“After the arrest of John, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God.‘The time is fulfilled,’ he said, ‘and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel!’”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It took a little while for the news to filter down to John’s prison cell; but it did after a few days, thanks to some gossipy prison guards. There was a man—a wandering rabbi from Galilee named Jesus—who was going from town to town saying that the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God was at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel was his message. The guards themselves didn’t know exactly what that meant; but they had a guy in Cell B who might. After all, he had been doing something very similar just a few days earlier.
What does this mean, this good news? they asked John.
It means that God has come to set his people free.
The guards laughed. Tough luck for you.
What is it like to hear the good news of the dominion of God — the vanquishing of Satan, the return of God’s rule, the glorification of an oppressed people — when imprisoned?
Happily for us, we are not literally chained to the wall in a prison cell awaiting who-knows-what-verdict from a king with a grudge against us. Though I think we can empathize in small part with John. Because it must have been disappointing if not devastating to hear that God’s kingdom had come only moments after his arrest had taken place. The good news from Galilee might be good news, but it wasn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. John still faced one of several nasty ends. He would possibly not even see the effects of Jesus’ proclamation.
While most of us, I hope, haven’t been in a situation that is literally like John’s, I think it’s fair to say that many of us have felt the weight of chains — be they financial issues, health scares, or a season of overwhelming sadness — locking our minds or our hearts in something like a figural prison. We have heard the stories of Christ, perhaps even witnessed a miracle and yet we can’t quite reconcile our circumstances with the promises Jesus represents.
If we flip over to Luke’s gospel, we’ll find that John himself may have felt that same kind of tension. Sending two disciples to question Jesus, John asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus, after giving the blind sight, healing the lame, and cleansing the lepers, said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”
But the next time we hear of John, his head is being served to Herod on a platter.
John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the “greatest of men,” doubted the good news. For his entire life, John had been prepared to make way for the One Who Was to Come, the Messiah of the Jewish people. We can imagine his mother telling him stories of his cousin, who had been born in a stable with angels singing overhead. John would have begun his ministry knowing that this was a pivotal moment in time and that he was on the right side of history. And then, of course, he himself baptized Jesus. John himself saw a dove descend from heaven and a voice from on high call out that Jesus was the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. John witnessed all of this and still he sat in his prison cell and wondered if something had gone wrong somewhere.
What are we to make of that? After John was arrested, Jesus traveled through Galilee proclaiming the arrival of the dominion of God. Repent and believe in the gospel, he said. Was this good news for everyone but the Baptizer? We can feel the tension in John’s heart when he says through his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
When we are tempted to doubt, when we can’t see God’s grace for the pain in our lives, Jesus tells us, just as he told John’s disciples, that God is forever working to overcome sin, slavery, and death, and that he himself is at the center of it. The reign of God is bound up in this man from Galilee who would willingly walk to the cross for the sake of a people who shouted “Crucify him!” And the gospel does not fail, though the devil does all he can to stop it, though death comes for the ones who bear it.
Because death is not the end anymore in the kingdom of God. Death does not have the final say when God sits on the throne.
There will be times in each of our lives when we struggle to accept God’s promises, struggle to trust the one who lets us stay in whatever prison confines us. When that time comes, when we ask “Are you really the one who will save us, or should we look for someone else?” Jesus is always there, ready to respond, holding out his hands, hands that have healed the sick and raised the dead, hands that are forever marked by the nails that held him to the cross. “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.”
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” And it is on that Word we can rely, for he reigns even now while we await his return. AMEN.