Third Sunday in Advent, 11 December 2016. Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11.
When we met John the Baptist in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, he was free. He was in the wilderness, inviting people to baptism and repentance. Crowds flocked to him. He was bold and confident enough to call the scribes and Pharisees a brood of vipers and tell them to come back when they got repentance right.
In today’s gospel lesson, John the Baptist was in a very different place. He was in prison. He had not yet been executed by Herod, but he probably had a sense of what was ahead. His disciples came to visit him, and he desperately sent word to Jesus through them – Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
It’s a heartbreaking question. The mighty John the Baptist, a prophet of God, the forerunner of the Messiah, now in prison, wondering if everything he believed and trusted and hoped would come to pass.
You get the feeling John could handle imprisonment and torture and humiliation and even death – so long as he knew God’s purposes would still come to pass. He could endure the present, so long as he could trust the future. But at that moment, he was not sure. He needed reassurance and hope. So he had to ask. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Maybe you have felt what John felt. Maybe you have felt the prison chains of grief. Maybe something you hoped for has been taken away. Maybe you have suddenly been moved from a place of freedom to a place of physical or emotional or spiritual confinement.
I think we all have.
Some among us have endured wrenching grief that locks up our hearts. Some among us were just starting to get out of debt or move into a place of freedom, but a crisis interrupted. Some among us were hoping for a different outcome to the recent election, or at least hoping the divisiveness of the campaign season would be healed. Some among us were just starting to feel free and strong, that our marriages or families or bodies would be protected and respected. Some among us are worried about the future. Many among us are in prisons of fear and loss, and it is hard from these prisons to hold on to hope. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
There’s a phrase repeated many times in the psalms – how long, O Lord.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?
How long must your servant endure?
In sending his question to Jesus, John stood in the tradition of the psalmist, pouring out his grief and anxiety and fear to his disciples, to Jesus, and to God. Please hear this. John’s cry of fear and anxiety was not a lack of faith. It was actually a sign of deep faith. John believed in God’s goodness and wanted to see that goodness fulfilled. So if you have uttered words like these, you are in good company. Our cries of despair and concern demonstrate that we have not given up all hope. They reveal our belief and trust in God in spite of the frustrations of the moment. How long, O Lord?
So notice how Jesus responded. Go and tell.
These words were directed at the disciples of John, but they are the same command the risen Jesus will give to his disciples at the end of Matthew – Go into all the world and preach the gospel. The mandate of Jesus is the same – whether basking in the glory of Easter or living in the fear of prison. Go and tell. “Go and 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.”
These words may sound familiar. They are the words of the prophets. We heard them today from Isaiah, but many of the prophets encouraged the same hope. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
In quoting the prophets, Jesus reminded John of two things. First, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God was still working God’s purposes out – even when John was in prison. Regardless of what happens to us, God’s work in the world continues, and you can hope in that. Look around for signs that God is still with us. But second, by quoting the prophets, Jesus reminded John that the struggles of the present were nothing new. People centuries earlier had needed the same hope. That’s why the prophets spoke back then. That same hope was available to John now, even in his prison cell. Go and tell.
We’ve had several recent reminders of difficult times. This week marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The death of Fidel Castro recalled the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in some ways called to mind the turbulence of the past. We have lived through times of fear and uncertainty before. Jesus quoted the prophets to keep things in perspective. Go and tell.
Then after encouraging the disciples not to take offense at Jesus, and after explaining just how important John was, Jesus got to the point. What are disciples to tell? What is the good news they are to share? It is simply this: “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.” This was not a comment on John’s relative greatness. John was and is truly great. Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. But, Jesus declared, every human being possesses this greatness, and more.
That’s the good news that led John into the wilderness in the first place. That is the good news which called people to repentance. It is the heart of the gospel – the least in the kingdom of heaven is even greater than John. When we are anxious and worried we sometimes forget. It is tempting to stay put and keep silent. It is tempting to think only of ourselves and forget the dignity of every human being. But that is precisely when the message of the gospel is most needed. Go and tell.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. followed in the footsteps of John the Baptist and ended up in jail in Birmingham. While in prison, eight white religious leaders published a statement criticizing the civil rights movement. They urged King to be cautious and move more slowly. They called the movement unwise and untimely. That must have been a discouraging moment for King. He was in prison, and rather than stand with him on the side of justice, church leaders stood against him.
King wrote a response in longhand that was later published as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
To those who questioned why he came to Birmingham to “stir up trouble,” he explained how he heard the call to go.
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
King heard the call to go. He also heard the call to tell.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Go and tell.
We have been thinking about A Christmas Carol. Do you remember what happened at the end? Scrooge woke up from his magical journey on Christmas morning. He had been changed into who he was meant to be. But he didn’t stay in his room. He went out into the streets telling everyone, “It’s Christmas Day.”
We don’t know what lies ahead for any of us. We don’t know if it is still night or if the sun is about to rise. We don’t know if 2017 will bring joy or grief. Regardless, the call of Jesus is the same. Go and tell. Go and tell what you have seen and heard to a world imprisoned in anxiety and fear. Go and tell how valuable every human being is. Go and tell the story of God’s loving purposes. Go and tell.
God bless us, everyone, with gospel hope. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards, 2016
A version of Dr. King’s letter is available here
Photo by Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917)Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) – http://www.svetigora.com/node/918 full image here http://www.rublev-museum.ru/expo/exposition_b1.asp#pic_20, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3752807.