Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Gospel reading last week ended somewhat ominously: “But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” (Luke 3:19-20) This week’s Gospel reading picks up on that thread in Luke’s narrative of the kingdom of God come in Christ Jesus.
John the Baptist is languishing in Herod’s prison. His own disciples are attending to his physical needs, as was common in those days since prisons weren’t exactly known for looking out for the well-being of their occupants. John dispatches two of his followers to approach Jesus with a question. While it’s a superficially simple question, with an either/or answer, it’s a critically important, profound question, theologically speaking.
For John, Jesus’ identity is more than just a theological question, though. It’s a matter of John’s very worldview, his essential existence, vocation, and depth of being. If Jesus is the one who was to come, then John’s suffering in Herod’s prison has a purpose. If Jesus is the Messiah, John is being persecuted for the sake of the kingdom Jesus brings with Him.
Most of the time when we read this passage about John’s question to Jesus, a question comes to our own minds: Is John, sitting there with little hope of reprieve, beginning to doubt his call, even to doubt his faith in God? He seeks reassurance from Jesus that He is the one who has been prophesied from ancient times. There’s really nothing wrong with seeing John in that light. He’s got certain hopes and expectations, just as we do. He’s got a picture of God’s plan in his own mind.
Such behavior and thinking is part of our human condition, and John the Baptist is most certainly human. He may be the greatest prophet, even the greatest man who ever lived, as Jesus described him, but he’s still just a man.
But there’s an alternative interpretation we might consider, too. Perhaps John is sitting in prison and is concerned for his own disciples. As the one who was to come before the Lord and prepare His way, John had certain responsibilities. By God’s grace, he fulfilled them, calling people to repentance and proclaiming the coming kingdom of God. And, as a good teacher, he knows when it’s time to send his students on to the next level of their development. And so, by sending his followers to Jesus, John allows them to see and hear first-hand the signs and wonders that Jesus was performing.
Such a willingness to take the spotlight off of himself and to focus it on Jesus is the hallmark of John’s ministry, a willingness that we should all hope and pray more ministers in our day would exhibit. That attitude alone makes John a quite extraordinary kind of man.
Either explanation of John’s intentions is quite suitable, or as we say as we begin the communion liturgy: Meet, right, and salutary. The reason either explanation works is because Jesus and His answer to their question is the real focus.
“Are you the one who is to come?” they ask. With these words, given them by John but just as likely being asked within their own hearts, too, they are asking unambiguously whether Jesus is God’s Messiah, God’s deliverer of His people. The phrase they use is often translated poorly in our English Bibles.
There are no capital letters used here, so in our modern way of thinking and interpreting text, there’s a good chance we’d never get the idea that what they are asking is a proper title—a title used for the Messiah. The Messiah is the Anointed One, but on account of the prophecies, He is also the “One Who Was to Come” or the “Coming One.” It was a title that the Jews of John’s and Jesus’ day were well familiar with.
And so, their question is not just a desire to end some theological contemplation, but a very real, sincere one. John is suffering as the Messiah’s forerunner and herald, so he and they have every reason to want to have some certainty. And Jesus’ answer is absolutely clear.
It’s not clear in the sense that Jesus says, “Absolutely, I’m the Christ.” He doesn’t say, “Go tell John to take heart, or be assured yourselves, that I am in fact Yahweh’s long-promised Messiah to Israel and the world.” But the words He uses leave no doubt to any Jew who understood what the Scriptures foretold about the Messiah. The quote Jesus uses says with certainty that He’s God’s Messiah, the One who was to come. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22) And where did we get these indicators, this job description of the “Coming One”?
Jesus’ words impart the fact that He is directly fulfilling Isaiah’s prophetic description of what the Coming One will do when He comes. Isaiah 29 contains the following: “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.” (Isaiah 29:18) Isaiah 35 also: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6a) If you go back and read the content of Luke’s gospel account between last week’s Gospel reading from Luke 3 and this week’s reading from Luke 7, you’ll see that Jesus has been doing precisely that. Since the beginning of His public ministry, He preached in the synagogues. He cast out demons. He healed many from their sicknesses, including a lame man and a blind man.
It’s no wonder, then, that He told John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.” Yes, to anyone paying attention, anyone who knows the prophecies, Jesus is God’s Messiah.
But this reading comes to us in the season of Advent, on the Sunday of joy, pink candle and all. John is in prison awaiting his end. What could this reading have to do with Advent? What joy could this message bring to John in Herod’s prison? What joy could this message bring to you in your prison of sin and captivity to death and the power of the devil?
