Scripture: Matthew 11:2-15
It is dark and cold in John the Baptist’s prison cell. Calling those people in power a brood of vipers was not the most diplomatic of moves. John has threatened the status quo one too many times. His preaching about the baptism of repentance has not been received well by those in charge. His rabble-rousing has landed him in jail. Surely, John must be disillusioned. He had been working to prepare the people with his baptism of repentance; he had been pointing them toward the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He knew from the moment he leapt with joy in his mother’s womb that the new age was about to come into the world, and he had lived to see the Messiah with his very own eyes. But John was starting to wonder, if the new age has come, then why does the old age continue to hold sway? If the new age has come, then why do the powerful continue to exploit the powerless? If the new age sets the captives free, then why am I sitting here in this cold, dark prison cell?!
The image of John in the prison cell is a reminder that the news of God’s kingdom is not good news to the kingdoms of the world. In the first century, prison was more of a way station than a final destination. John waits to be exonerated, exiled or executed. He knows that execution is a great possibility, and as he sits and wonders if his life will end in his cold, dark cell, he wonders if Christ is really the one who will usher in the new age. Even though he was incarcerated, John could have a lot of contact with his supporters and other people who could bring him the news of the day. He hears about Christ’s ministry and the ministry of Christ’s disciples, and he sends word to Jesus via his own disciples. He asks an odd question for one who had already proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s a question that germinated from behind prison bars. You can hear the despair in his voice. It’s like he’s saying, “Jesus. We are awake. We have repented. If the kingdom is really near, then when will it start to look like the new age around here?”
Jesus responds to John’s disciples, in his usual, indirect way, “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.” Jesus is saying that the sights and sounds of Christ’s ministry point to the new age. The only way to truly answer the question is to look around, to listen, and to see. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He ends with, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus is also saying that the sights and the sounds of the new age are offensive because they threaten those who benefit from the way things are. The poor see the new age as good news, but those whose kingdoms are getting turned upside down are offended. This is why John is in jail. It is a struggle to birth the new age because the new age is in conflict with the present age. Only those who have no stake in the current regime will not be offended by Jesus.
As John’s disciples begin to leave, Jesus turns back to the crowds to help them understand who John is, which will ultimately help them to understand the kind of kingdom he’s preparing the way for. He says John is not a reed shaken by the wind. This is not just a random image; the image of a reed calls to mind Herod because reeds were used as an image on coins minted during the reign of Herod Antipas. Jesus is contrasting the kingdom John is preparing for with the political kingdom that is in power. John is not like Herod who changes his mind to match the prevailing opinion of the day or to gain the popular vote. John will not give false comfort by just telling people what they want to hear. John is not royalty. He does not dress in soft robes like Herod. He does not censor his words like wise diplomats do. He is not well-dressed. He is a man from the wilderness whose clothes are made out of camel’s hair. He is a prophet and yet more than a prophet because he is the messenger who has prepared the way for Jesus.
John is a borderline figure. He is Elijah who has come to announce the turning of the ages. Let anyone with ears listen! John stands on the edge of a new age, a new age that the kingdom of Herod will try to shut down with violence. Yes, the kingdom of heaven has come near, but the violent are trying to take it by force. As Theologian Eugene Boring says, ‘The non-violent eschatological kingdom represented by the advent of Jesus the meek king has met violent opposition from representatives of the opposing kingdom.”[i] Jesus will not respond to violence with violence for his kingdom is one of peace. He does not conform to popular messianic expectations. Perhaps, Jesus is even helping John to more fully understand the kingdom for which he has been paving the road. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “John the Baptist can be arrested and killed, Jesus will be crucified, but the kingdom that John proclaims comes through the peace brought by Jesus. This kingdom is not some ideal of peace that requires the use of violence for its realization. Rather, the kingdom is Jesus, the one who has the power to overcome violence through love.”[ii] Because Jesus works to overcome violence through love, we have to train our eyes and our ears to see and hear his kingdom. The sights and sounds of his kingdom are different from the sights and sounds of the kingdoms in our world.
What is it that we hear and see this time of year? In our hemisphere, December is dark and cold like John’s prison cell, and often the twinkling Christmas lights aren’t enough to pierce the darkness. The world tells us it’s time for fun holiday parties and meaningful family gatherings. For some of us, the last place we want to be is at a party. For some of us, our relationships with our families come up short, causing us pain and not giving us comfort. Many of us are disillusioned. Some of us have just received life-changing news about our health or the health of those we love. Some of us can only focus on the empty chairs that no longer hold our loved ones. Some of us see the pain beyond ourselves – those with no homes, those still behind prison bars, those with no food much less a Christmas feast.
