Gospel reading from Matthew 11: 2-11

‘When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then 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,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

   who will prepare your way before you.”

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Reflection – 3rd Sunday of Advent

This is week 2 of our focus on John the Baptist – although we prepare for Christmas we must remember this passage is about the adult ministry of John and Jesus. This passage has two sets of questions and two answers. but I want to focus on the question from John to Jesus.

John has kicked off this movement: Jesus has joined it and taken it on, and is now preaching and ministering, but John is in prison, put there by Herod, the ruler of Galilee (not the Herod of Christmas).

Understandably John is confused. In his timing, the Messiah would come and there would be victory, and he has a personal interest in this timing. Jesus responds with a summary quote from Isaiah 61 but crucially Jesus leaves out the section about setting the captive free. That is the one bit that is most important to John! Instead John is told “blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me”. There are signs of the coming Kingdom, but it is not here in its fulness; in fact the Herods and Pilates of this world will continue to do their worst; As John so will be Jesus, prisoner and executed by the hostile powers. At times it will feel as if the hostile powers are winning – and the righteous are suffering unjustly and unfairly, whether John in prison, or Ukrainian, Yemeni, Afghan people today. How they must long for the one who is to come, to come; are maybe they are tempted to wait for another, or put their faith in another.

This is part of the challenge of Advent, the light we affirm, is fragile compared to the apparent power of the darkness around. Can we trust in this light? Can we say with St John (a different John of course from John the Baptist), “the darkness cannot overcome it”? In places of violence and war and corruption, the light seems to be smashed, and in our Western world the power of secularisation seems to be snuffing it out – as the recent Census indicates. What does this mean for us?

I have always found this question from John so poignant. He has done so much and given so much. He has invested in proclaiming that the Messiah is coming and has pointed people on to Jesus. Now he is in prison, almost certainly to be executed. ‘Are you the one or should we wait for another?’ Has he got it all wrong, Jesus is good but not strong enough maybe? And Jesus answer is ambivalent, not in being unclear, but in being clear that he is the Messiah, but the way of the Messiah, for all the signs and indicators, is not the way of triumph and glory but of offence and suffering. Some will take offence at this and look for another!

Revd Peter Reiss