Every once in a while I enjoy preaching along with the lectionary. I have found that during the main seasons of the church calendar – Advent, Lent, and Easter – the themes of the readings line up a little better than the rest of the year. This Sunday (Advent 3) brings us to a strange place in the Gospel of Matthew (11:2-11).
John is in prison; a rather strange Christmas story. He apparently has heard about what Jesus has been doing and he sends some of his disciples to ask if he is “the coming one” or if they should wait for “another.” This is the same John who pointed out the Lamb of God earlier at the Jordan River. The same John who said, “I’m not worthy to untie his sandals.” The same John who said, “I need to be baptized by you.” It is this very John that seems to have lost hope while sitting in prison.
Of course, in typical fashion, Jesus doesn’t really answer his question. Instead he tells John’s disciples to go back and tell John what they are hearing and what they are seeing. So what are they hearing and seeing? The blind become seeing. The crippled become walking. The unclean become clean. The deaf become hearing. The dead become living. The poor become … rich? … no, not quite. The poor become evangelized. (Think on that for a moment.)
All of these are acts that Isaiah’s Messiah wold perform. (David Stern’s commentary on the New Testament points out all the technical details here.) However, one glaring act of the Messiah is missing from this list – to proclaim freedom to the captives (61:1). There will be no freedom for John. Surely John would have understood this message.
After John’s disciples leave Jesus asks the crowd what they went into the desert to see. A reed shaken by the wind? A man dressed in soft clothes? A prophet? Yes, a prophet and more. A prophet with unbending conviction (unlike a bendable reed) which landed him in jail. A man not easily swayed by the luxury of power or position. John is in fact the greatest man ever born to a woman. Here, Jesus says another strange thing, “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.”
So what do we make of this story at Christmas time? I have a few thoughts …
- It is possible to lose hope, especially when our circumstances become dire. However, as Jesus reminded John, we need only look around at what God is doing to know that all is not hopeless. Christmas is a small reminder that God is not yet done.
- But what if my life looks hopeless? John’s looked hopeless. However, hope didn’t seem to come to John by way of a promise that his situation would get better. Hope came by pointing out to John that the kingdom of God was transforming lives.
- Is there any good news in this passage? Perhaps it is this: even though our circumstances may be so blinding, so difficult, so hopeless we can find hope in the fact that Jesus is at work doing the things which God has for him to do. As long as Jesus is at work we can be sure that God has not been caught off guard by the enemy and will win in the end.