Should We Look For Another?

Third Sunday in Advent Isaiah 35, Psalm 146, James 5:7-20, Matthew 11:2-19

Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? said the disciples of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is the cousin of Jesus. His father was a Priest of the Temple and when John was born, he said in Luke 1 that:

God has visited and redeemed his people,
that we should be saved from our enemies
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve God without fear,

And he prophesied that his son, John, would have a role in this:
you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,

This wonderful promise couldn’t have come at a better time. God’s people were under the thrall of the Roman empire, who had replaced the Seleucid empire in in 63 BC. The people of God had been under the thumb of several empires ever since Nebuchadnezzar the Second conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC, killed the children of King Zedekiah of Judah, gouged out his eyes, and exiled him to Babylon. The Babylonians were conquered by the First Persian Empire, who in turn were overthrown by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, bringing about the Seleucid empire.

For centuries there was no king in Judah, and the people of God became dispersed and struggled to figure out what it might mean to be a people called by God to bless the nations. Without a king and without a temple, how could they obey their laws and be a light to the nations?

The people of God had sought to answer that question on their own, and this is recorded for us in the story of the Maccabees. Judas Maccabeus had led a revolution against the Seleucid empire in around 167 BC and sought the support of the then up-and coming Roman empire in 161 BC. The Seleucid empire under King Antiochus had forbidden Jewish worship and commanded that the books of the Law should be burned, and that swine and unclean animals be sacrificed in the Temple. He wanted to eradicate the people of God.

The Maccabees responded by making a treaty with Rome, because it seems they had learned absolutely nothing from history, or listened to the warnings of the Prophets who had cautioned against depending on other nations for help, lest they be taken over and lose that which made them distinct. The Romans welcomed the chance to have power over the people of Judah, and a couple of generations later in 37 BC they then crowned Herod “King of the Jews”, and our Gospels tell us a great deal about the kind of king he was.

In the midst of this, in the middle of this turning point of history as Judah becomes fully subject to Rome, and loses whatever independence it believed it had gained through the Maccabean revolution, a priest and his wife conceive a child and name him John. And when he is born his father announces that this boy will be “the prophet of the most high who will go before the Lord and prepare his ways… to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

These prophetic words are not only a foreshadowing of John’s ministry, but are a denouncement of Herod and all that had led up to him. For since the fall of Jerusalem to the installation of Herod the Great, the people of God had believed that their calling was to be a nation like other nations, with great cities and buildings, with rights and an army, to secure the life they wanted through guile and diplomacy, with violence and with contracts. If this was the case, then Herod was the savior for whom the people of God have waited. He rebuilt Jerusalem, and brought back the worship of the Temple. Under his rule the ministry of the Rabbis flourished, and if we are familiar with the Gospels we see that there were several groups who had devoted themselves to teaching the Law of God, notably the Pharisees and Sadducees.

But this is not what God has chosen. This is what the people of God think God should choose. But it is not what he has chosen.

To go before the Lord and prepare his ways is not provoking a revolution, or securing support from an army. It is not building grand things to rival other cities and nations. No, Zechariah the father of John says that preparing the way of the Lord is giving “knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins”.

And this is the ministry to which John commits his life, standing in the desert teaching the people to put away their selfishness and evil, and to symbolically leave it behind by coming through the waters of the Jordan river as their ancestors had long ago, to spiritually enter the land of God’s promise.

It is in that river that Jesus begins his ministry too, receiving that same baptism, not to repent for any sins of his own, but rather to go into that promised land himself and lead those who are now turning from their old ways and are ready to start afresh with God.

John the Baptist has found himself in a turning point of history. As it happens, THE turning point of ALL history, the coming of the Messiah who will heal the broken and forgive the sinner. But when we met him in today’s Gospel lesson, he is not so certain.

Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?

He is in prison, locked up for questing whether Herod is truly the King of the Jews, because he has not kept God’s law. If Jesus were the messiah, wouldn’t he have replaced Herod by now? Wouldn’t have galvanized his followers into some kind of resistance?

