15 Dec 2013
“‘Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?’” (Matt. 11:3)
In the name …
I think John the Baptist is a very appropriate main character for Advent. Today as Bob Ahearn read at the Advent Wreath: “The message the Shepherds’ Candle proclaims to us is to keep our eyes open.” That is basically the story of John the Baptist. We hear tales told that as a child he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary approached during the time of her pregnancy. We are told that when John was preaching and baptizing by the Jordan River he saw Jesus and yelled out: “Behold the Lamb of God!” These stories may be motivated more by theology than history because we also hear less flattering accounts such as this morning’s. The others have a theological purpose that may have led to their creation, but this morning’s smacks of reality. John has been imprisoned because King Herod has married his sister-in-law and John publicly shamed him for this act. But you don’t make fun of kings. From his prison cell, and probably anticipating his execution, John sends out one of his own disciples with an anguished question for Jesus: “‘Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?’” This is a remarkably honest question.
Let me go back to last Sunday’s Gospel reading. John is raving out in the desert: “‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … Even now the ax lies at the root of the tree. The one who is coming after me … His winnowing fan is in his hand … the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’” (Matt 3:7, 10, 11, 12) And then comes Jesus who is anything but this fiery harbinger of doom. Jesus, as He says today in answer to John’s question, gives sight to the blind, helps the lame to walk, cures those suffering from leprosy, lets the deaf hear and proclaims the good news to the poor. John was expecting someone to further what he had begun. He was waiting for a vengeful God to make His presence known. He was waiting for vindication. He was hoping that a sinful world and an unfaithful people would face their just judgment. And then comes Jesus who saw Himself and the deliverance He offered more in line with this morning’s joyous prophecy of Isaiah: “The desert and the parched land will exult. The steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. … Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God …[And] those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy.” (35:1-2, 4, 10)
This contradiction is the reason for John’s question. He’s not doubting all of these wonders that Jesus has accomplished. He’s doubting if this is the will and way of God. John was expecting someone quite different than Jesus. This is why Jesus’ last words in answer to John’s question of “Are you the one?” are: ““And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.’” (Matt. 11:6) We’re never told of John’s reaction to the answer he received. We can’t know if he died at the hands of Herod believing in Jesus or still waiting for the Messiah he wanted. And this takes us back again to the Advent wreath and the words: “The message the Shepherds’ Candle proclaims to us is to keep our eyes open.” Advent is about getting ourselves prepared to see what God would have us see. It’s not about our preferences. It’s about God’s revelation. Look all around us. People are forcing Christmas to be what they want it to be even to the point where Jesus sometimes has nothing to do with the celebration. This is why we need to remember John the Baptist. He is Advent’s reminder to keep our eyes open.
Advent is the chance to let our spiritual eyes adjust to the increasing light as we approach closer and closer to Christmas. It’s our time to prepare to see what Jesus wants us to see. And John the Baptist stands in this season as an example for us. He was certain he knew what he was looking for, that is until he met Jesus. He prepared the way for Jesus by getting people to start rethinking their faith, and he reinforced that message when he himself had to rethink his own faith: “‘Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?’” Approaching Jesus with this same kind of openness is at the heart of Advent. Jesus surprised and shocked John. Let Him surprise and even shock us too. Jesus made John think again about the nature and power of God. Christmas should always do the same for us if we really believe in a God who comes into our world in need and humility. John’s God of judgment is the one commonly imagined. It’s not the God that Jesus shows us of joy. So let us pray the prayer of the Shepherds’ Candle to “keep our eyes open” so that the joy of Christmas may be ours. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo