Epistle: I Corinthians 4:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-10
O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
He came of age in the Judean deserts eating locust and wild honey. He wore clothing of camel’s hair and a leather belt. He had never had a haircut in his life. John the Baptist was a Nazirite from birth, an Old Testament vow imposed upon him at birth from the angel who announced his nativity. He was reclusive, an ascetic, perhaps considered by some to be a mystic, until the just the right time, at which he emerged from his seclusion and made contact with the general population of Jews who might have been tending sheep around the city of Jerusalem.
To their utter shock, he stepped out of obscurity and into their lives, raising his bony finger and announcing, “Repent; the kingdom of God is at hand.” Unlike modern men on a city street clamped between sandwich boards reading, “The end of the world is near;” John was taken seriously. Crowds formed. Buzz intensified. Thousands were baptized. The religious and political leaders took note. Official delegations from the establishment were sent to investigate. No doubt it was covered by the “mainstream media.”
“What did you go out to see?” Jesus asked incredulously. “A reed shaken with the wind? A man dressed in fine clothes?” No. Did you go out expecting to see a circus act? An irrelevant man? A prophet – but more than a prophet. This was the immediate forerunner of the Christ, the one who announced that the Kingdom of God was here. The Advent themes of the past two weeks have emphasized this truth. Advent, however, would not be complete without a reflection upon the last and the greatest prophet of the Old Testament – John the Baptist.
Suspend what you know of the story. These were momentous times. Jewish expectation of an imminent appearing of the messiah was real and palpable. The rabbis knew the prophecies of Daniel, and they had done the math. It is a fact that their expectations of a soon-to-appear Messiah were well-founded. The Gospel lesson does not take us into the triumphalism that comes from fulfilled expectations. Quite the opposite. If the kingdom of God has come, why is it going so badly?
In this passage, John speaks, and when he does, he speaks that for which every human heart that has longed for the kingdom of God, has felt or spoken: “Are you ‘the one coming’, or should we look for another?” It is likely that John knew he would never survive prison. Jesus sends word to John, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind are seeing, and the lame are walking; the lepers are being cleansed and the deaf are hearing; the dead are being raised up and the poor are being evangelized. And blessed is he who is not trapped because of me.”
John was not in prison because the kingdom of God had failed him. He was in prison because he had not failed the kingdom of God. Jesus is closely quoting the prophecy of Isaiah foretelling the messianic era. In that passage there is explicit reference to a range of maladies which by Levitical law would have disqualified one from serving as a priest. Here, Jesus comforts John by citing his sweeping reversal of the crippling effects of sin and death as evidence of his Messianic mission.
On the third week in Advent we reflect on John’s faithfulness, a theme that Paul takes up in the Epistle, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” John was uniquely situated to herald spectacularly the arrival of the Christ at his first coming, at the highest cost to himself. We likewise pray for faithfulness as we make ready the way for his second appearance.