Advent 3 2017
Commentators have spilled a lot of ink debating over our Gospel text this morning. On the face of it, it is a shocking passage. “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” (v2-3) Are you the coming one, are you the Messiah, or is their another. It appears as if John the Baptist is doubting Jesus' identity as the Christ of God. Many commentators, including most the Church Fathers, argue that John did not doubt. They offer a variety of explanations; for instance that John did not ask the question for himself but for the sake of his disciples and the crowds gathered around Jesus. This is certainly plausible, if any of you want to hold to this opinion, I do not object. But I think that he who is a prophet, and more than a prophet, indeed doubted. In the name of Jesus + Amen.
How can this be? John is the first man to recognize Jesus as Immanuel, leaping in his mother's womb as Mary approaches. It is John who proclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” () The Lord said to the prophet Malachi about John, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” (v 10) It is of John that Christ himself says, “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (v 9) How could John doubt?
First, I must disabuse you of your notion that prophets can't experience doubt. A prophet is a prophet because God chose them to speak his Word. They are people just like you and I, infected with sin like you and I. They suffer all our human foibles. Being people, they are totally able to doubt even when God speaks directly to them and performs miracles through them. Moses had his moment of doubt in God's promise when he cries out to God, “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people [Israel]? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.” () Elijah, after he defeated the prophets of Baal, was overtaken by despondency on Mt. Carmel. The prophet Jeremiah also despairs in persecution, saying, “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” () In times of suffering many of the prophets cry out, how can this be Lord? How can you can allow you servant to suffer so? When he sends his disciples to Jesus, John is in prison for speaking out against King Herod's marriage to his brother's wife.
Second, Jesus doesn't seem to be doing exactly what John thought he would. Remember the preaching of John the Baptist? He proclaims Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, but he also preaches that Christ will come as judge. John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I […] He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” ()
John has called out King Herod for his wickedness and languishes in prison for it. His execution is fast approaching and here Jesus is going around feeding people, preaching, and healing. Could the promised King, the Son of David, truly have come if the wicked king Herod still sits on his throne. The Holy Land is ruled by a pagan Emperor in Rome. Where's the fire, Jesus, where's the judgment? The servant of the Lord suffers and the wicked prosper. Should we expect another?
Jesus answers John saying, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” (v 4) Jesus says, my words and actions testify to my identity. Hear and see who I am. Then Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah, “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.” (v 5) Jesus' answer is an emphatic, I am the one to come. I am the Messiah “and blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (v 6) Jesus says elsewhere, “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” () Even in his doubt John ends up testifying to Jesus.
When Christ was born to Mary, he did not come as a judge. God in his great mercy sent his son to take the judgment upon himself. Jesus came to proclaim the mercy of God, to earn us the forgiveness of sins, and to establish God's kingdom through forgiveness. He came to take the children of this world and give them a new birth in a baptism of water and the Holy Spirit. He came to call them to repentance and draw them to himself through his Word. He came to give them his body and blood. Through the suffering of the Son at the hands of wicked men, God's kingdom is established. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by [this].” (v 6)
So was John's prophecy wrong? Certainly not. Christ is the judge. When John looked into the future it was like he was looking at a mountain range. He saw two events. The first mountain peak was Jesus' incarnation, when he came in mercy to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the World. The second peak is Christ's second advent when the Son of Man will come in his glory and power to judge the living and the dead. From John's view, the peaks looked like they were right next to each other but now we see that there is a great distance between them. The Lord promises to return but he is patient as the Apostle Peter says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” () But John the Baptist's prophecy will be fulfilled. The Lord who came in mercy will come again in judgment. John, not the Baptist but the Apostle, relates his vision of that day in Revelation, “I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” ()
Who is able to stand on that day? Rejoice, brothers and sisters, in the mercy of our Lord and rejoice in his patience for on that day you will stand. Behold, the Lamb of God first came in mercy and spilled his blood for the sins of the world. You are among the Saints who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, for you there is no wrath, only Grace. Amen!