David A. Davis
December 11, 2022
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When John the Baptist heard in prison what Jesus was doing, when he heard what the Messiah had been up to do, when word came to John in prison about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, John sends his own followers back out to find Jesus. He sends them with a question. John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Are you the one we are waiting for or should we still keep looking? Are you it, or are we still waiting? Are you the one?”
Jesus says to them, “Go and tell John, you go back and tell him, you tell John what you hear and see…the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poorest of the earth received good news. You tell John what you hear and see.” John’s followers, they turn to head away, to start back, to go back to see John in prison. Jesus calls out to them, “and tell him this too, blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me; blessed are those who don’t’ stumble because of this, because of me..blessed are any who find no scandal when it comes to life in the kingdom of God.”
“Are you the one” John asks. This is John the Baptist. The one who said of Jesus, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The Baptist is the one who in the Gospel of John announced, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And now, now John sends word from prison, “Are you the one?” It’s a head scratcher for the reader, the listener, paying a bit of attention to the gospel. Which is it, John? You are the One! Or, are you the One?
Perhaps John now in the confines of prison is expressing a bit of hesitation or doubt. “This is how its going to be?” Are you sure, you’re the one?” John, the one who had proclaimed a Messiah’s ministry of fire and judgment; winnowing fork and threshing floor and chaff burning with unquenchable fire. He is in prison now. John has received word of Jesus preaching “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and turning the other cheek, and beware of practicing your piety before others, and he has heard of a leper cleansed and Peter’s mother-in-law healed, and a paralyzed man walking. John, who had a passion for fire and brimstone, now maybe sitting in prison with second thoughts. “Are you the one?”
Perhaps John’s question doesn’t come from an influx of doubt at all. Rather, John is on a persistent search for the Messiah, and even there from within the prison walls, his faith journey, his quest, his longing to know of the Messiah is a fresh as it was that day in the wilderness when the shout went out; “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s question isn’t one of doubt it is part of his spiritual discipline. John the Baptist still rocks the announcement of the Messiah. From prison, it just takes a different rhetorical form.
Are you the one? Doubt, spiritual discipline, or something else altogether? Not just a nod to the Baptist’s faithful search and not quite evidence of the Baptist’s backsliding on Jesus. No, what if it has more to do with John’s own death? Here in Matthew, John’s death is only a few chapters away. What if the question in Matthew’s drama is to be heard as John’s last act, the last line from John? “Are you the one who is to come?” A ritualized question that leaps from the page and echoes in the gospel drama that is salvation’s story.
You are the One! Or are you the One? You will remember that old courtroom adage, “never ask a question when you don’t already know the answer.” I don’t think John the Baptist expected to receive a response (verbal or written) when he sent that word to Jesus. He already knew the answer! It was an awkward rhetorical question intended to drive home the vision of the kingdom of heaven revealed in their relationship. Prophet and Savior. They both knew the answer. Jesus and John both knew the answer. The question was for everyone else. Even more, Jesus and John both knew the answer really couldn’t come with words. The disciples of John the Baptist come to see Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”. Jesus stops them in their tracks and holds up the hand, “Go and tell what you hear and see”. Jesus holds up the kingdom of God to show them. They came to see Jesus and asked that question, “Are you the one?” and Jesus tells them to look for signs of his unending love for them, for the children of God, for the world. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news. The list, that list; it isn’t a to-do list, it isn’t a checklist, it is a gathering of signs. Signs of the kingdom of God drawing near. “And blessed is anyone”, Jesus says, “who takes no offense at this!”
It is Wee Christmas Sunday this morning. Our annual pop up, interactive, Christmas Pageant with the youngest among us. I have lost track of how many years I have told the story here in the chancel surrounded by a wonderful gaggle of 3, 4, 5 and 6 year olds. Each year I tell the story of Jesus birth while the children follow my instructions and act it out. I remember one particular year of chaos. At one point (actually at several points), I was losing pretty much everyone’s attention. So in a flutter of what I thought was educator, pastoral, fatherly wisdom, I said to members of the manger scene, “now you have to listen to me with your eyes.” To which one of the shepherds, who never really enjoyed saying hi to me in the church halls, looked right back at me with a big smile and blurted out “you can’t listen with your eyes!” Fair enough. But when Jesus gave his answer to the followers of John, he was saying, “You have to listen with your eyes.” Listening, looking for God’s unending love.
When I am traveling by car on a lengthy trip and it’s time to find something to eat, I know longer trust those blue highway signs that come a mile or two before the exit. The ones that have the image of specific fast food place, restaurants, gas, hotels. Too many times, I find myself getting off at the exit and having to drive a whole lot longer than I wanted looking for the intended stop. The destination of choice wasn’t right there plain as day at the end of the exit ramp. No, now in cranky old age, I look for the huge, larger than signs way up in the air on a pole near the exit. Because I know that fast food place, that restaurant, that gas station, it is right there below that sign on the other end of the pole. Don’t lose time. Don’t have to look much at all. It’s right there staring me in the face.
For the followers of John being sent by Jesus to see and hear, for Jesus’ own disciples and the crowds gathered, I don’t want to say they had it easy, but Jesus was pointing them to one of those huge, larger than life gaggle of signs. A collection of signs fit for biblical times: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news. You and I have to keep driving along this journey of life and faith having look harder, to listen harder, and yes, work harder when it comes to signs of the kingdom of God drawing near.
Still, in the wonder of his love, and in the beauty of his grace upon grace, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus invites us to look. Jesus calls us to have not just eyes to hear but ears to see the promise of his presence among us. Even on the nights when his presence seems further away, or the days when looking is like seeing through a mirror dimly, or the moments when listening is challenged by the roar of the voices clamoring for your devotion, Jesus still pronounces the blessing upon all those who take no offense at the kingdom he brings. Take no offense and work toward the kingdom he brings. No offense and work toward the reign of the Christ Child where forgiveness meets our sinfulness, where the powerful and the mighty are brought low as the poor are lifted up and the widows and orphans are cared for and the grieving find comfort. A kingdom led by the Christ Child where the wisdom of his death on the cross proves folly to a world of achievement and merit and bootstraps, where love refuses to cede to hate, hope rises out of despair, and where the call to follow him is a call to servanthood in his name. Take no offense at him and work toward the world he intends. And remember, along the way, as you yearn to hear and to see that kingdom of the Christ Child draw near, as you seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, never forget that God, in God’s mercy, may just anoint your faithfulness so that you might just be a glimmer or a whisper of God’s unending love for someone desperately want to see and to hear.
It is an Advent prayer. Give me the ears to hear and the eyes to see, the ears to see and the eyes to hear. And come Lord, Jesus, Quickly come.
Lord, Lord, Open Unto Me
Open unto me, light for my darkness
Open unto me, courage for my fear
Open unto me, hope for my despair
Open unto me, peace for my turmoil
Open unto me, joy for my sorrow
Open unto me, strength for my weakness
Open unto me, wisdom for my confusion
Open unto me, forgiveness for my sins
Open unto me, tenderness for my toughness
Open unto me, love for my hates
Open unto me, Thy Self for myself Lord,
Lord, Lord, open unto me!