Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 80:1-7, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5,
Perhaps you have watched a movie lately. What makes a good movie? Many people like movies that are not too predictable: we want plot twists, character development, originality, a story that makes us think and reflect. Although it can also be nice to watch easy movies of which you know how they end, these are often not the ‘good’ movies. And if you don’t like movies: the same goes for books. Good movies and literature may genuinely touch us, when they pertain to real and lived life and provide new insights into it.
I: John is doubting
Today our Gospel reading [Matthew 11:2-10] confronts us with a rather perplexing plot twist. John the Baptist, the prophet ‘greater than a prophet’ (v. 9), is asking Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come or should we look for another?” (v. 3) The prophet whose very life circled around pointing to Jesus, this John is asking Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come or should we expect another?”
What is happening here? This is not the question of someone kindly informing about Jesus… you know, the sort of intellectual interest that is polite but lacks an open heart. Nor is it anger, in the sense that John is upset about Jesus… This seems to be doubt.
There haven’t been many theologians in Christian tradition who dared to grant John this doubtful inquiry as his own. It must have been John’s pupils’ questions, as if John as well as Jesus’ answering were playing a piece of theatre. Indeed, this question is disconcerting. But why would we bother ascribing it to someone else than John the Baptist? Exegetes nowadays think it is John’s doubt, like it is presented.
In fact, it adds to the credibility of the Gospels that the writers (Matthew and Luke in this instance) did write this down. Even John could have a doubtful question. Or: also John as a character could develop. He was, after all, a real and changing person, not a static figure.
II: Why doubt?
But why could John possibly be doubting? John preached ‘the One who is to come’, because he expected the fulfillment of Scripture.
In the time of Jesus, many Jews expected the arrival of a new King, a new Anointed One, the descendant of David, the One who will restore Israel, Zion, and the Temple. The Messiah: Christ. In the beginning of his ministry, as one can read in the beginning of the Gospels, (e.g. Matthew 3:1-12) John proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. That included preaching about the coming judgement. Like Isaiah says “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” (Is 35:4). When this prophetic text was written down, probably in the time that the Israelites lived in exile, Isaiah’s words gave hope for the immediate future of the Israelites: you will return and rebuild the Temple. That happened. And ages later, they were still words that spoke to the Jews: these texts strengthened the expectations and imagination of the Messiah.
There’s another text, later in the book of Isaiah (61), that says that the Anointed of the Lord is ‘to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners’ (also Is 42:7). Now John, who is still imprisoned, begins to wonder whether Jesus really is the fulfillment of prophetic expectations. That was probably because Jesus had not released John, who was incarcerated in deplorable circumstances by the rather immoral king Herod – the one who partied on.
John, who is called ‘more than a prophet’ by Jesus (v.9), is asking: Are you the one who is to come? He started doubting Jesus, perhaps because of his own situation, perhaps also because of care for others. We don’t know exactly. Because of his prophetic activity, we do know that he was truly concerned about God’s presence on this earth. He longed for the Messiah. He longed for God’s Kingdom of justice and peace. And that includes the judgement of evil.
III: Our expectations?
So yes: John is doubting, but you can only doubt when you have expectations. When you are actually expecting! Are you? What are you looking forward to? Is it the parcel with a new pair of shoes that you can ‘track and trace’? A bigger house … a thrilling party, or just the next meal.
John embodies the expectation of Advent: he expects the One who is to come. He has lived with the Scriptures and the hope for a Savior for Israel. He preached repentance and has based his expectations on what he had learned from tradition and the Holy Spirit. This is how expectations and imaginations of what is to come work. They are based on what we know and what we have heard. This is a good thing. However, it is fallible – because we are humans and we interpret -with the best intentions- what we have heard.
In John’s case, his own main and crucial message of repentance and the coming judgement might have colored his expectations of the Messiah’s actions and their order. He started doubting Jesus based on what was happening so far. Fearful doubt comes in, it might not be Him…
Like a woman who is pregnant after miscarriage and therefore has her reservations: will this child be born alive? Or someone who is praying for healing, but also knows it might not be given in the way prayed for. This is ultimately based on our experience that things might go very differently than we imagined and hoped for.
How are our expectations of the Coming One and his Kingdom? Do we doubt He is to come? Do we have an expectation at all? And how does it show in our lives? This is the season to ponder our expectations and to let them be shaped and formed. In fact, this is the season of the Church since Christ’s Ascension: Advent. We await Christ’s coming, in our lives and in glory.
