Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
John the Baptist was starting to have doubts. At the beginning of his career John had seemed so confident. Jesus had come to him and John had baptized him, proclaiming him to be the long-awaited Messiah. Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!
But over time John began to wonder. Like everyone else, he knew what to expect from a Messiah. This is one who would be the new King David. He would free the land of foreign occupation. He would be a military and political ruler, endorsed by God.
And yet, since the time John baptized him, Jesus was showing no signs of being a great ruler. In fact, he was showing no signs of being any kind of ruler. He went through the land preaching, teaching & healing— which was great–but not what John was expecting. So he was at least confused and probably disappointed. On top of everything John was in prison, cut off not only from those he loved but the important work he felt called to.
John was having doubts, and he wasn’t afraid to say so. He sent his followers to Jesus and asked: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, 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. This is what Jesus had said at the very beginning of his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19. to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
John had heard all this before, but when was Jesus going to get around to throwing out the Romans?
How about you? You know what it feels like to be in John’s shoes. Probably all of us do. We’re going through life and have clear ideas about who God is and what to expect from God. But things don’t turn out the way we expected. Despite prayer, despite persistence, God just doesn’t behave the way we want or expect.
I find consolation in the stories of our faith because I find I’m in good company. As often as not, God’s own people get it wrong—even the great ones, like John. If a big shot like John can get it wrong some of the time, there’s an excellent chance that I’m going to get it wrong more than some of the time! What we hope for from God, what we expect from God often misses the mark.
For example, today’s first reading from Isaiah is a wonderfully hopeful message. And yet, it’s written by a real human being like us so it’s not perfect. In the midst of this wonderful song of hope and praise Isaiah writes, Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. Vengeance. Really? If God is love, what does vengeance have to do with it?
Human hopes and expectations arise from the depths of our hearts. And God hears our prayers, even though our hopes and expectations often miss the mark. Like those who have gone before us, we express longings for what we want God to be rather than who God really is.
And that’s okay. In response to John’s question Jesus doesn’t criticize him for his doubt or confusion or mistaken expectations. He simply says, 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—as if to say: This is what I promised; this is what I deliver.
Are we really that different from John the Baptist, or the people of Jesus’ day? None of them quite understood what Jesus was about. What do you hope for from God? Like many before us, do we not also turn to the usual sources of salvation? Like them our expectations for salvation often take the form of worldly power. We, too, look for God to provide economic and political security for ourselves and others like us. This past November, for example, the voters of our land once again turned for answers to the defenders of the rich and powerful. We see the results already. In Thursday’s Seattle Times there was this article headline: “Rude tax-deal surprise for poorest workers.”
The gospel speaks to us across the ages and asks, “So—how are the poor doing among you? What “good news” are they hearing?
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. This is not the message people were expecting of a Messiah. It’s certainly not what they wanted. They wanted to hear how they personally would benefit from a new social and economic order, freed from Roman power. Instead, Jesus points for signs of salvation to society’s invisible people–people with little power.
Last night I was at a worship service celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe. One of my fellow students at Seattle University is a Catholic priest from Mexico and had invited me. This is a big celebration for Mexican Catholics; there was dancing, there were colorful native costumes, there was loud Mexican music—not what I expected from Catholic worship! But what amazed me most was the people—there were 400, maybe 500 people in attendance, all different ages. I got the sense that not only did they want to be there; they needed to be there.
It’s not easy being an immigrant in this country. But what I experienced in their presence was joy and gratitude. Imagine where they’ve come from, a country wracked by the violence of gangs and drug cartels, never mind the economic challenges. What they hope for with all their hearts from the Messiah is salvation from all that.
The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed and the dead—all of these were outside the community in Jesus’ day, or at least on the edge. Not much has changed in that regard. The work of Jesus during his time on earth, and therefore our work, is not to save people from some hell in the afterlife; Christ has already done that work. Our work is to save people from hell in the here and now: to build a community that includes all people, especially those who have been excluded, ignored and despised. The poor? The disabled? The oppressed? Yes! And the gay. The immigrant. The prisoner.
If we are disciples of Jesus Christ, this is our work. This is our mission.
Yesterday I was at the first meeting of Fostering Together, a support group for single foster parents that is now meeting here at the church. Imagine a child growing up in a difficult home. This is a group that’s doing the work of salvation; saving children from a risky home life, giving them love they might otherwise not have. And as I met with this group I remembered today’s reading: Go & tell John what you hear and see: people who were left out of the community are now welcomed and included.
John asked, Are you the one, or should we wait for another? As we wait for the Messiah, we become aware that he is already among us, and has given us good work to do. The good news for Jesus’ disciples is that we don’t have to invent something new. God is already at work in our neighborhoods and in our world. All we have to do is open our eyes to see. As we pay attention to this work we may find that the things we hoped for from God begin to change. We may find that we ask less for ourselves and more for our neighbor. May we be faithful in that good work, for Jesus’ sake.