Matthew 11: 2-11: Messengers from John the Baptist
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “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.”
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
I’m glad we are returning to the weirdness of John the Baptiser. Last week Susie took us through his infamous dress sense and diet, his crazy, authoritarian sermons and his humility. As his death story unfolds in Matthew 14, we also learn he is a political commentator whose criticism is strong enough to land him in prison, and a religious leader whose popularity is great enough to force Herod to spare his life, for a time at least. John is unstoppably confident; dangerously certain. Or is he?
“Are you the One who is come, or are we to wait for another?”
Has John humbled himself before the wrong man on the shores of the Jordan? You don’t imagine prophets making mistakes do you? And the inference is that they must never doubt themselves. But the Scriptures describe uncertain prophets; people who hear the audible voice of God in a way we all imagine we would like to, and they ignore him, pretend they heard nothing, mistake his voice for someone else’s, ask to be let off the hook. I suspect being a prophet in the moment feels very different to how it looks when we are reflecting on prophets years later and seeing the truth of their words.
Jesus reassures John that he got it right. He sends back a beautiful mash up of words from the prophet Isaiah (Ch. 35 & 61). As John’s disciples leave to carry the message back, Jesus, unprompted by the crowd, asks the people to grapple with the challenges presented by John’s message and his life, and I think we need to take him seriously too.
Jesus asks them, ‘Why did you go out to the desert? ‘ To find someone who was a soft touch? To find someone who looked authoritative in a normal sort of way? And we, the pantomime crowd, know the answer we are supposed to give. “Oh no we didn’t, Jesus. We wanted to hear a prophet!” Except that no one ever wants to hear a prophet. Read Malachi 3, where the “messenger sent to prepare the way” is described in greater detail – a good old-fashioned Old Testament prophet figure. He comes with refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap to burn and scorch away all that’s wrong with our society.
Of all seasons, Advent is when I don’t want to hear this. I’m in the middle of Christmas shopping. I have a lot of sweat-shop produced gifts to buy and more food to eat than is good for me so that I can join in the calorie-counting moan-fest. Bringing good news to the poor is pretty uncomfortable on a full stomach.
Maybe I’ll put on a weird jacket and wander the hills and valleys of Ireland calling people to repentance instead. Crazy idea? Perhaps we are called to be a bit crazy, like John. My friend is a really mad Christian. He gets swindled out of money by giving to people who beg from him, he joins public protests about moral causes, he says counter-cultural things on Facebook to oppose viewpoints he thinks harmful, he can’t seem to go down the street without becoming deeply involved in the lives of strangers who need help. He believes householders shouldn’t lock their doors because community life should be lived in a spirit of trust and communal love instead of fear. We have debated long and hard about the balance between being a prophetic voice that opposes and being an influencer who comes alongside. I generally think you catch more flies with honey; I try to rub the right way. He doesn’t so much rub the fur the wrong way as attach electrodes to the cat’s nipples and crank the current up to max. I hate this fact, but I learn from him every time we talk because he forces me to examine the line between being softly influential and being invisible.
Malachi says prepare the way because the Lord is coming to his Temple. The Temple turned out to be the flesh and bones of a tiny baby. We have to look at the life of Jesus and ask, “What would be the appropriate action to help someone prepare for this God-man to come into their world?” I’m excited about and proud of my God when I read those words from Isaiah, but how could any response to them look sane in the worldly rat-race that often has something to gain from people’s oppression, broken-heartedness and captivity? And if we’re waiting for a prophetic confidence and certainty that our stand against injustice is righteous, well I’m not sure if that always comes …
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.