If we are to look at John’s predicament from a worldly viewpoint, we might think that the best thing for John—that which he needs most—is to be let out of prison. And yet are we sure? Is that what John needs most? In all of the challenges and difficulties of your life, what do you need most?
What John needs most is to know that what He suffers, He suffers for a purpose. He needs to know that there is a rescue from the despair of this world, an end to the evil. Especially on a weekend like this, following the senseless but all-too-common, even predictable horror and tragedy of the shootings in Connecticut, some will say that everything happens for a reason. Some will even claim that such events happen according to God’s will. Others will say that God was absent or inattentive to humanity’s needs by allowing such wanton destruction, or even non-existent.
That’s patently false, and we must avoid the devil’s temptation to go down that path. Evil and death are not God’s will. Righteousness and life are His will, but we’ve managed to ruin what He established through our prideful rebellion. Even when He might allow evil its day to show us and all people our desperate need for His governance, His protection, His forgiveness, and His salvation, He is neither a God far away, nor a God which allows or even causes unchecked evil.
The fact of the matter is, sometimes the real reason and the reason we’ve set our minds on are not the same thing. For example, John is in prison not so that glory of God might be proclaimed but because Herod is a wicked and evil man. It just so happens that God used even the wickedness of Herod to His own advantage to proclaim the authority of God over and against Herod’s authority.
And so, with John as a case in point, the meaning of it all becomes clearer. Jesus not only tells the John’s disciples who He is, but He tells everyone within earshot who John is. He is the messenger of the Lord, as Malachi had foretold, sent before the Messiah as His messenger—the herald for the Lord’s Messiah and prophet of the Coming One.
You’re probably familiar with the prophecies from Isaiah that Jesus quoted to support His Messiahship. You’ve heard them before, especially at this time of year. You’re probably less familiar with the questions from Jesus which followed: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” That’s a rather odd expression, isn’t it? On many of our coins we have the images of former presidents, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Washington, Kennedy. Rome, too, had the profiles of their caesars on their coins.
In Israel, though, the Law of God quite explicitly forbade the graven image. So on their coins there were symbols. When King Herod came to power new coins were minted with symbols that meant something to Herod. His favorite representation was that of a reed from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. A reed symbolized the beauty and fertility of the area that Herod ruled. The reed was a symbol of Herod as a ruler or power, just as the eagle or Liberty head represents American power on our coins.
Now, our culture is overwhelmed with images and graphics, because they are so easy to generate and mass produce. In the ancient world, however, the only art a common person might see on any regular basis were the images on coins. So, when Jesus asks this odd little question about going to see a reed blowing in the wind, He’s not just asking people about a quivering plant, easily bent over in the breeze. The people would have known with whom Jesus was contrasting John.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Another passing worldly king like the one just down the road here? A man who lives in palaces and wears fine clothes? Or did you come to see a prophet? Yes, you did, and you have hope that John is more than just one of the many prophets. John was the prophet, the last in the line of earthly prophets. It was his job was to foretell the coming of God’s great deliverer of Israel—the One who would be the eternal Prophet, Priest, and King.
On the question of whether John was just being a good pastor to his disciples or was really confused by the ministry of Jesus, I leave that to your conscience. This is a question on which Scripture doesn’t specify a conclusive understanding, because it’s not material and essential to our understanding of who Jesus is. John knows who he is himself, and he was pretty sure who Jesus was, yet it may have seemed to John that Jesus was not doing the kinds of things John had expected.
Perhaps John, like many, had been tempted to think that Jesus would be king and Herod would be cast down from his throne like Mary had sung about in the Magnificat. The mighty indeed would be cast down, but not according to our notions or methods. And so, in speaking Isaiah’s words to John so that they might be conveyed in turn to the prophet, Jesus confirmed what sort of Messiah He intends to be. He is not Herod’s earthly rival, but the eternal king. Jesus’ kingdom will eventually challenge and outlast all the Herods in the world.
Jesus is indeed “The One Who Was To Come.” John the Baptist role as the greatest prophet was to point to the coming one, even to the point of imprisonment and death. In John’s death as the forerunner of the king, we have a foreshadowing of what awaits the king Himself when He receives His crown. His coming, His death, and His resurrection—all of it was done to make you a citizen of the kingdom of God which Jesus came to restore. This is the season we await the return of our king.
Prepare the Royal Highway. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, O Come, Immanuel. Amen.