Last Sunday, in chapter 3, we met John the Baptist at the height of his powers; the voice in the wilderness, packing them in to his riverside gig, every last person in Jerusalem taking a trip out to the desert to hear the celebrity speaker, the must-see show of the year. This Sunday we are in chapter 11, and things are different. John the Baptist is in prison and now he can’t meet anyone at all, but can only send a word to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
I read one commentator this week who said he was surprised that John the Baptist could have asked this question in chapter 11 when in chapter 3 he was completely certain Jesus was the one – what was Matthew thinking? But I wanted to go and ask that commentator whether he had really never known a moment of doubt in his life, a moment of wondering whether he’d made a huge mistake sometime or backed the wrong horse? The question that John the Baptist sends out from his cell to Jesus seems to me very moving, completely understandable, and somehow more attractive and human than some of his previous certainties..
I’m told that it’s very common that people in prison lose confidence and begin to doubt those they love and the causes they served. They begin to suspect that their partners are being unfaithful to them. They lose faith in the justice system, in their lawyers and supporters, and they lose faith in themselves. They even begin to reappraise what their whole life has been about. Whether you watch Fletcher in Porridge, or Nelson Mandela in the Long Road to Freedom or read Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, you can imagine how this happens. Even John the Baptist, who had defined his whole career in black and white clarity, when it came to the dark loneliness of a stinking jail, began to doubt. As his great prophetic sermons were fading into the wilderness scrubland and his powerful words were dying into silence, he began to wonder. He wanted to know whether he’d lost his head over Jesus, and whether he was going to lose it for nothing.
But of course you don’t have to be literally in prison to know something of this sense of doubt. In one of Iris Murdoch’s novels there is a priest who says that he still has faith in the idea of being a priest, but he no longer has any faith in God. He has lost the belief that Jesus was the one sent to redeem the world. And I imagine that for most of us here there have been times in our lives, and perhaps, who knows, now is such a time, when we have wondered whether Jesus really is or was ‘the one’. Perhaps, after years of turning up on Sundays, giving to the offering, pouring out endless cups of tea and helping with this and that, we hardly dare even let ourselves ask the question – is Jesus the one? There are plenty out there who would gladly answer for us; Christianity in their eyes a collection of fairy tales for the weak minded or perhaps an unnecessary packaging for morality that we could well manage without, or even a narrative that’s so tainted now by what Christians are presumed to think about sex that we’d be better without it.
So to address our own critics, and even more our own doubts and wobbles and existential cries, we need to listen very hard to Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist. Because it might just be that he was saying something that will speak directly into our hearts too. We want to know whether he is the one too, so that we can be sure that all this that we do in his name is what we should be giving our lives for. We want to know ‘Jesus, are you the one?’
When John’s friends asked Jesus this question, Jesus didn’t say either yes or no, but he said, ‘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.’ It looks a bit as though Jesus was just saying something like, ‘well all these good things are happening, and I know they’re not quite what you imagined, but they are signs that the Kingdom is coming.’ But Jesus was doing more than that. He was quoting from the Bible – and although John the Baptist didn’t have the Isaiah scroll with him in his cell as we have it now in our pews, he couldn’t have failed to recognise the passage. It would be like someone writing a letter that reads like the Sermon on the Mount. You wouldn’t be able to miss it. And John would have known what Jesus was saying.
Jesus is all but quoting from Isaiah – and mainly Isaiah 35. He’s quoting from a book written when the people of Israel were in exile in a foreign land – a time when they had begun to doubt that God was with them. The people had lost the treasured symbols of their faith. The Temple was gone with its sacrifices and rituals, the familiar land was left behind, and it was hard even to keep singing the psalms. The people were depressed and dismayed, and they were living under tyrants and oppressors. The days were as bleak as they could be, everything turned to sand. But into such silence came a voice – perhaps at first hardly heard, but then loud with faith and hope. And the voice spoke of the wilderness rejoicing and blossoming with crocuses. The voice told the people to ‘strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees, and say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’.
‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer;
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’
So how did John hear this message from Jesus? I think that he would have recognised the Scripture passage that Jesus was quoting from, would have remembered quoting from it himself and would have known that Jesus was saying something like – ‘This is not just about you and me and Herod and the Romans. We are part of what God has been doing since the beginning. Your vision and mine of a different world, shaped by the scriptures over centuries, is the real deal, and God continues to make it real. Even if your time is ending, even if you die where you are – the day of the Lord will come – and there are signs that is just somehow around the corner and always worth even giving your life for. Hold on to that hope.’
And these words of hope written to a people robbed of their religion can also speak to us in our times of doubt. They tell us that we do not have to accept the accounts of God and the world that our society makes, just as don’t have to accept its consumerism or its violence. There is another way – and it is a way that has deep, deep roots in tradition, in history and in the generations from which we have come. It is indeed possible to believe that God is real, that goodness is stronger than hate and that it will always be better to love your neighbour than to hate or fear them… even if they despise you for it. If our culture wants to imprison us in despair and tiredness, we do not have to stay there – we can break out and pray that God will make the world differently and show us how to join in. We have been given a tradition that boldly proclaims, even in the worst of times, that God is coming to make all things new. And we have the choice to believe it too, to live it and even, if we must, to die for it.
Jesus was ‘the one’ – in the sense that no-one, no-one before him or since has ever made it clearer or more beautiful to see what God wants our lives to be, what God created us for and what God is redeeming us for. And he was ‘the one’ in that he showed so plainly, and at such cost, that God so loves us that God is ready to give everything for us. Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection did not open all the doors of every prison in an instant, like a kind of magic solution to all our woes and pains, but he like none other does open the way to a new kind of human life. He let in hope, the kind of hope that can survive any pain and can endure any cost and can invite and win the depths of our hearts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who wrote from prison in Advent 1943, and said:
‘A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, … and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.’
We are so used to thinking that we have to be able to open the prison door from the inside, that we ought to be able to supply our own source of hope – that we are readily disappointed. But the Advent hope, and the hope of all faith, is that God will come and open the doors that we can’t – that God will come and open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf and bring good news to the poor and make the lame dance. The church may look weakened and our hopes for a different kind of world may seem so fragile and frail. But what really defines human life is the promise that what God intends for us is so much more and so much loving that what we can imagine for ourselves. I know that, despite the way things sometimes look and the way I sometimes feel, I choose to listen to the words of the prophets, to the ones with beautiful feet who bring good news, and who tell us to ‘be strong’ and not to lose heart. For our world needs more than ever right now those who will hold on to the vision of the world as God intends it to be; when the blind will see, the lame will leap, the poor will hear good news and the prisoners will be set free.
I hope that John found hope again and rejoiced in the coming of God in that prison cell. I know Bonhoeffer died numbered among the saints. I believe that Jesus was ‘the one’. I hope that you and I shall live keep on living and believing in hope, in joy and in expectation that the day of the Lord shall indeed come and is already here.