John the Baptizer is again the main character (other than Jesus) in our Gospel reading. But this time, John is not nearly so fierce. This time, John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “are you the one we have been waiting for? Or are we to wait for another?”
Many early Christians assumed that this was not a real question. After all, they point out, John had already proclaimed Christ “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). How, they ask, could John turn around and question Jesus’ identity?
But I think John’s question to Jesus is totally genuine. We just have to remember a few facts about John’s career.
When John began his ministry of baptism in the Jordan River, he was a sensation. As we heard last week, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him” to confess their sins and be baptized (Matthew 3:1-6). We might think of him as the Billy Graham of his day, the great revivalist who could fill stadiums.
John preached that the kingdom of heaven was coming near, and he promised that the Messiah of God would soon appear. Then Jesus presents himself for baptism. Immediately John recognizes that Jesus is the one. John even hears a voice coming directly from heaven, confirming that Jesus is indeed the beloved Son of God (Matthew 3:13-17).
Now pause to think about what must have been going through John’s head the day he baptized Jesus. Everything is set. The people are ready. The Messiah has appeared. It is time. God is about to establish the kingdom.
And then John waits for God to act. And one day, while John is still expecting the kingdom of God, Herod’s troops show up. But this time, they aren’t there to repent. This time they are there to arrest John, to haul John off to Herod’s prison where he can expect execution at any time. Surely this is it.
But nothing happens. John’s followers do not rise up. God does not intervene. Jesus doesn’t even send a message of encouragement and support. And John’s life is on the line. John can’t know how much time he has. But he knows it isn’t much.
To fall so low after entertaining such high hopes must have been a crushing blow. Under those circumstances, John’s discouraged question to Jesus makes perfect sense. Are you the one I thought you were? If so, why aren’t you doing anything? Or do I have to wait for another?
John is experiencing what Christian authors call a “dark night of the soul,” one of those times of desolation and discouragement that can hit any of us, including the greatest saints, people like John the Baptizer.
Jesus’ answer to John in his dark night of the soul gives us some guidance about how to handle our own periods of discouragement, anxiety, disappointment, anger.
But start with what Jesus does NOT say.
Jesus does not promise John some kind of miraculous deliverance. Jesus could have exercised a tiny fraction of his divine power to free John from prison. He doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t solve John’s very real problems.
That is true for us, too. Sometimes Jesus works miracles for us. But sometimes Jesus does not.
Second, Jesus does not give John a personal revelation to help him make sense of his suffering, to understand why he is going through what he is going through. Jesus could have explained to John that, just as John’s ministry prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, so John’s death was necessary to prepare the way for Jesus’ death and ultimate victory. John’s death was one more step on the way to the kingdom John had proclaimed. But John couldn’t know that on his own, and Jesus didn’t tell him.
That, too, is like us. When things go wrong, we want to understand why. And sometimes we do. But often we do not.
Finally, Jesus does not even give John simple words of encouragement. As soon as John’s disciples leave, Jesus tells the remaining crowds that John was a prophet and more than a prophet, that among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptizer. But Jesus doesn’t send that message to John.
And once again, we can identify. Although I have sometimes felt touched by God, I have also sometimes longed for some tangible sign of God’s love and approval and not gotten it.
I say again, in this passage, John is us, us at our low points, us when God seems far away and unresponsive. And in that moment, Jesus does not offer John any of the comforts that Jesus also sometimes does not offer us.
So what does Jesus say to John, in this moment of need? “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.”
There is helpful wisdom here.
First, Jesus is reminding John to look beyond his own situation, dire though it is. I have never faced anything like what John was facing. I have never faced anything like what many of you have faced. But I know from some of my own challenging times that it is very easy to become self-absorbed, to get so focused on even quite minor problems, that I lose sight of what is happening all around me. In our passage, Jesus teaches John, Jesus teaches us, not to become so self-absorbed by our own troubles that we lose sight of the bigger picture. That is already a gift.
Second, Jesus is reminding John that the bigger picture has some real bright spots, that good things are happening, that God is at work in the world. God doesn’t make every problem go away. But God is active. Grace flows. The gospel is heard. Glimpses of the kingdom pop up here and there. We want more, of course. But we should give thanks for what God is doing all around us.
And as we learn to focus more on the grace notes in our world, we discover ways to share in the grace notes, to participate in God’s work of helping people who need help.
And especially at this time of year, there is always remarkable generosity on display.
In the last week or so, we offered Breakfast with Santa to children in our area. The Zerns delivered Christmas presents to the town nurse for distribution to needy families, presents purchased by many of you for strangers as an act of generosity and love. We had our Church without walls service for other needy people, and then gave them food. We prayed for those who are suffering here and around the world. That is just what happened here and in the last week.
Seeing that kind of generosity can restore our faith in the basic goodness of God’s world, despite the suffering that is also a tragic part of the deal.
I’d like to think that Jesus’ reminder of God’s grace at work in the lives of so many suffering people gave John some encouragement, that John, having heard the good news of Jesus Christ, became more aware of the grace around him, that John realized God was with him even in prison as he awaited execution.
And that is my prayer for us: that even in our own dark nights, we can still see God’s grace in our world and become a little more sensitive to God’s grace and God’s presence with us.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan