John is in prison. The wilderness preacher who used to sleep out by the river, under a blanket of stars – now he is locked up behind bars. No window allows him to see sun or moon; by day and night he stares at the walls. The door is shut, and it can be opened only from the outside.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he used to proclaim, certain that the days of the old regime were counted. So convinced was he that the kingdom of justice was about to erupt like a volcano, he could feel it rumbling under the soles of his feet.
John only ate what the wilderness provided, locusts and wild honey, but there was no sweetness dripping from his lips: he spoke with fire on his breath. One stronger than himself would come after him, and he would gather the wheat and burn the chaff. John had seen Jesus. John had baptized Jesus. And when Herod shut him up in a cell he thought it wouldn’t be long before the prison doors would fly open.
First he noticed what he didn’t hear: no reports of the smiting of the wicked; no cries of terror from the threshing floor of divine justice; no shouts of happy vengeance from the streets of he city. I can see him pacing up and down his cell, four steps to the door, four steps back to the wall, tormented by questions, “What is Jesus doing? What is taking him so long? Where is the fire?”
Then John began to hear about Jesus’ work in the towns of Galilee, bits and pieces about him healing the sick, bringing hope to the oppressed, and forgiving sinners—what had happened to the ax that was lying at the foot of the trees? John was confused.
I can see him sitting in the dark, waiting for the walls to crumble and light to pour in; but the only thing crumbling is his certainty; disappointment and doubt are creeping in. Perhaps he knows that he is going to die in Herod’s prison. Perhaps he wants just some assurance that he gave his life for something real and true, and that he wouldn’t end up just another victim of Herod’s rule.
So he sent word by his disciples, asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” For John, everything is at stake in that question – and for anyone who has asked it since. Am I entrusting my hope to the One sent by God or to a fantasy?
When you go to Bethlehem and kneel next to the crib and you look at the infant, it is easy to see a bundle of promise and possibility. The little one hasn’t done anything yet, so your heart is filled with nothing but wonder and expectation. But John didn’t come to meet Jesus in the manger. Jesus came to John at the Jordan to be baptized, and somehow John just knew that this was the One whose coming he had proclaimed. John looked at Jesus and he saw the one whose power had fired his imagination. He looked at Jesus and he saw the one carrying the ax of judgment, the one who would cut down every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit. John looked at Jesus on the river bank, and he knew that the reign of God was now but a fire away.
“Wait a minute,” John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and now you come to me?” Jesus insisted on being baptized together with all the sinners, and John was puzzled. Eventually he consented and he baptized Jesus with water, but he didn’t allow the Messiah’s solidarity with sinners to change his own blazing expectations of divine justice. He just waited for the fire to start.
Now, locked up in Herod’s prison, with little waiting time left, his certainty had changed into a mix of trust and doubt. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Asking this question is not a failure of nerve or a symptom of a lack of faith. It is part of the work of Advent, part of preparing ourselves for the coming of God’s reign. The gospel invites us to let go of our violent fantasies of divine vengeance and to take this question with us as we go to Bethlehem and to Galilee and to Jerusalem, and to ask ourselves every step of the way, Is this child the One? Is this friend of sinners the One? This strange king, crucified under the old regime, is he the One who brings the kingdom of heaven to earth? Or are we to wait for another? Are we yet to wait for the one with the ax and the fire?
The answer the gospel invites us to consider is not a simple yes or no, but it is beautifully simple. Jesus says to the disciples of the Baptist, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” And pointing to the life erupting around him, Jesus sings a few lines from Isaiah: The blind receive their sight and the lepers are cleansed; the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised. Look and listen, the poor have good news brought to them. The reign of God is here, healing and cleansing, feeding and forgiving, opening eyes and ears, restoring and renewing the whole creation. Tell John what you see. Sing him a song of heaven embracing the earth with grace and compassion. Sing of showers of forgiveness on the thirsty land, and streams of mercy refreshing the parched places. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.
John knows the song and soon he’s humming along, singing behind thick prison walls about liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. The guards are wondering if John has lost his mind, but they continue to listen as he sings like no one has ever sung in the basement of Herod’s palace. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God! He will come and save you.’
Behind that prison door the guards can sense a fearlessness and hope that is unheard of in the world of Caesar, who reigns with fear and force. I can see them unlocking that door and saying to John, “We have the keys to your cell, but you know more about freedom and hope than any of us. Will you teach us?” And I can hear John telling them about Israel’s hope of homecoming that will make the desert sing. I can hear him teaching them the song that has joy jumping from line to line like a dancer.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; … the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This question helps us clarify our expectations of who or what God’s Messiah is as we go to Bethlehem and on to Galilee and Jerusalem and wherever the way of Christ takes us.
“Go and tell what you hear and see!”
This short, exuberant sentence is an invitation to recognize the inbreaking of God’s reign in Jesus, and to become attentive to the ways in which his presence transforms the dry land of sin and fear.
We are still beginning to grasp that Jesus didn’t come to bring the fire, but to be the fire that purifies and the water that makes the desert sing. Jesus didn’t come to bulldoze a highway across the hills and valleys of our life, but to be the way that leads us from sin and judgment to righteousness and life, from lonely exile to our home in communion with God. Jesus is the Holy Way, and the unholy and the unclean are no longer excluded from God’s people but loved and called and made whole and sent.
The way of Jesus led him as a sheep among the wolves, straight into Herod’s jail, and he died, just as John did, at the hand of the old regime. The Holy Way goes straight into the prisons where the empire of sin holds God’s people captive, but grace throws the door open, the thick walls crumble under the weight of mercy, and light and life flood in.
We don’t know if John the Baptist sat in his cell and sang with Isaiah, but I like to imagine he did. John was bewildered because in the stories he heard about Jesus he didn’t recognize the Messiah he had announced. I like to imagine that before he died he was able to see the glory of God’s reign in the words and deeds of Jesus. I think of John as the embodiment and voice of our longing for the world made right. He is Advent in person: his life was shaped by his waiting. I like to imagine that the certainty of John’s expectation only for a moment got in the way of his seeing the fulfillment of his hope. I like to imagine it for John, because I have the same hope for you and me: that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear how heaven is coming to earth in Jesus, and how the kingdom of God is present when the sick are healed and the hungry are fed, when sinners are forgiven, and the poor are taught to sing with Isaiah.
Therefore, let us strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Let us say to those who are of fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”