Are You The One?

Advent 3A

Matthew 11: 2 11

Introduction

John the Baptist, in his public preaching, to which unprecedented crowds were flocking, had been criticising Herod for marrying his own sister-in-law. For this, he (John) was thrown into the dark, dank prison under the Herodian Fortress of Machaerus, located in the wild, remote hills east of the Dead Sea. For at least 4 months John kept up his spirits. But even this giant of faith, faced with the degrading and disgusting conditions of this sombre fortress, began to be confronted by very human doubts. There is no evidence that he believed any of them, but it is easy to imagine the types of questions which were crying out for an answer.

When Jesus was baptised, John saw the Spirit descend, and heard his Lord and God honour his Son. So, why was Jesus delaying the proclamation of himself in clear, ringing tones for all to hear? Why was there no glorious, majestic triumph? Why was he in prison when he could be preaching and pointing people to the Messiah?

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 2 and 3

When John heard in prison what Our Lord was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him:

"Are you the one who was to come
or should we expect someone else."

John, of course, relied on the reports of his disciples for an update on the public ministry of the One he had been inspired to proclaim Messiah (Christ, Anointed One). His disciples had been uneasy about the apparent lack of strictness in the life of Jesus, not realising that Jesus, in his reticence, tended to avoid drawing attention to himself. But their doubts about Jesus were even more deep seated. First, he did not openly proclaim himself the Messiah. Secondly, he did not present himself in the style they had expected, working mighty signs and wonders, which would dismiss all doubts from anyone's mind. Yes, he performed miracles, but somehow he failed to step beyond a low-key, unspectacular self-presentation. He just didn't come across as the "real thing" they expected.

Verses 4 and 5

The question asked by John's very sincere, loyal and deeply spiritual disciples could have been a challenge to our Lord, to change tack and meet the unspoken demands for a more forthright messiah who would "look the part". Jesus, in profound respect for John's messengers, departs somewhat from his ordinary policy of reticence. While he does not state directly and authoritatively, "I am the Messiah", he invites John's disciples to see and hear. He does this by saying that the blind, the lame, the lepers and the deaf are healed. Even the dead are raised. He does so in a way that draws on the great prophet Isaiah whom the disciples admire so much. The following would have been very, very familiar to these holy men.

In that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord
and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 29: 18 and 19

 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.

Isaiah 35: 5 and 6

 

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good tidings to the poor (margin);
he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives (margin)
and the opening of the eyes, to those who are bound (Greek, blind);

Isaiah 61: 1

Our Lord caps all of these ideas with the climax of his list, which is an echo of Isaiah 61: 1 (above)

"...the poor have the good news preached to them".

The miracles are signs of the preaching of the Gospel! This was to remain a foundation principle of his Church.

These verses are so critical in the Gospel according to Matthew that we need to dwell a little further on the dilemma before John. He has been preaching about the One who is to come in terms of blessing and judgement. Jesus, however, came preaching in a not-too-overpowering style, speaking of fulfilment and rather less about judgement. He pointed to a humble and merciful deliverer. For him the Kingdom must grow slowly, patiently and gradually.

John found this perplexing. As it turned out this was a problem and a scandal even to the disciples who were close to Jesus. No wonder John, locked away in a dismal fortress was beginning to wonder.

Verse 6

Jesus understood this very well. His response to John's disciples is really his way of speaking to John at a level Jesus knows he can hear, for he is a man of the Word through and through. If mankind was to accept a different model of a Messiah, then it was John who must lead the way. "Blessed is the man", says Jesus, "who accepts me, and does not go looking for some other who will fulfil his own private agenda of what he wants in a messiah."

This is one of the most critical verses in the whole of Matthew! Our Lord's actual words for John were:

"Blessed is the man who does not fall
away on account of me".

This is not even an implied rebuke of John. Jesus understands the natural inclination of his fellow devout Jews to hold certain expectations of the promised Messiah. Of all people who had to confront this issue, John was at the forefront. He was the person who identified Jesus as the Christ. Now he, before anyone else, must accept that the Messiah has chosen to reveal himself without grandeur, without military might, and as a servant of the servants. John asked for only one word, yes or no. Jesus gave neither, but presented to John a new way of seeing and hearing in which even his disciples could participate.

Confident that John would cross this threshold, Jesus imparts to him a blessing. It is in fact his farewell message to this great man of God.

Verses 7 10

As John's disciples were leaving to start their 5 or 6 day journey back to the depressing fortress of Maccaerus, Jesus delivers the strongest and most beautiful eulogy upon the Baptist.

In case the people observing all this might think John to be wavering, Jesus moves quickly to dispel any doubts, and asks:

"What did you go out into the desert see?

  • A weak, spineless character? Hardly!
  • A fragile man used to soft living? Of course not!
  • Then a prophet? Oh yes indeed!
    In fact much more than a prophet!

For John is the one Malachi wrote of (see Masoretic text of Hebrew Bible):

"I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way for you." (Malachi 3: 1).

Jesus had chosen, by using this verse, to compare John's ministry to that of the angels, the messengers of God. This is the highest honour which can be awarded him, and Jesus does not hesitate to acknowledge it.

Verse 11

John is indeed more than a prophet, for he fulfils as well as prophesies. Jesus draws this section to a conclusion by saying in effect, "Let me share a great truth with you: No one has appeared in the world with a greater religous function than John, namely, to proclaim the coming of the messiah. But the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he."

It would help us to remember our reading from Matthew 3: 1 12. Here John describes himself as so much the least, that he is unworthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah. In Matthew 11: 11, Jesus calls John greater than any man who has ever lived.

Also in chapter 3 of Matthew, John talks of one coming who is, "greater than I". In Matthew 11: 11, Jesus is sealing his claim to be that One, greater than John the Baptist, but who chooses to come as the least, in fact, as a slave (Matthew 20: 25 28).

Only our meditation of this great paradox will open to us its spiritual treasures, for this is the true Messiah John was sent to present to the world. In a wonderful way God chose to incorporate John's very humanity in the revelation of his Son as the Promised One.

Conclusion

A lone voice, buried in the depths of a sombre, distant fortress prison, thrilled by what he has learned from the reports of others yet uneasy about the meekness of Jesus, asks, clearly with the words of Psalm 118 in mind, "Are you the one who is to come in the name of the Lord?"

This is not really the question of a doubter, but of an honest person whose faith begs to be lifted to new levels. Jesus understands this. He therefore does not answer, "Yes", but speaks the language John is capable of receiving at his inner depths. It is a reply of great warmth which would nurture him until his cruel and fickle execution.

John the Baptist, pinnacle of all the very finest in Judaic faith and culture, and though he performed not a single miracle greatest of all the prophets, greater even than Moses, was allowed to see, if only very briefly and dimly, the age of fulfilment. Indeed he is part of the age he prophesied.

He marks the end of the former age, and the beginning of the Kingdom. His faith is honoured by Jesus. In him, prophecy begins to be fulfilled.

The One John pointed to now takes the lead role into the Kingdom.

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