The Third Sunday in Advent (Year A))
December 15, 2019
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week, John the Baptist stepped onto the stage of the Advent story. In his day, he was obviously an interesting character or he would not have been remembered by our Gospel writers: a child of prophecy. He appeared in the hinterlands far from Jerusalem which was part of his mystery. An ascetic, he had renounced the pleasures of the world. He announced imminent judgment. He denounced the religious authorities, pronounced judgment on kings, and baptized the Messiah. And though he may have diminished as Jesus began his ministry, his influence could be felt for some time—his disciples could still be found in Paul’s day as far away as Ephesus.
Though this character may evoke in us a picture of strict, unyielding simplicity, there was a complexity to him not often noticed. It can be glimpsed in the question he put to Jesus from his prison cell. His question is perfectly clear, laid down in the jargon of messianic expectation: are you “the One who is to come”, or should we “expect” another (the well-known descriptor used of both Elijah and the Messiah in combination with the accompanying verb of eschatological anticipation). But why did he ask it? Is it just a bit of rhetorical staging for Jesus’ discourse on John? Or was it a serious question? The majority of the Church Fathers could not accept the text at face value—that the Baptizer had fallen into doubt—and convinced themselves that John asked the question for the sake of his disciples. But this “larger than life” view of the heroes of the faith, this tendency to “apologize” for imperfections in God’s kingdom story, is a betrayal of reality. In fact, this question sent from John’s jail cell is a rare and precious thing. John did not flub his lines; Matthew didn’t conjure up this scene; and it doesn’t need to be apologized for by the great church doctors. (Even Tertullian who admits the doubt blames it on the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from John.) The question stands; it does not need to be fixed or revised; it needs to be heard, pondered. John’s question (what provoked it) may just be as important as Jesus’ answer.
At the end, in jail, John had doubts. Maybe he just wanted to be told one more time that it was all worth it. His state of mind in that dingy cell, teetering on the edge of uncertainty when so much was at stake, was simply par for the course, for the prophetic course anyway. Whether conscious of it or not, Jesus implies that John was playing the role of Elijah. This could be seen in his clothing, in the way he opposed the powerful, in the enemies lined up against him, in the location of his operations away from the centers of influence, out on the margins. All of it together painted the portrait of a man who was the re-embodiment of Elijah, including moments of depression and doubting—Before Messiah, Elijah must come first.
But this time round there’d be no being caught up to heaven: the forerunner, who would set redemptive things in motion, messianic things, and mark out the way, smooth the rough spots, level the mountains, would as his last act give his very life in service to God. Whether John knew all of this or not, he knew the cost of being a prophet.
We might imagine that, as a child of prophecy with parents like Zechariah and Elizabeth, he was groomed for it. But the prophets of God can never be ready; they are thrust into the fray without warning. And along with the messages they carry, they bear the burden of the poor and the oppressed; they suffer with the suffering; and they try to wait for God in the marginal places and on behalf of those in the margins who no longer have the hope to wait. And all of this takes a toll. John’s question to Jesus comes from this space—a jail cell emblematic of the margin, of dispossession, estrangement and alienation, emblematic of the cost of being a prophet. Not at all a place of power or possibility; in fact maybe not a place for God to be present. John is left alone, forsaken—John’s jail cell is Elijah’s cave; his uncertainty about Jesus is Elijah’s uncertainty about God’s power: “I am the only prophet left.” John’s jail cell is Jesus’ cross. And John’s question resounds in Jesus’ own: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” At the very end, and along the way, come prophetic doubts. Two prophets and a savior; each a huge presence on the stage of God’s redemptive drama; each carrying the weight of people in need; each giving voice to sincere doubts before the show is over. Maybe these were moments of weakness, but weakness is normal among us humans, and those who must carry others on their backs know this weakness intimately; we’ve been allowed to see how the loftiest respond at their lowliest. And that is a rare and precious gift.
Now the theme of this text in Matthew is not doubt. It’s about identity; Jesus as messiah; about greatness and John the Baptist as the greatest prophet of them all; and finally it is about those greater than the greatest, the least in the kingdom . . . doubt is not the theme, but it is a fact within the theme; doubt does not define John the Baptist, but it is a part of who he is. What I want to wring out of this lesson is something about the paradox of divine power and perfection and human frailty. The latter becomes thematic when it is observed in the heroes of the faith. Their doubts and fears do not diminish them as God’s servants; they establish them as authentic in their service to God, and they establish the central role of God’s own humility in the Advent incarnation.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2019 Philip H. Towner