In today’s Gospel we see John the Baptist in prison. We know that John the Baptist was put into prison by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) because he had preached against the king for taking his brother’s wife.
John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This week, I’ve been contemplating this question. Are you the one who is to come? In this Advent season, we prepare ourselves for the in-breaking of God—the birth of Christ into our human realm. This is the moment when we are hoping that God will come.
On one hand, we know from Scripture that Jesus was born. We know that he healed, taught, reconciled, acted in the world to lift up the lowly. But the peace that he preached is not here. The freedom for captives is not here. Like John the Baptist, those of us who are followers of Christ might feel like we are losing the big fight. John finds himself in prison. He tried to stand up for what is right, and yet, he’s the one being punished. He’s been a faithful messenger, a prophet. He’s been doing his work to prepare the way for the Messiah. But we see him here, waiting for human judgment. He is going to be beheaded for speaking the truth.
I wonder if sometimes we might feel like John the Baptist. We’ve been doing the best we can. We are trying to serve the poor. We are trying to live good moral lives. We are looking after children, protecting the environment, maybe we’ve taken paid jobs that serve the community, or maybe we’re doing volunteer work. Maybe we are just trying to be good neighbors, parents, co-workers. But instead of getting credit for how hard we’re trying, we find ourselves struggling. Our lives aren’t that easy—maybe we have financial troubles, or family conflicts, or health issues. There are lots of ways that we are not as “free” as we’d like to be. We, like John, find ourselves held captive. In some cases, the same hard choices that we made as disciples are the choices that led to our captivity.
I think about an example—a student who has a choice about which job to take. The student has to decide whether to go to work for a big company as an intern, or to take a job with a small non-profit that does environmental work. The job at the big company offers health benefits, money to help pay back the student’s loans, good training opportunities. The non-profit job offers a lot of responsibility, but little pay, no benefits, and little mentoring. Which should the student take? If they take the non-profit job, they may find themselves really struggling to get by in this community. If they take the internship, they might make enough so that could give back by spending time volunteering or contributing money to projects that they care about. The student who takes the non-profit job may find themselves held captive by their own poverty—even though they are doing what they believe is God’s work. The student who takes the fancy internship may find themselves held captive as they find themselves trying to climb the corporate ladder—always striving for the next achievement, never really satisfied with their position. I offer this example, not because there is a right choice for the student. Either choice comes with the potential to do God’s work. Either choice could be the right one, consistent with faith. And having made the choice, either student may find themselves “captive”—oppressed or burdened by the consequences of the choice they make.
In every one of our lives there are things that enslave us, make us less than free. When we feel these constraints, maybe we, like John the Baptist, have to ask, “Are you the One who is coming?” I focus on this idea of the things that enslave us, because Jesus tells John’s followers all about the ways that he has fulfilled the prophesy of Isaiah and Malachi.
“[T]he blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” But he leaves out of this list “the captives shall be set free.” Jesus has done a lot, but he hasn’t saved John the Baptist from prison.
So where is the Good News in this story? How do we hold onto hope when we are being judged, oppressed by the very things that are at the center of our Baptismal covenant. What if the good choices we make have hard consequences for us? I can hear myself, like John asking, “Really? Is this what happens to me and my family when I try and live as a follower of Jesus?” “When is my freedom coming, God?”
The answer is not an easy answer. Jesus tells John’s followers two things. First he points to the examples of his own work. And then he points to John directly and tells John’s followers to look at who John is. I hear in Jesus’ answer a subtlety—you need to recognize (to hear and to see) the amazing and wonderful work that Christ is doing in the world today. And you need to hear the prophets—not the rulers (the ones who wear purple robes)—the prophets. You need to listen to the crazy people who keep on fighting against the Powers that Be. You need to see and hear from the ones who are imprisoned, held captive, oppressed or marginalized because they are living the Way, because they are preaching a radically different system than the one we live in. Jesus says, look for the prophet who holds on to the message even when the going gets tough. “Did you expect to see a reed that bends in the wind?” I think Jesus is referring to John—John didn’t compromise when he knew he was going to be punished—he just kept on telling the truth.
But Jesus ends his discussion with the crowd with the only ultimate hope. Jesus tells the crowd that they need to recognize John the Baptist as the Prophet (“no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist;”), but they also need to know that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Jesus says, you can trust that I am the Messiah because of what you have heard and seen me do. You can listen for the truth when there are real Prophets among you, (like John). But ultimately, the kingdom of heaven is not yet here on earth—and whatever you know from the Prophets like John, is just a dim glimpse of the Truth that is coming into the world.
Let’s go back to our student example. Can the student, whichever choice they make about what job to take, notice Jesus’ healing work in the world? Where are the places, the circumstances where we see that Jesus is opening people’s eyes and ears and helping them to overcome their blindness, their deafness? Do we recognize here in this community Jesus’ healing work? Can we name people or circumstances where Jesus is present here? Will the student who took the fancy internship see the humble examples of Jesus’ work? In spite of our own captivity, can we recognize healing? And then the voices of true prophets. Do we think that the protesters—the Water protectors who have stood against the DAP are speaking the truth? Are we prepared to acknowledge that those crazy people (like Daniel and Carol Ann) who went and stood in the cold to protect the sacred land are prophets? Or are we looking for the regulators, the Department of Interior, the Obama administration who have actually held up the construction by their orders?
Immigrants are feeling under attack at the moment. My nephew is married to a Polish woman and she lives here and works on a green card. She is feeling very uneasy and worries that her family could be divided up—that she could be sent back to Poland even though they’ve lived here together for ten years and she has a US citizen husband and child. If she is feeling some doubts, “Are you the One?”, then Jesus’ message is, “hear and see the work that is being done.” We know that cities and universities are creating immigrant sanctuaries. Communities are coming together and speaking about inclusion and diversity, even while our national leaders are talking about building walls. I hear Jesus saying, check out the prophets—there are writers and activists, people who have no chance of getting into Congress or taking big jobs in the new federal government. These prophets are the ones to trust.
But Jesus’ final word is, when you look carefully and see my work in the world, when you recognize the prophets of our time—not the fancy politicians, but the true prophets, the kingdom is still not here. These prophets are just the faintest semblance, the dim reflection of the Kingdom that is promised. Jesus tells the crowd that even though John is captive, even though John has doubts, his followers have doubts, the Kingdom is coming.
Jesus tells John and his followers, “blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” In other translations, “blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me” or “blessed is the one who does not find me a stumbling block.” We can’t shy away from our call to discipleship. Just as John didn’t shy away even when the going got hard. Mary didn’t refuse the angel Gabriel’s call. Generations will call those who follow the call, “blessed.”
The message that I hear in our Scripture today is even when we’re in hard times and it seems that we are really oppressed individually or collectively, that there is hope in staying the course, knowing our blessedness, looking for God’s healing, following the true Prophets. Because the kingdom of God is coming. Jesus will come again into our world. Let that hope sustain us as we look forward to Christmas and to all that this new birth of God in our midst will bring. Amen.