“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
I wonder what John the Baptist and his disciples were hearing and seeing that led to this question in the first place. Just last Sunday, in our scripture lesson in Matthew 3, John proclaimed that one is coming greater than him to baptize everyone with the Spirit. When Jesus comes and asks John to baptize him, John protests, he thinks Jesus has his wires crossed. Here’s how I imagine that conversation:
“Jesus, you are the Messiah and need to start thinking like the Messiah. You are at the top of the pyramid; I’m just your humble promoter. Me baptizing you isn’t a good look. It makes you look, well, weak. You need to appear more messianic.”
Jesus answers, “John, I have to walk before I run. I want to be baptized like everyone else to show my commitment. I don’t want to ride down an escalator to a flock of reporters. I want to be baptized into this sacred mission by you. We are cousins; we’re partners. Do this for me, John.” If there are doubts about this being the right move, God enters the scene after Jesus’s baptism and says, “This is my beloved Son, and I am well pleased in him.”
But something has changed, and John the Baptist is unsure about Jesus. He sends a messenger to ask, “Are you the one to come, or should we wait for another?” Did John fear that he had made a mistake? What had he heard about Jesus that disappointed him? I looked back at the previous chapters of Matthew’s Gospel to see what Jesus was doing. He gathered some disciples and gave a lengthy Sermon on the Mount, proving he could gather a crowd. Throw in several healings and a couple of controversies with the Pharisees (whom John called a brood of vipers.). Jesus has built some momentum, but John is viewing all this in jail.
I wonder if John got a report on the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit and the meek and the morning. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile if a soldier asks you to carry his armor. Take the log out of your own eye before attempting to remove the speck from another’s eye.” Does John have his red pencil out? “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, hit him back just as hard. See Exodus 21, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. If someone persecutes you, you call them a brood of vipers. How about blessed are the bold, the daring, and willing to do what it takes?”
Was John the Baptist expecting more of a military and nationalistic Messiah who would lead a revolution, throw off the Roman dominance, or who would more vigorously condemn and resist those in power? Maybe John thought the Messiah should get him out of jail. After all, what is a messiah for if not to rescue you, especially if you are family?
Jesus’s answer to John’s disciples is simultaneously joyful, hopeful, ambiguous, and baffling.
“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.”
Great list, Jesus! We will go tell John, but first, we have some questions. Let’s talk about what is not on your platform. Most of Jesus’s agenda is a direct quote from scripture, but he has carefully picked what he says and does not say. He mostly duplicates the sentiment of Isaiah 35, starting in verse 5,
Then the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
The lame will leap like deer. And the mute tongue will shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
OK, blind, lame, and deaf; check. But Jesus adds to Isaiah, the healing lepers and the dead raised. Interesting! Next, we could turn to Isaiah 61, which begins:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
Because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
And release to the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
OK, Jesus has checked the box for good news to the poor and oppressed. But I’m sure John’s disciples knew the book of Isaiah well. What about liberty for the captives and the release of the prisoners? Remember, John the Baptist is in prison. Jesus throws in all the healing and adds lepers to the list but leaves out the release of captives. And what about the day of vengeance of our God? I wonder if there is tension about what messianic priorities should be. John’s disciples might say, “Heal all you want, Jesus, but we want John released. We want God to swoop down and avenge us against our oppressors. Didn’t you listen to John when he baptized you in the Jordan? Burn the chaff; get rid of the brood of vipers.” Remember, the central figure for Jews in Jesus’ day was Moses, who liberated the captives from Egypt.
There is no clear job description for the Messiah carved in stone. The messianic hope is more of a collection of poems and proclamations over the centuries that God will act decisively for good in history. These scriptures inspire and encourage us with God’s intent, but we don’t see the details about what God will do next. I love Isaiah’s prophetic hope. These are my favorite scriptures, but this is not a strategic plan. It’s open to interpretation. I’m all in on team Jesus, but I understand why John would be disappointed and wonder if he baptized the right person for the job.
I can see myself with John’s disciples pressing Jesus. John is in prison, and violence and intimidation are winning. What are you going to do about this, Jesus? The crux of the moral issue is that if someone stands up and does the right thing, speaks the truth, and acts with integrity; we want the hero to win and God to make things right. But far too often, people with courage have their lives threatened and destroyed. When I think about John the Baptist executed for speaking the truth, names of modern martyrs like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and El Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero come to mind. Peter and Paul and 11 of the 12 disciples were executed for their preaching. These are not abstract threats from history. It’s not just prophets and whistleblowers under threat. I’m deeply troubled by the increase in people trying to shape the world through violence. There are increasing attacks on houses of worship, poll workers, elected officials, and almost all minorities; Jews, all people of color but especially blacks, women, and LGBTQ+ people. In 2021, America had a 30 percent rise in hate crimes, and 2022 may be just as bad.
This is the violence we hear and see Jesus. We long for eyes to be opened to see each other as neighbors, not enemies. We want the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and to recognize that we are all God’s creation. You promised to heal the lepers, please also remove the stigmas that push people to the margins because of the color of their skin or who they love. Raise us from the dead end we are traveling, and bring some good news to the poor and hungry. Would it be too much to ask to liberate the captive, to strengthen the prophets like John in our day? Like Nelson Mandela was freed. Forgive me if I overstep, God, but could some crooks and liars be brought to justice?
I don’t want to overstate the difference between John and Jesus because Jesus says that John is the greatest of all the prophets. Jesus honors John’s courage and mourns his death, but he doesn’t rescue him. Even the greatest prophet can have questions and be disillusioned sometimes. What is Jesus saying to John and his disciples? I hear Jesus saying things are happening, good and wondrous things are coming into being, even amid pain and suffering. It may not be what you expect or hope. But a new world is blossoming as eyes and ears are opened. There is good news. Love is on the move. But love by nature is not a conquest or sudden revolution; it grows where it is welcomed and nurtured. Soon Jesus will join John as a martyr, yet the story is their light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
As Christians, we live this story too. In a few moments, we will do something we do every week. We are to share our joys and concerns. It is our weekly reminder that we have both. Joy surprises us and fills us with wonder and hope. And our real disappointments move us to speak our concerns to God and one another. We hold on to both; like John we question if Jesus was really the one, yet if we pay attention, we hear and see signs of God’s presence.