Homily: 3rd Sunday of Advent – Cycle A
I can understand why John the Baptist might have doubted. He spent his adult life calling others to repentance in order to prepare themselves for the manifestation of the Messiah. And on that fateful day that Jesus came out to him, he acknowledge Jesus as that Messiah, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. After he had baptized Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit descend upon him and remain with him, John continued to preach repentance. Now, however, he would turn those who were coming to him towards Jesus. But the tables had turned, it seemed. John found himself imprisoned by the Israelite king, Herod (someone who should have been welcoming his message!), and none of those things that the Messiah was supposed to bring forward, about which Isaiah had prophesied, seemed to be coming to fruition.
Although I’ve never been imprisoned, I imagine that it affords a person a lot of time to think. And, with one’s freedom removed, I imagine that it’s probably hard to think positively about things. I can only imagine what John might have been thinking while he was in Herod’s prison: “Was I doing the right thing?” “What if I was wrong?” “What is Herod going to do with me?” “What if Jesus really isn’t the Messiah?” Then, along come some of his disciples to tell him of these things that Jesus is doing: miracles of healing and preaching about the kingdom of God. Perhaps John felt very confused and conflicted and so I understand why he may have doubted. He doesn’t want to doubt, though, and so he decides to send his disciples back to Jesus with this question “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”
I also understand why Jesus might have covered for him. I mean, John was his number one promoter. John pointed Jesus out and called him exactly what he is—the Lamb of God—and he told his disciples to turn and follow him, instead. And so, when John’s disciples come to him saying “John told us to ask you this question: ‘Are you the one who is to come?’”, Jesus defended him: telling everyone that John was a prophet greater than all prophets and even going so far as to say that no one ever born has been greater than John (presumably including even himself). I imagine that Jesus might have thought “If John is doubting, what will keep the rest of these people from doubting?” And so, I understand why Jesus might have covered for him.
It’s easy to understand these things, perhaps, because we can relate. And so we read these scripture passages and we think “Look, they’re human just like us after all.” And this is true! They are human! The challenge for us, however, is to look at this passage and realize that John didn’t doubt and that Jesus wasn’t covering for him.
John, as we know, was the great herald of the Messiah’s coming. He was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” He preached repentance because he knew that the one who would bring judgment was coming. He leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus in the womb of Mary while he was still in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth. And after Jesus manifested himself publicly, he boldly pointed him out and taught his followers to follow him. His whole life was about “I must decrease, he must increase”, and so it just doesn’t make sense that, after years of believing in and proclaiming his coming, John would all of a sudden doubt. And so, if this is what the scriptures seem to say to us, perhaps we should take a closer look.
First, they tell us that “When John the Baptist heard in prison the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question…” He sent his disciples… John still had disciples! But John’s purpose was to turn his disciples to Jesus! In other words, his job was to work himself out of a job! And so, having heard of the miracles that Jesus was performing and that he had been preaching the kingdom of God, John sent his disciples to ask the question for themselves: “Are you the one who is to come or should we [like, us personally] look for another?” Jesus perceived what John was doing in sending his disciples to him and so he not only told them “yes” or “no”, but he showed them the proof of his answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” and he preached the kingdom and performed these miracles before their eyes.
John’s disciples, presumably converted, went off to share this good news with John in prison. Jesus, far from trying to cover for John, extolls his praises as one of God’s greatest and most faithful servants. He uses this opportunity to teach them about who John was so as to shed more light on who he was, because, remember, his followers were still just starting to understand that he is the Messiah. And so he tells them that John is the prophet greater than all prophets, because he was chosen to be the herald of the Messiah’s coming. More than that, however, he tells them that John is the greatest of all men because of his extreme faithfulness to God: faithfulness that isn’t deterred by the suffering caused because of imprisonment. Then he uses this to teach about how much greater the kingdom of heaven is by saying that even this great man is as nothing in that kingdom. All in the kingdom are greater even than he.
Okay, but what about us? You know, it’s understandable if we feel a little bit imprisoned these days. The world is an increasingly dark place and it is increasingly hostile to our faith. I can understand if perhaps any of you might begin to think thoughts like, “What if I was wrong?” and “What if Jesus isn’t who he says he is?” “The perfect world that Isaiah promised would come with the Messiah seems to be far away, and so what are we to do?” Advent, my brothers and sisters, gives us the answer.
In the second reading, Saint James wrote to the first generation of Christians and encouraged them to be patient and to be steadfast in their right conduct throughout these many seasons until the Lord returns. He exhorts them in this way because he anticipates the Lord’s return: “Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates”, he wrote. This same advice applies to us today and reminds us of why we are in this holy season. Although we are anticipating our celebration of Christmas—Christ’s first coming among us—the main focus of Advent is to remind us of our need to anticipate Christ’s second coming, which is still to come.
We have come to know Jesus, the one for whom our hearts long. Our task is to remain steadfast in faith, even in the face of hostility from the world, and to work to make the kingdom of heaven known in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return. Advent is this time of renewal in which we return to Jesus, like John sending his disciples to him, and see once again for ourselves the proof that he is, indeed, who he says he is. Perhaps even in our own lives we have seen him perform miracles: maybe not curing the blind or deaf or making otherwise crippled persons walk upright, but maybe in healing a broken relationship or consoling a heart crippled by a loss. These and many more things are signs that Jesus is, indeed, the one who was to come and so we have no need to look for another. This very fact is cause enough for us to rejoice!
Nonetheless, we still have an even greater sign that Jesus is the one who was to come: his coming to us here at this altar. May our hearts open more deeply to receive him here today and so be strengthened in our faith that the Messiah has come, is here, and will come again; and thus go forth from here rejoicing to strengthen the hearts of those around us so that all might be ready to receive him when he comes.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – December 10th & 11th, 2016