When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
” ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Funny how things change. Just last week we saw John the Baptist ministering in power. Now here he is, rotting in a prison cell. Last week we saw John the Baptist preaching a baptism of repentance at the Jordan River and calling Israel back to her roots. Now we see him asking a huge and poignant question: Are you (Jesus) the one who was to come, or should we look for someone else?
The above reading is traditional for the third Sunday of Advent, the one called “Gaudete” (Latin for “Rejoice”). If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it. This is a Sunday of rejoicing amidst the dark, dreary December gloom, a respite from the somber tone of the Advent season.
But what a reading. Kind of a downer, wouldn’t you say?
But the Lord is near. There is joy in that, even for one in prison.
The majority view on this passage is that this question arose out of a moment of doubt. You see, John the Baptist had some not so nice words to say to Herod about him taking up with his brother’s estranged wife, and that got him thrown in jail. Roman prisons are not very nice places, so it’s understandable that John might have a moment of weakness in which he would forget who he was and what God had sent him into the world to do, and would need to hear a reassuring word from Jesus to set him straight. After all, the Jesus he came wasn’t exactly the Jesus he was expecting. He had preached a Jesus who would come with winnowing fork in hand to separate the faithful wheat from the unbelieving chaff. The axe was laid to the dead root of faithless Israel and every unbelieving branch would be cut off and thrown into eternal fire. He baptized with water, but the coming Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Yet this Jesus came humbly and gently. He submitted to John’s baptism in solidarity with other sinners. He scandalized the religious powers-that-be by his ready association with the lowest and most notorious sinners of that culture. He worked miracles, healed diseases, liberated demon-possessed people, and preached the kingdom of God not in power but in meekness.
But there is an alternate view: Perhaps John the Baptist was not asking this question for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his disciples. All along John the Baptist knew that his role was to point to Jesus. After Jesus came he sent his disciples to follow Jesus, saying such things as “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Now he wanted, instead of to tell his disciples one more time that Jesus is the one who was to come, to have them hear it straight out of his mouth. He did not want to see his followers become disheartened by his imprisonment.
There is something compelling about this viewpoint. John’s disciples needed to know that this meek, humble, unassuming Jesus who probably did not fit their expectations of what the Messiah ought to look like, was indeed the Messiah. Jesus was the one to follow, not John. Jesus must increase, John must decrease. To the end, John was a way-preparer and a signpost pointing others to Jesus. Even in prison, John was fulfilling his destiny as a voice crying out in the wilderness.
But whichever the case is, the overarching point here is the same: The way of the kingdom of God is the way of the cross, the way of suffering, the way of dying to self and choosing weakness over strength. Not our way of doing things.
Our world’s way of doing things is all about power. The world is run by the Herods and the Pontius Pilates. Even the way of peace is all about power, because peace is maintained by military might and the threat of destruction for all who step out of line. We respect power. We fear it. We covet it. If only we could make people see things our way, then the kingdom of God would appear in our midst.
John the Baptist came in power. He knew what he stood for and was not shaken by every little change in the political and cultural winds of his day. He did not care for creature comforts or concern himself with what he would eat or what he would wear. He was prophesied by Malachi and came in the spirit and power of Elijah. Jesus himself said that he was the greatest of all born of women.
And yet Jesus also said that even the least in the kingdom of God–the tiniest baptized baby, the lowliest believer, the most overwhelmed new Christian–is greater than John the Baptist. For this is not a kingdom of power or of law.
This kingdom suffers violence. Forceful men lay hold of it. Even the greatest prophet can be imprisoned and later beheaded. Even the Son of God can be arrested, beaten, and crucified. His believers are persecuted and martyred, even today in many parts of the world. His Church, the movement which he launched, is a disorganized, divided, scattered mess. Not at all like the slick corporations, powerful kingdoms, and yes, megachurches, of our world. To the world it looks as if we Christians are nothing more than just a bunch of big fat losers following the biggest loser of all.
One of the most poignant themes in Lutheran teaching is the idea of the God who hides himself in weakness. In a world that is all about power, God does not seek to have His way through power. Instead, He goes the exact opposite way and hides Himself in weakness. A crucified first-century Roman criminal is the Savior of the world. A knockoff sect of Judaism that never should have made it out of the first century is a movement that has changed the world. A disorganized, divided, scattered mess is the Church, “terrible as an army with banners” as C. S. Lewis put it, ushering in the Kingdom of God in our world. And a message that the world does not want to hear is the Gospel of hope for all the world.
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.
–2 Corinthians 4:7-11
Such is the way of Advent, and is why this downer of a reading is appropriate for the Sunday called “Gaudete”. Just as God’s glory and power are hidden in weakness, just as the power of the Church remains hidden in a fractious and divisive movement, just as the power and hope of the Gospel are hidden in a message the world does not want to hear, so the joy and hope of Christmas are hidden in a dark season called Advent, and the rejoicing of this Sunday called “Gaudete” is hidden in this downer of a reading.