Welcome to the second half of Advent. Christmas, the coming of Jesus, inches ever closer. Three candles are now lighted on our wreath. I have a list of things that I think must be completed before Christmas, and I can’t say that I’m making progress. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come…
The Season of Advent is as much about John the Baptist as about the coming of Jesus. John is the one who calls on us to get ready, to clear the path. John’s voice is the voice in the wilderness. In some ways he is the bridge from the ancient prophets like Isaiah to God in Human Flesh – to Emanuel, Jesus.
It is tempting in Advent to push past John and cut right to the birth. John is, after all, not the most endearing of biblical characters. He is austere and perhaps a bit dour. He and his followers are big on fasting and when they are not fasting, the menu seems to consist of insects with a bit of honey. Jesus seems to offer much better options… when the wine runs out at Cana, Jesus obligingly changes water into more wine – and better wine then has been served up to that point. Locusts? More wine? Not a difficult choice.
This morning’s reading from Matthew seems to find John doubting Jesus. He sends a message from prison to Jesus: Is it you? Are you the one? The Messiah? Or are we waiting for someone else? John is certain that he is waiting for Messiah. He just doesn’t know who that is… John’s faith is certain. But at the same time, it would be nice to know.
Remember that John is in prison facing serious charges. He has antagonized Herod and Herod’s wife, Herodias, making very powerful enemies. And in fact, this interaction between Jesus and John is pretty much the end of John’s story. Soon enough Herod will have John’s head cut off and given, as a gift, to his daughter – which sounds like a pretty horrific gift, but Herod is a pretty horrific person. And Herodias may be worse. So, as gifts go, this is just what the daughter was hoping for…
For those of us who would like to think that following Jesus is a pleasant and happy journey, the witness of John the Baptist is here to assure us that it is not. The cost of being a disciple can be exceedingly high.
But for now, John is still in one piece and his question is carried to Jesus. Jesus gives an astounding answer. He could simply say tell John yes” but instead he says go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the poor receive justice. And anyone who is not offended by me is blessed.
Jesus has paraphrased the Prophet Isaiah to the Prophet John. No doubt John is very familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy. As he faces the various trials that are ahead of him, the words of Isaiah must ring in his ears – strengthen the weak hearts, steady the trembling hands, and for those who are fearful, assure them that God will save them. John, locked in prison, has grown to doubt his path. And Jesus has assured him that he has nothing to fear; that Isaiah is still relevant.
How marvelous this answer must be for John. He has given his life to making the world ready for the coming of God into our midst in human flesh. And in a short time, he will die for this purpose that he clearly loves and believes in. He may have had doubts about the person of Jesus, but there is not a hint that has had doubts about the work. John lives, as far as we can tell, without regrets.
The messengers go off to take this message of hope to John. And this seems to bring Jesus to a very reflective moment. Folks have flocked to John both to be baptized and to hear him preach. Jesus asks the remaining crowd what drew them to want to see John the Baptist. Did they go to hear someone who just goes whatever way is popular – a reed blown in the wind? Did they go to see someone who was dressed in splendid clothing – a celebrity preacher? No, they went to see a prophet.
We tend to think that prophets are supposed to somehow predict the future – to give us prophesies… That is missing the point of the work of a prophet. The purpose of the prophet is to tell us when we are on the wrong path. The prophet doesn’t tell us who will win the next election, for example. The prophet tells us when our politicians, church leaders, or business leaders are engaging in injustice. The prophet tells us when our leaders are leading us astray – and that it is vital that we do not follow. The work of a prophet can be lonely and dangerous. John the Baptist is not the only prophet to lose his head.
The major prophetic work of John the Baptist is calling people to repentance. At the moment that includes calling Herod and Herodias to reform their evil ways. John is working to build the foundation for God’s Kingdom. And he is doing that work without really knowing who Jesus is.
It doesn’t help with our understanding of the work of a prophet to have Isaiah so prominent in this season. Isaiah made many intriguing statements that seem to point to the coming Jesus – seven hundred or so years before the fact. And Isaiah would have been shocked to see what a critical part he plays in the life of Jesus.
Isaiah was prophesying to his contemporaries, not to folks seven centuries into the future. Isaiah was writing at a particularly dangerous time for the people of Israel. There were incompetent and unjust leaders, and the faithful Jews were losing heart. This is who Isaiah speaks to: people who are lost in the wilderness… people who are not sure how to go forward, or even what direction forward might be.
Into this confusion Isaiah speaks. He rebukes those who are corrupt and unjust. He comforts those who are frightened. And he calls everyone to action. In this wilderness, they must make a straight path. And they must do this now, not in seven hundred years. Prophets don’t predict the future; they tell us how to live in the present. Isaiah’s message was relevant and timely. And seven centuries later, at the time of John the Baptist, it was still relevant, still urgent. And today, nearly three thousand years since Isaiah’s time, it is still true.
Some wag somewhere has said that the Church has a duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The original quote may have been about newspaper editors… but it is a useful summary of the duty of prophets. They are to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It certainly could have been said about Isaiah. It certainly could have been said of John the Baptist. It absolutely could be said of Jesus. And it could also have been said of Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, and, for that matter, of Desmond Tutu – all vital prophetic voices. All as relevant now as ever.
There is something timeless about prophetic witness. I think that is because God is timeless and there is something timeless about human nature too. We believe we are wonderfully created in the very likeness of God. But at the same time, we all carry sin within us – sin that leads to violence, greed, injustice, hate. And it is to those qualities that the prophet speaks.
We could easily live in fear of our own wickedness and our collective wickedness is even more terrifying. The wickedness of injustice. The wickedness that in a world with riches overflowing, children still go hungry – not just in poor places, but in places like the United States and the United Kingdom. The wickedness that many of God’s children are treated as though they are not Godley – beaten and bullied by folks who despise the color of their skin, their religious faith, their sexuality, or other ways that God made them.
Following Jesus, hearing the words of John the Baptist, means that we cannot remain silent in the face of such wickedness. And that if we do remain silent, we become part of the wickedness.
It is easy to see how, in the face of this, we can become fearful. And then we need to hear Isaiah telling us not to fear, but to love justice. We have the witness of John the Baptist who loved God more than his own life and lived in peace with himself. We have the steadfastness of Desmond Tutu reminding us that we need to be prepared to speak truth to power, and we need to speak that truth in love.
Wherever else this Advent journey may take us, ultimately it takes us to the loving heart of God. It will not always be an easy journey, but there is no greater freedom, no greater love than to be on that journey.