This is the third reflection in our Advent Series, "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years," by biblical scholars and preachers John C. Holbert and Alyce McKenzie. For an overview of the series with links to all the reflections, click here.
Third Sunday in Advent
John's Doubts About His Spiritual Vision
In our text from Matthew 11:2-11 for Sunday, December 12, John sends his disciples from prison to question Jesus. "Are you he who is to come or should we wait for another?" This question echoes John's own preaching in 3:11 that pointed toward "the one who is to come . . ."
Is John having second thoughts? Is he wondering "Is Jesus who I thought he was? Was my spiritual vision clear? I spoke of one who would clear the threshing floor with a winnowing fork and burn the chaff. Instead I hear of healings and forgiveness. Would the kind of Messiah I expected act the way Jesus does?"
Jesus' reply echoes prophecies of Isaiah (29:18-19, 35:5-6, 61:1). He emphasizes that, while John pointed toward judgment leading to the destruction of the wicked, Jesus has come not to destroy but to restore. Jesus points John's disciples to the fruits of his ministry. 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 (11:5). Then he adds this enigmatic blessing: "And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (11:6). Blessed are those who see in my ministry, not a stumbling block to faith, but encouragement to faith.
Jesus' Clear Vision of John's Ministry
We can tell how someone really feels about someone else by what they say about them behind their back. John's disciples leave to take Jesus' answer back to John. And this is Jesus' chance to say what he really thinks about John. Apparently John isn't sure Jesus' ministry is the culmination of his own ministry of baptism and exhortation to repentance. But Jesus is sure that John's ministry is an integral precursor to his own ministry of healing, restoration, and forgiveness. He has only good things to say about John and his role. John's role was to point people toward repentance. If his ministry lacks the gospel of the unmerited love of God taking the initiative in seeking and saving the lost, well, that's where Jesus comes in.
John's ministry reminds me of my Aunt Minnie, who went to church to get her picture taken for the directory. When the prints came back from Olan Mills, she was not pleased. She called the customer service line and complained. "I'm not buying these pictures because you air brushed out all my wrinkles. It doesn't look like me."
"Ma'am would you like us to redo them and put the wrinkles back?"
"Yes," Minnie said. "Then I would buy a few."
John is not buying a world, a humanity, without sin, blots, blemishes, wrinkles. He's not about to wield an airbrush over our photos. He wants us to look in the mirror and see ourselves as we are.
Our Need for A Clear View of Sin and Grace in Ourselves
Isaiah in chapter 35 has a beautiful vision of redemption as a fertile, lush reality already blooming in our arid, despairing landscape. The prophet encourages us to imagine this future reality as present now and live by that hope and live into that hope.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom . . . (35:1)
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.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert (35:5-6).
This messianic vision is already a reality in Jesus' ministry. We need clear spiritual vision to focus on this reality around us. We need a clear spiritual vision to focus on the presence of Christ in our midst, in our lives, our churches, our communities, our world. There is so much else to focus on in this season of shopping days until Christmas. John's ministry is a countdown of repentance days until judgment.
Jesus' ministry is an invitation to a season of preparation of our hearts and lives for the Advent of God's unmerited grace, an infant who bridges the gap between us and God, a baby through whom we can be made right with God, beginning now.