There can be all sorts of reasons not to expect. You might have learned not to expect, because of fear for disappointment.
To be honest, I think it is not easy at all to remain expectant of things beyond fast satisfaction. We live in a culture that doesn’t attend His coming at all, but gratifies in liturgies of consumerism: showing your good tastes by buying quality clothing, expressing your love by buying pretty presents. Never mind that this lifestyle is only possible because of the existence of modern slaves at the other side of the world.
Also, with respect to our expectations of a good life, for ourselves, for our beloved ones: Only when you have expectations, you can doubt them. And some of them can better be given up after doubting them…
But what about the position of faith in your life: Is it an accessory that looks very nice on one of your body parts, a picture on your wall that evokes nostalgia or perhaps anger, or more like the air you try to breathe every day?
IV: God sets the agenda
John was full of expectation. His whole life was anticipation of Christ, the Anointed One. Yet even for Him, it went different than he expected. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus answered John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: (5) the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus alludes to phrases from Isaiah, the text we have heard today, as well as other phrases from this prophetic tradition. He points to signs of salvation, to signs of the Kingdom. It is the power of God that is at work in this Jesus who performs these miracles.
In other moments, He leaves no doubt about the fact that judgement and justice belong to the Kingdom of God as well, but for now: they are postponed. The blessings foretold by Isaiah are being fulfilled by Jesus but the judgement for which John the Baptist longed so heartily is still in the future. Apparently, God sets the agenda.
So, John’s disciples must return and tell about the priorities at the moment, trusting this is enough to answer John’s question. He is right to expect Jesus as the Messiah!
Then, the only way you can live with expectations of God and fear of God, really trusting his ways while also actively engaging in them, also doubting them, is when you are, like John, in a relation with him. I mean, you can only ask the question to the one who can truly answer you and your longings.
In the background of John’s question is the attitude of psalm 80. The psalm we’ve sung today. “Restore us O God, let your face shine, that we may be saved.” (80:4)
These are the words of someone who calls upon God in despair. Someone who in faith says: I am still here God, I with my wants, my addiction, my daily fight to remain standing, I with my foolishness, I with my sins. I have a question: are you the one who can save me?
Who dares to approach God like that and ask Him: show me, show us, who you are God. Come and save us. Who has the guts to come to Jesus with your doubt about yourself, hoping that he will restore you for his glory?
For a full life in which such questions have a place, you need a different liturgy than the liturgy of consumerism. You need to worship God. Only someone who loves God and worships Him, knows that everything depends on God’s presence.
V: Jesus is the Way
John asks whether Jesus is that presence of the Kingdom. Jesus’ answer is indirect and closes with: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (v. 6) Jesus knew his appearance and actions were disturbing for many. And in this ‘beatitude’ he uses the word ‘scandalize’, from skandalon, stumbling block. Jesus says: the one who doesn’t stumble over me, is blessed.
Indeed, the one who doesn’t fall over Jesus is the one who remains on the Way of Life. He is the Way to God, the Way to restoration, the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, hopes of which we read in Isaiah this morning:
“And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.”Isaiah 35:8
Jesus, here and in other places, presents himself as The Way. The Way to God. The kingdom of God is in Him. You cannot pick another way. Being offended by Him, means stumbling and rolling of the Way to God. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
God’s story with us is full of plot twists, character development, originality, and it surely makes us think and reflect. However, it’s much more than a movie we watch or a book that we read. We can be fully in it and remain in it: it’s not a virtual reality: it is reality, a reality to be fully revealed. The final revelation is still to come when Jesus returns. He is the One to expect, in this life and thereafter. That is Advent, and the Christian life is Advent.
There’s much to learn from John, who points to Jesus. (Only when you have expectations, you can doubt them. And only when you seek God’s presence, you can let your expectations be formed adequately by God.) Continuously return to Jesus with your questions, your longings, your expectations, yes even your doubt. Let them be transformed by the Spirit. Christ will return. The Kingdom of justice and peace will come. That is the expectation of the Church, based on what we have heard about Jesus in the Scriptures, Old and New Testament. Based on our experience of salvation in our lives with Him. That fellowship with God, that communion with Christ through the Spirit gives the flexibility to actively walk the Advent-full Way of faith, also when things go differently than you had expected.