Third Sunday of Advent 2016
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The far right panel of the second view of the Isenheim Altarpiece pictures Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The brightly-colored Jesus triumphantly reigns over the grave, over the empire that crucified him (the dazed and ineffectual Roman soldiers), and even the sin-damaged creation (the stump).
It may seem odd to focus on resurrection in Advent. But that is the oblique direction Grünewald’s panel directs us. Matthew’s text invites reflection in this direction with Jesus’ answer to John’s questioning whether he really was the “one who is to come” (v.3).
We look for the “one who is to come” too, don’t we? We know his name is Jesus and something about his life and reputation. We know he’s coming to back to finally and fully establish God’s kingdom. At least that’s what we hope.
But then we look around our world. We know he did not seem like he was the “one” back then. Even John the Baptist questioned him and asked whether he ought to be looking for someone else (v.3). Jesus didn’t fit the profile many Jews had developed for the “one” (the Messiah).
-he’d run the foreign oppressors out of town,
-he’d make Israel chief among all the nations, and
-God would return to be with his people.
None of that was happening, though. Jesus taught noon-violent resistance to evil-doers, that the first will be last, and servant of all, and God never returned to the temple as promised. Jesus’ world did not seem markedly different when he was hoisted on the cross than it was before.
When we look around our world, it doesn’t look like Jesus has made much of difference here either. Even his followers are distinguished more by the silly, ignorant, vile, and evil things they do than their righteous, holy lives.
When asked to look forward to his return in Advent, we may be excused if we wonder whether Jesus is the one we ought to look for or someone else.
Jesus gave John’s disciples an answer of sorts to take back to him. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the 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.” Okay . . . but what does that exactly mean? And it still doesn’t meet the standards they had for being a Messiah.
What was it that made all this intelligible to the early Christians? What positive evidence, other than Jesus’ word, could be brought forth to show he was the “one who is to come”? Only one thing, really. Exactly one. His resurrection from the dead.
The New Testament is clear that not until this event did the blinders begin to drop for them. In its aftermath they started to get clear on things. You see, Jews expected a general resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. For Jesus to be raised, even if by himself and in the “middle of time” (not the end), meant that the new age, the new creation, of God had dawned and everything had changed. Slowly they grasped that Jesus’ life and teaching was a redefinition, a true definition, of Messiahship. And the world had changed, fundamentally, even if not apparent on the surface.
That’s what those signs Jesus gave John’s disciples meant. They appear in Isaiah 35, a passage that pointed to the change in the world God’s great act of intervention and rescue would cause. Jesus takes this identification with God’s great act of rescue for himself explicitly in Lk.4:18-21. And after his resurrection his disciples accepted and taught this about Jesus as well.
Of course, the world rolled on after Jesus’ resurrection, seemingly the same as always. Similar ills, injustices, and tragedies kept on happening. Didn’t seem much like new creation. And some early Christians understandably got confused. Was he really the “one,” after all? Evidence for that is pretty light. The author of Hebrews addressed this concern in Heb.2:8-9:
“Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”
God’s plan for human leadership of the creation on its way to maturity was not yet a lived experience. As it is not for us either. Major countries with unstable leaders, aggressive nationalism reasserting itself, climate change inexorably having it way with us, financial insecurity, divorce, drugs, loneliness, failure, and the like hunt and haunt us. Everywhere we turn crisis and potential catastrophe loom.
But we know that something has happened that changes how we see all that. The author of Hebrews counsel still holds good. “But we do see Jesus.” We see him “crowned with glory and honor.” For by the grace of God he “taste(d) death for everyone.” And as the writer of Hebrews says elsewhere in this letter that makes him superior to all but God.
And we know that his rule is real but hidden. He gives the world time so that more may come to know and love and serve him here (Rom.2:4). We look for it in signs of ecological restoration, physical and social restoration, the poor receive justice, and life blooms anew and afresh, often out of public eyesight. And we see those things because we see Jesus, the resurrected one.
That’s what we do when we wonder whether Jesus is the “one” or not. Temptations to trust other powers, causes, or movements that promise to set all things right abound. John the Baptist is the greatest of all before Jesus who had no chance to “see” him resurrected and “crowned with glory and honor.” But all who have the chance to “see” him are greater than he.
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”