonder if this Jesus really was the harbinger of God’s coming kingdom after all.
Our prison cells can do that, too. Our prisons need not be literal. Sometimes, we feel imprisoned by economics, by our jobs, by abusive situations, by the demands of our loved-ones. Sometimes it’s the dark pieces of ourselves—those shameful parts of us that we want to keep hidden and buried deep down where no one can see them—that hold us hostage and slowly sap the joy out of our lives. Maybe that’s why we need Gaudete—Rejoice—Sunday. It forcibly reminds us that, despite all that is wrong and twisted around us, there is room for joy.
The reasons for rejoicing which Jesus offers to John are simple. People are being healed from every kind of malady—even the insurmountable sickness of death, good news is being brought to the poor. The poor are always the ones who suffer most severely from injustice and oppression, whether it’s from individuals, corporations, or governments. The treatment of any society’s poor is the litmus test for whether justice or injustice reigns, just as it was the litmus test for whether or not the covenantal relationship of the Jewish Law was being kept or abandoned. Jesus tells John that he has come to bring good news to those who are abused and used and cast aside by the greedy and powerful. The good news is that God’s rule and reign are coming. Every injustice shall be set right. We catch a glimpse of this in Mary’s Song from Luke’s Gospel: the lowly shall be lifted up, the mighty cast down; the hungry shall be filled, the rich and satisfied shall be sent away as empty-handed beggars.
The kingdom of heaven will turn the world on its head, but it’s not until later on in Matthew, when Jesus teaches in parables, that we learn how the kingdom of heaven works. Parables like, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough” (Matthew 13:33b, CEB). We might not see it working, but the kingdom of heaven is subtly working its way through every corner of creation, transforming everything it touches.
The last words Jesus offers to John are seemingly cryptic: “Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me” (Matthew 2:6, CEB). This last bit might, perhaps, have something to do with John’s unfulfilled expectations. Jesus is telling him, Yes, I am the one you were looking for, and I’m doing my thing which is God’s thing. It might not be what you expected, but this is God’s design. This is how the kingdom operates. This is what the kingdom looks like: subtle, patient, quiet, peaceful.
I’ll admit I find it a little comforting that someone with faith as strong as John the Baptist could be capable of doubts as strong as mine. I also find it comforting that he asked the question first. It gives us permission to ask the same kinds of questions.
Still, the answer Jesus gives isn’t a resounding YES, I’m the Messiah. He only offers a recap of what he’s been doing, which is probably the same stuff John had heard about while in prison. To me, it almost sounds like Jesus is asking John a question in return. This is what’s happening. This is the work I’m doing. What do you think? Who do you say that I am? It’s the question I want to leave you to think about during the third week of Advent. Who is Jesus to you? What are your reasons for believing? What evidence of the kingdom of heaven do you see which compels you to believe?
There are reasons to rejoice. Not the least of which is that fact that God has broken into our world and brought the kingdom of heaven near. There’s a stanza from an ancient Easter Proclamation called the Exultet which says, “Night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth, and we are reconciled to you!” (U.M. Book of Worship, 372). That’s why we rejoice. No matter the twisted mess around us, no matter our doubts, fears, and the questions they bring, heaven has been wedded to earth and, in Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!