In the Name...
A priest was walking in his churchyard when a couple of tourists came up to him. “Excuse us,” they said, “have many famous people been born around here?” “No,” the priest replied, “Just babies.”
For hundreds of years, the Jewish people had been praying for a Messiah, a deliverer who would conquer their enemies. This deliverer would be a powerful warrior and under his leadership the Jews would again rule a great prosperous kingdom.
Then, along comes Jesus, a carpenter with questionable friends. Some people call him the long-awaited Messiah, but it's clear he has something very different in mind than expanding Israel’s real estate. So we can forgive even Jesus' strongest supporters for wondering if they might be wrong.
When we think of John the Baptist, we think of him, especially during Advent, as the one who prepared the way for Jesus. And, John had been preparing for the Messiah with a harsh criticism of the ruling political and religious establishment and a stern call to repentance and penance for the people.
You see, John's idea of the Messiah was more than just a powerful earthly king. He envisioned more the avenging angel type, someone who would not only preach, but, bring the fire and brimstone down from Heaven with a wave of his hand.
Well, in today's Gospel John is in prison. King Herod had gotten tired of John's constant attacks and finally had him arrested. At this point, John probably knew his days were numbered. But, what of the Messiah? He had really thought it was Jesus, but, Jesus wasn’t hurling lightning bolts around. And, John was confused. So, he sent some of his chief disciples to ask Jesus flat out - "Look, are you he who is to come or not?"
That's a question that's quite relevant to us today. We sometimes have a hard time seeing Jesus. We all have our own ideas of what he should be and what he should be doing.
It's like the story of a woman named Marlene Nance who wrote in to a church publication many years ago. It seems that, one day, her little daughter, Emma, was playing with paper doll Bible characters and suddenly realized that the Jesus character was missing. They looked all over the house, but they couldn't find Jesus anywhere. Later that afternoon, though, Emma came running to her mother with some good news. She had found Jesus! He was in the newspaper. As she proudly held out her new Jesus, Marlene gasped in horror. Emma had cut out a picture of a tall, bearded man dressed in a robe. Osama Bin-Laden.
Mrs Nance said she was shocked, at first, but realized it was an easy mistake for a young child. She went on, however, to reflect in her article that there are a lot of adults in our society who have an equally superficial understanding of who Jesus is and don't try to find out more about him.
In response to John's question, Jesus could simply have said, "Yes, I am the one." He doesn't do that, but, he doesn't evade the question either. Instead, he does what he so frequently does when asked a question - he throws it back on the questioner. And, in this case, he reminds John's disciples that there's a lot more to the kingdom than fire and brimstone or even glitz and glamour.
Jesus could have pointed to hundreds of Biblical prophecies that his life fulfilled. He could have performed some dazzling miracle that would have instantly silenced all of John's doubts. Instead, he just says "Go and tell John what’s going on: The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them."
Why did Jesus choose these particular things to prove his Messiah-ship? What do these tell John and us? These miracles all involve restoration.
In those days, the deaf, the blind, and the lame were kept outside the mainstream of society. They were often forced to beg to support themselves. Lepers were outcasts, unclean, cut off from all social or religious acceptance. Well, Jesus didn't just listen to these people, he didn't just talk to these people, he didn't even just heal these people. He restored these people to their place in society. And his power to restore was never greater than when he brought a dead person back to life be it the son of a poor widow he'd never met or the daughter of an aristocrat named Jairus or even his good friend Lazarus.
These acts remind us that the kingdom is about restoring the hurting, the helpless, the overlooked. And, not just the physically hurting. Those miracles were easy to see. But, remember how often he also said "Your sins are forgiven." The Messiah came, first and foremost, to restore Man with God.
That's always a good thing to remember at this time of the year. Don't confuse our society's celebration of Christmas with the mission and work of Jesus. The two are as different as day and night. One is a frenzy of one-time gift-giving. The other is the long-term gift of hope.
This doesn’t happen overnight. It requires the patience James talks about - the patience of the farmer who waits for the crop to grow. A farmer would be silly to pull up the plants to see how the roots are doing. The slow way requires that same patience of each of us. James also tells us what we are to do while we wait for the crop - strengthen our hearts for the coming of the Lord, and not grumble about how long it’s taking.
We can assume that John the Baptist discovered the same thing. As he sat in his prison cell he discovered, in that unlikely place – patience and hope. John glimpsed what Jesus was bringing to the world. Not a geographical kingdom for one people, but, a slowly spreading kingdom of justice and mercy, compassion and healing for all people. A kingdom which grows every day when the good news of a loving God is made known by word and action.
No, it wasn't exactly what he, or anybody else, had been praying for. It was so much more than that.
Are you he who is to come? He came. Now, are we the ones who come on his behalf?
In the Name...