“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another?”
John the Baptist is one of the Biblical figures most associated with Advent. He’s on the cover of your bulletin this season, for example. He is traditionally described as a fiery, confident, challenging prophet. The four Gospels pretty consistently show him as standing strong in his vocation to point people to the coming Messiah, knowing that when that person appeared on the scene, his job was to say “Behold the Lamb of God!”
We hear about John the Baptist’s eating locusts and wild honey, only what could be scavenged to keep him alive, as he spent time in the wilderness. We read of his assertive reproofs of the compromise he saw in religious leaders, and of his bold denunciations of Herod the Great’s abuse of power and abuse of women (like many whistleblowers, that eventually landed him in prison). We read that crowds went out to meet him by the River Jordan, seeking a baptism they hoped would truly be the beginning of a new life.
And we read that when a delegation from the nation’s capital turned up at the Jordan to interrogate John as to just who he thought he was, he knew exactly how to reply, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” So, they asked him, are you just preparing, then? Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another? No, said John, I am not the one who is to come. “One is coming after me, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is to come will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. His winnowing fork is in his hand; he will gather the good wheat into the granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We read that just last week.
When Jesus himself walked onto the banks of the river Jordan, John seems to have been sure this was the man he’d been preparing for. Here he was, the one who is to come, in all his power and holiness. It must have been a thrilling moment for John the Baptist, to see the very coming of God he had been waiting for. All his work was worthwhile now; he had fulfilled his calling, preparing the way, readying the hearts and minds of the community, and at the climactic moment getting his lines exactly right, just what the Lord had told him to say: “Behold the Lamb of God!”
In light of all that, in light of everything we read about John the Baptist elsewhere, it may seem astonishing to hear the Gospel our lectionary gives us today. This reading is from later in the Gospel of Matthew; you can see on your insert we’re all the way into chapter 11. These are not stories from the period of waiting for Jesus or from the birth of Jesus; this is much later. And listen to John the Baptist now. He spent his early years pointing to the one who was to come; he identified Jesus as that one. But, then, months went by. Things got harder. By the time we see today in Matthew 11, Jesus is well into his work, but he still doesn’t seem to be doing what John understood he was going to do. John had announced that the Messiah would chop down fruitless trees, separate the wheat from the chaff, and throw the chaff into the fire.
Has Jesus fulfilled John’s expectations? Has Jesus spent his ministry separating people from one another, consigning the chaff to the flames of destruction? Has he cut the haughty down to size, and claimed the throne in the name of the people? Has he thrown out the Roman oppressors and restored the greatness of Israel? Not really. Hardly at all, if you think about it. And John himself is in prison now. Was that on the agenda? He doesn’t remember hearing about that. And so, he begins to have his doubts. Is Jesus really the one he was supposed to point to? Is it possible, John wonders, that I made a mistake? Did I get the wrong guy? And so John sends several of his own people, his own disciples, to ask Jesus one poignant question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another?”
John has devoted his entire career, even his very life, to preparing the way for Jesus, but now John is struggling to accept that what he sees in Jesus is really from God. What Jesus actually does, day to day, what he prioritizes and teaches and mentors his followers in, is not what John expected God to care about. It’s not what he thought God’s style would be. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another?” We have no idea what the tone of his question is – is it meant to be a barbed reminder that really, Jesus, it’s about time you got on with cleaning house and burning chaff and taking the throne? Or is it a sincere inquiry, carrying the desire to know truth and if he’s been wrong, to change his mind?
The way Jesus responds is fascinating. It’s the way he responded at one other key moment of challenge, at the moment he finished his own preparation for ministry out in the desert and was tempted to twist his calling into something other than what God wanted. What does Jesus do, when someone asks for clarification of his calling? He goes straight to Scripture. Read it again: “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
What is that? It’s the very same book of the Bible John himself quoted to justify his vocation. John cited Isaiah 40: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Jesus cites today’s first reading, Isaiah 35, with a little bit of Isaiah 61 thrown in to fill out the picture. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” Look at what I’m doing, says Jesus. It’s all in the Bible. It’s in the same book that told you, John, who you are. That’s where I get my assignment. “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense.”
Healing, liberation, joy --- and if you look at the rest of this passage Jesus is quoting, healing and liberation and joy not just for Jews, not just for his people as individuals in a local place and time, but healing and liberation and joy for every people, every time, and for the physical world as well. Healing and liberation and joy for all creation: that’s the vision, that’s the hope. It was in the Bible all along, but it wasn’t until Christians looked back at passages like these in light of how Jesus actually behaved and what Jesus actually prioritized that they began to understand that this was God’s kingdom agenda.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John asked. “Look my job up in the Bible,” replied Jesus, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Did Jesus reply that way because he knew that John was offended? Did John the Baptist take offense at the behavior of the very Messiah for whom his life’s calling was to prepare the way? We can’t quite know that without, as I said earlier, knowing the tone of the question John asks about waiting for another. But the human capacity to take offense, and certainly to take offense at God, is very broad. God behaves all sorts of ways we don’t like, all sorts of ways that cut clean across human nature. The list of people who have felt offended by God would include nearly all of us.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m certainly aware of how routinely I come up against my own capacity to be offended by God, to subtly (or not so subtly) assume that I know better than he does, to try and set my own agenda without soaking myself in Scripture and the sacraments to absorb God’s agenda first. Recognizing and seeking healing for that bent we all have towards self over God is part of the Christian life. But there is, oddly, one comforting thing about the experience of finding ourselves offended by God, and it is this: If you are not a hermit and have ever dealt with even one other human being, you know that real relationships with real people do not entail having them agree with you in every detail. Part of the benefit of any relationship is that no real person offers you mindless inoffensive aquiescence to everything you do and say. Everyone you relate to goes against your grain in some way now and again. You get surprises, you get brought up short.
And so when I feel offended by God, it reminds me that God is real, and I am not him. If I worshipped a God who never contradicted me, who was incapable of saying anything I didn’t expect in advance, who asked of me nothing I didn’t already agree with, really I’d be worshipping nothing more than an idealized version of myself. If my so-called God cannot surprise me and challenge my presuppositions, if he cannot tell me no, it’s not the real God I’m dealing with.
In fact, for me, that poignant statement of Jesus, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” has become one of my regular prayers. I don’t want to be offended, and I certainly don’t want a God who is no smarter than me and who is nothing but a tool to reinforce my existing prejudices. I don’t want to be offended when God’s word contradicts what I think. I don’t want to wait for another who will tell me what I want to hear. Even when it is hard, even when it is what I don’t expect, I want to hear who God is and how God speaks and what God wants, and love it so deeply that I choose to live that way. Because he is the One, and there is no other to wait for.