From doubting to waiting — Advent 3A (15 December 2013)

Isaiah 35.1–10
Matthew 11.2–1


Poor John the Baptist. He’s been on an amazing ride for a few years, baptising crowds of people by the Jordan River and witnessing a religious revival. It gave him the confidence to confront King Herod about his adultery—and got him thrown into jail.

One of the highlights of John’s mission was seeing Jesus of Nazareth come into his own. It seemed that Jesus may be the one they had come to hope for, the deliverer, the Messiah, the coming one. But now he was in jail.

There, he has time. Lots of time. Time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Time to wonder if he is on the right track or not.

It must be hard to stay confident when you’re imprisoned, your future uncertain, and there’s nothing much happening on the outside.

John wants to hear that things are happening on the outside. He has begun to doubt what he had proclaimed, which was:

the kingdom of heaven has come near.

If God’s kingdom is near, just around the corner, maybe John thinks something should be happening. So shouldn’t Jesus be doing something?

John sends some of his people to Jesus with a question:

Are you [really] the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

What are you going to do, Jesus? When are you gonna get me outta here? Was I mistaken about you?

Was John wrong to doubt?

I’m not going to ask for a show of hands—but I reckon if I asked all those who had never doubted anything or anyone to put up their hands, I’d be looking at what I’m seeing now. A load of people with their hands firmly down.

Doubt is a normal experience. Everyone doubts something or someone at sometime.

So what does Jesus say in reply to John’s message? He speaks words that would be familiar to John, words that remind John of the prophet Isaiah:

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.

Jesus is echoing several passages from Isaiah. One of them is Isaiah 35, which we heard today:

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.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert…

Be glad! God is coming to deliver God’s people!

One other passage from Isaiah that may have come to John’s mind was Isaiah 61.1:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news
to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…

And there—just there!—there may have been a touch of irony for John. “Release to the prisoners”? What about starting with him?

We know of course that John was never released. Herod Antipas had him beheaded in rather seedy circumstances, which eventually spawned a number of regrettable and forgettable C-grade movies.

What was happening here?

Let me suggest that Jesus was reminding John of the great acts of God in the past and the present, so that John might have hope in God for the future.

Jesus was showing John the way to move from doubting to waiting. John was to wait for the great deliverance of God, even if that deliverance would not be his personally. Jesus was showing John that his spirit could be free, even in prison.

It’s not easy to wait. But it’s something we all must learn in life. We wait for the train, to see the doctor, to hear whether we got that job or passed that exam, we wait for the coming of a baby. But if we wait anxiously, doubt may sneak in.

God calls us to wait in hope. The blind see, the deaf hear, the prisoners are released. And we each are among that number. Or we shall be.

This is one reason why Advent is so important. In an age of instant gratification and a time of technical solutions, Advent teaches us that—in the words of John Wesley—‘the best is yet to come’. We can see the outlines of what that ‘best’ looks like—hungry fed, strangers welcomed, the sick visited and healed and the prisoners set free. We can look forward to this, as much as a child looks forward to Christmas.

But those of us who have taken on adult responsibilities must also lament that the hungry are left hungry and the stranger is not welcomed. And so we must pray that they are cared for and that justice may be done. We also need to resource agencies like the Christmas Bowl, and support those who work among the needy. Because we know the signs that Jesus has come—

The eyes of the blind are opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
the lame leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert…

God’s kingdom is at hand; it is here in the risen-coming Lord Jesus Christ who is among us.

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