As the composer Noel Regney walked the streets of New York during the fall of 1962, he heard and saw people filled with a sense of dread and despair. Christmas was coming, and the Soviet Union and the United States were involved in a conflict about the missiles that the Russians had installed in Cuba. The US had threatened military action if the missiles were not removed. The whole world was watching to see what was going to happen. Regney had been drafted into the German army during the second World War, and he knew the horrors of war. One night as he walked home, the air thick with dread, he saw two mothers pushing their babies in strollers, looking at one another and smiling. The babies reminded him of newborn lambs, and that moment on the streets of Manhattan struck a chord inside him and inspired him to write the lyrics of a song that has become one of the most beloved Christmas carols, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It begins, “Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see. Way up in the sky, little lamb, do you see what I see. A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite, with a tail as big as a kite.” Knowing these lyrics were written during the Cuban Missile Crisis makes the song feel a little surreal. We think that star refers to the star that led the wise men to Jesus, but a star with a tail as big as a kite also sounds a lot like the description of a missile. There in the midst of that dark, cold night, with the threat of nuclear war just beneath the surface, there was still hope that peace would win the day. Regney’s song ends with these words: “Said the king to the people everywhere, listen to what I say. Pray for peace, people everywhere! Listen to what I say. The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night. He will bring us goodness and light. He will bring us goodness and light.” In the darkness of that dreadful winter, Regney held to the promise that the Christ child who was coming to be born among us again would bring peace and light.[iii]
Are we looking and listening for the signs of the kingdom in the midst of our darkness? And, as the church that’s supposed to be pointing to the kingdom, I wonder what people hear when they listen to us; I wonder what people see when they look at us. A recent study by the Barna group revealed that the top three perceptions of Christians by outsiders is that Christians are anti-gay; Christians are judgmental; and Christians are hypocrites. It sounds like we’ve got some work to do to recover our reputation. Shane Claiborne once said, “The gospel spreads best not by force but by fascination.” Is the world fascinated by the sights and sounds of our ministry? Can the world around us tell that the kingdom is near by what we say and do? Do the blind see? Do the lame walk? Are the lepers cleansed? Do the deaf hear? Are the dead raised? Do the poor have good news brought to them? When John asked Jesus, “Are you the one?” Jesus was able to answer by saying, “Look and listen!” He pointed John not to his words but to his actions.
This time of year it’s often Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol who reminds us that when it’s all said and done what really matters is our actions. Scrooge was known as a greedy and bitter old man, who loved his money more than he loved people, including his own family. He didn’t pay his clerk Bob Cratchit a fair wage. Bob’s son Tiny Tim was in need of medical care that the Cratchit’s couldn’t afford on Bob’s meager salary. When people greeted him with a joyful “Merry Christmas,” his response was always “Bah! Humbug!” But as it turns out, even old Ebenezer Scrooge gets a chance at repentance. One night the ghost of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley visits him; Marley’s punishment for his life of greed is spend his afterlife wandering the earth weighted down by chains. Marley hopes to save Scrooge from the same fate and begs him to change his ways. He tells Scrooge that over the next three nights, he will enter into a deep sleep and be visited by three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood reminding him of times when he was happy and of days spent with his beloved sister Fran; he is shown glimpses of his first boss who was kind to him; he is shown a flashback to his engagement to a woman named Belle, who eventually left him because of his greed. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the Cratchit family filled with great joy as they celebrate Christmas even though their celebration is very modest; for the first time, Scrooge learns that Bob has a crippled son named Tiny Tim. He’s then shown his beloved sister Fran’s son, Fred celebrating with his family. The Ghost of Christmas Future takes him to the scene of his own death, where he overhears his business associates laughing about how he will probably have a cheap funeral and a couple expressing great relief over his death because he was their unforgiving creditor. Scrooge promises the Ghost of Christmas Future that he will celebrate Christmas with all his heart if the Ghost will alter his fate.
Scrooge is so happy to wake up from his deep sleep and to be given a second chance. He rushes out his front door, yelling “Merry Christmas!” to everyone he sees. He has a turkey sent to the Cratchit’s house, gives a large donation to charity, goes to church, and then attends his nephew’s Christmas dinner. He gives Bob Cratchit a huge raise and becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim. The raise he gives Bob enables Bob to get Tiny Tim the medical care he needs. Scrooge’s change of heart is evident in the sights and sounds all around him. The lame walk. The poor receive good news. The blind see! The story of Ebenezer Scrooge invites us to take inventory of our own lives this Advent and ask ourselves a piercing question – When we look at our own lives, what do we hear and see? When we reflect on the ministry of our church, what do we hear and see? What do the sights and sounds reveal about the condition of our hearts?
The world is indeed a dark, cold place, just like John’s prison cell. Sometimes the old age continues to hold sway. The powerful still exploit the powerless. The captives are still enslaved. There are still wars and rumors of wars. As people who live in the light of the new age, does our life together witness to the peace and light of Christ? Does our life together demonstrate that the new age has come? Is anyone offended by our ministry? Or have we blended in to our culture so much that all we have to offer this Advent is the fleeting joy of gifts, the false comforts of fragile humanity? Have we allowed our lives to be shaped more by the kingdoms of our world than the kingdom of God? Jesus invites us to open up our ears. The kingdom of heaven is near. Can we hear it? It’s a kingdom of love, not violence. It’s a kingdom of peace, not war. It’s a kingdom of abundance, not scarcity or greed. It’s a kingdom of freedom, not imprisonment. It’s a kingdom of light, not darkness. Wake up! Repent! Listen! The words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled. The people who sit in darkness will see a great light! The light will dawn on those who sit in the shadow of death! Let anyone with ears listen!
[i] Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible – Matthew, 115.