It seems that in his distress, John has forgotten that God’s ways are not like our ways. He is quick to remember Judas Maccabeus, and those who can bring about change by violence. He is quick to forget that beneath a moment where God’s people appear to get what they want, they have so often forgotten that which they truly need:

The forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.

Jesus hears his cousin’s question. He knows that his relative and companion has been locked away and will be killed for the path he has chosen. This ministry to which John has been called will not end well fo him, and John wants to know whether is life has been worth anything. When John baptized Jesus he called him the lamb who would take away the sins of the world, and commended people to begin following him. Here, in his suffering, John has his doubts.

Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?

Jesus hears in this question more than is asked. He hears in it the fear and doubt which John is ashamed to say aloud. He answers John:

‘the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them’

Of course John already knows this, as the Gospel this morning tells us. None of this is a secret. The works and miracles of Jesus have made him famous.

But there is more to this answer, something which seems like a non-sequiter.

“And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

This is where Jesus touches the true intention of John’s question. For, it is all well and good that this man Jesus of Nazareth go about doing all kinds of good. Healing and resorting. Casting out demons and proclaiming good news. But this isn’t going to change the world, is it? This isn’t going to liberate the people of God from the tyranny of the Romans. This isn’t going to put Jesus on the throne in Jerusalem such that all the nations of the world will come to him to decide their disputes and to impart wisdom and justice.

Going about and doing good to the very least and lowliest: to the man tormented by a legion of voices in his head; to the diseased beggar; to the servant of some mid ranking Roman officer; restoring a son to his mother – frankly these acts are not going to change the world, or depose Herod… or save John’s life, are they?

“And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Is John offended by Jesus? He might be. Because this is not the life he had expected to live, and his is faced with a death he was not expecting to die. And for what? For something he does not really understand.

John’s ministry was radical. He lived in the wilderness, as Jesus reminds us, and taught the people to repent and turn back to God. He wore no finery and lived off the land, not unlike the Maccabees and the other military revolutionaries of former times. Jesus identifies John with the Prophets of the Old Testament, and says that in that age ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force’, describing in a word the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the terrible oppressions which have beset the people of God for generations.

But Jesus has not acted with violence. He has sought out the lowly, the hurt, the sinners, and the forgotten. He has done good to the least. He has restored the feeble. And in his ministry he has declared that the way of God’s kingdom is not one of fighting or strength, but healing and gentleness.

John was his forerunner, announcing that the kingdom of heaven was drawing near, but in this conversation between the two, we see that John did not know what that Kingdom would be. He only knew that he was to announce it. The Son of God has come and upturned all that the people of God thought would be, and instead has begun a work which was so surprising to John that he had to ask, are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?

This is the season of Advent, where we meditate on, and anticipate, the coming kingdom of heaven. Our history, our society, our personal experiences, have all left us with a conception of a future that is better than our past.

We often call this hope. But it might more accurately be described as desire. We desire what our appetites have conditioned us to think we need.

Advent is the time where we ask God to re-orient our appetites such that we will begin to desire that which can be truly hoped for, because it is certain that Christ will bring about his Kingdom. Year after year I know I am confronted by the Advent of Our Lord believing deep down that I know what it is that he will do in my life and in our world, yet I am so often mistaken, and such a deep-seated error only results in disappointment. And so often that disappointment becomes doubt, and I ask with John

Are you the one who is to come, or shall I look for another?

And Jesus would remind me, and maybe remind us all, that if we are looking for another, we are looking for a different kind of future, a different kind of Kingdom, and a different kind of King.

That is not hope. That is a delusion.

The kingdom which is to come doesn’t look very much like the strong and pious rising up to take back what is promised to them.

No, the signs of the kingdom of God in Christ Jesus are the finding of the outcast, the healing of the hurt, and the welcoming of the sinner.

And that is a better hope than whatever it is that I might desire, because that future, the one Jesus is binging about, includes me too.

Jesus is the one who is to come. Let us be renewed in our minds and our hearts, that we may never look for another.

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