The appointed gospel text for advent 3 was Matthew 11:1-19. Due to our Christmas schedule, we skipped it and went for Advent 4’s readings. When you are aiming for rejoice, the second John the Baptist lesson just doesn’t fit the bill. So we took it up in Bible Class Sunday and this morning. When I should be wrestling with the Christmas Eve message, I can’t let this one go. It seems so appropriate, yet so against everything the modern American church attempts to say.
It starts out with a question. John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends a couple of disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one, or should we expect another? Most of the commentators in Christian history have attempted to paint a fig leaf on this question. They have typically made comments to the effect the John was just moving his disciples along. He was asking the question and sending them for their benefit. We don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that to me, especially when we encompass Jesus’ answer.
Jesus’ answer to me is twofold. A yes, look at the miracles. And when concludes the list with “the good news is preached to the poor” that is a textual referent to Isaiah 61:1. But then Jesus appends a “but”. “Blessed in the one who is not offended by me.” Why would someone be offended by Jesus? Especially why would someone sitting in prison who once gave a bold witness to Jesus be offended? Part of Isaiah 61:1 is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Surely the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus would say the Baptist was/is, would be included there. Jesus, are you going to free me, or not?
The disciples are always asking are you going to establish the Kingdom now? The 5000 fed out in the desert tried to crown Jesus. He was eventually crucified because he claimed to be “the King of the Jews”. Did you come out in the desert to see a reed blown by the wind? No, we don’t need to come out to the desert to find someone who will tell us what we want to hear. Did you come out to find someone in fine clothes? No, if we wanted to see worldly power and authority we’d go to Congress (or K street). We’d get plenty of reeds in the bargain. No we came out to hear the Word. We came out to hear a prophet. And this prophet, this inbreaking of the reign of God is not by power and glory. It does not empty out the prisons, at least not the physical prisons. John, blessed are the ones who are not offended at this humble Kingdom. This Kingdom that only comes hidden. This Kingdom that only frees you of your sins.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. The Kingdom comes not in pomp, but as a child in a manger. It comes not at the head of an army, but on a donkey. It comes not by bread and circuses, but by every Word of God. It comes not by authority, although it has that, but through appeal. It comes to the poor, those who know they need it. It comes by grace.
And as with everything that comes by grace, that makes appeals, that feels soft. The violent take it. They took him…to a cross. They took the apostles. They killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them. Do we really think it is different for us? From the time of John the Baptist until now…
The kingdom can come with kind words such as these. It can come with crass words captured here. Doesn’t matter to those who don’t have ears. “We played the flute and you did not dance/We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” From the time of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers, and the violent bear it away. There is just an order to these things. First they will come for the crass, and then for those who can use nice words unless they are quiet. I wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought soon after the miracle on ice if I had told him a Russian president, as Machiavellian as he might be, might understand the place of religion better than an American. (This is not an assertion that it is true, just that in 1984 I would have laughed at the thought – the Godless red commies, today after reading that from Cold-Warrior Pat Buchanan it can’t be laughed away.)
But this is Advent closing in on Christmas. Immanuel did come and did free us from our sins. “Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And he will come in triumph and make all these minor trifles blow away. When the government shall be upon His shoulders (Isa 9:6), and with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (Isa 11:3-4). And wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19)