Electronic Prayer Book

Are You The One?

Advent II

St. Matthew 11: 2 — 11

Introduction

John the Baptist, in his public preaching, to which unprecedented crowds were flocking, had been criticising Herod for marrying his own sister-in-law. For this, he (John) was thrown into the dark, dank prison under the Herodian Fortress of Machaerus, located in the wild, remote hills east of the Dead Sea. For at least 4 months John kept up his spirits. But even this giant of faith, faced with the degrading and disgusting conditions of this sombre fortress, began to be confronted by very human doubts. There is no evidence that he believed any of them, but it is easy to imagine the types of questions which were crying out for an answer.

When the Messiah was baptised, John saw the Spirit descend, and heard his Lord and God honour his Son. So, why was Jesus delaying the proclamation of himself in clear, ringing tones for all to hear? Why was there no glorious, majestic triumph? Why was he in prison when he could be out preaching and pointing people to the Messiah?

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Some Reflections On the Text

Verses 2 and 3

When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him

with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

When John heard in prison what our Lord was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him:

“Are you the one who was to come — or should we expect someone else.”

John, of course, relied on the reports of his disciples for an update on the public ministry of the One he had been inspired to proclaim Messiah (Christ, Anointed One). His disciples had been uneasy about the apparent lack of strictness in the life of Jesus, not realising that Jesus, in His reticence, tended to avoid drawing attention to Himself. But their doubts about Jesus were even more deep seated. First, He did not openly proclaim Himself the Messiah. Secondly, He did not present Himself in the style they had expected, working mighty signs and wonders, which would dismiss all doubts from anyone’s mind. Yes, He performed miracles, but somehow He failed to step beyond a low-key, unspectacular self-presentation. He just didn’t come across as the “real thing” they expected. Christians make frequent reference to the failure of the Jews to recognise the Messiah when He came among them. The Baptist certainly did recognise the Messiah, but judging by his response above, we can see how difficult it was, even for the devout and thoroughly prepared!

Verses 4 and 5

Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:

the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

The question asked by John’s very sincere, loyal and deeply spiritual disciples could have been a challenge to our Lord, to change tack and meet the unspoken demands for a more forthright messiah who would “look the part”. Jesus, in profound respect for John’s messengers, departs somewhat from his ordinary policy of reticence. While he does not state directly and authoritatively, “I am the Messiah”, he invites John’s disciples to see and hear. He does this by saying that the blind, the lame, the lepers and the deaf are healed. Even the dead are raised. He does so in a way that draws on the great prophet Isaiah whom the disciples admire so much. The following would have been very, very familiar to these holy men, who therefore knew what our Lord was talking about.

On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book; And out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see.

The lowly will ever find joy in the LORD, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 29: 18 and 19

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared;

Then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing. Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe.

Isaiah 35: 5 and 6

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.

Isaiah 61: 1

Our Lord caps all of these ideas with the climax of his list, which is an echo of Isaiah 61: 1 (above) —

“…..the poor have the good news preached to them”.

The miracles are signs of the preaching of the Gospel! This was to remain a foundation principle of his Church.

These verses are so critical in the Gospel according to St. Matthew that we need to dwell a little further on the dilemma before John. He has been preaching about the One who is to come in terms of blessing and judgement. Our Lord, however, came preaching in a not-too-overpowering style, speaking of fulfilment and rather less about judgement. He pointed to a humble and merciful deliverer. For Him the Kingdom must grow slowly, patiently and gradually. Such is the growth needed to produce strength of faith and conviction able to withstand the pressures and opposition which would reel up against the followers of Jesus Messiah.

John found this perplexing. As it turned out this was a problem and a scandal even to the disciples who were close to Jesus. No wonder John, locked away in a dismal fortress was beginning to wonder.

Verse 6

And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Our Lord understood this very well. His response to John’s disciples is really His way of speaking to John at a level Jesus knows he can hear, for he is a man of the Word through and through. If mankind were to accept a different model of a Messiah, then it was John who must lead the way. “Blessed is the man”, says Jesus, “who accepts me, and does not go looking for some other who will fulfil his own private agenda of what he wants in a messiah; someone always telling people only what they want to hear.”

This is one of the most critical verses in the whole of Matthew! A literal translation of our our Lord’s actual words for John is:

“Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me”.

This is not even an implied rebuke of John. Jesus understands the natural inclination of His fellow devout Jews to hold certain expectations of the promised Messiah. Of all people who had to confront this issue, John was at the forefront. He was the person who identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. Now he, before anyone else, must accept that the Messiah has chosen to reveal himself without grandeur, without military might, and as a servant of the servants. John asked for only one word, yes or no. Jesus gave neither, but presented to John a new way of seeing and hearing in which even John’s disciples were to participate: for they, too, were part of this great, unique moment in the history of the world.

Confident that John would cross this threshold, Jesus imparts to him a blessing. It is in fact his farewell message to this great man of God.

Verses 7 — 10

As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.

Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.’

As John’s disciples were leaving to start their 5 or 6 day journey back to the depressing fortress of Maccaerus, Jesus delivers the strongest and most beautiful eulogy in honour of the Baptist.

In case the people observing all this might think John to be wavering, Jesus moves quickly to dispel any doubts, and asks:

“What did you go out into the desert see?

  • A weak, spineless character? Hardly!
  • A fragile, feminised man used to soft living? Of course not!
  • Then a prophet? Oh yes indeed! In fact much more than a prophet!

For John is the one Malachi wrote of (see Masoretic text of Hebrew Bible):

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way for you.” (Malachi 3: 1).

By using this verse, our Lord had chosen to compare John’s ministry to that of the angels, the messengers of God. This is the highest honour which can be awarded him, and Jesus does not hesitate to bestow it.

Verse 11

Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

John is indeed more than a prophet, for he fulfils as well as prophesies. Jesus draws this section to a conclusion by saying in effect, “Let me share a great truth with you: No one has appeared in the world with a greater religious function than John, namely, to proclaim the coming of the messiah. But, as John prophesied, the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”

This represents an intense Hebraic application of logic and manner of speaking which we need to “unpack” or we miss the grandeur of the moment.

When our Lord spoke in this way, He was doing two things:

First, whilst accepting John’s self-assessment that he was unworthy to undo the strap of the Messiah’s sandals (Matt. 3: 11), our Lord chooses to declare forthrightly: no one born has been greater than the Baptist.

Secondly: Our Lord affirmed, paradoxically, John’s declaration about the Messiah being greater than he (Matt. 3: 11), but shows now that He accepts such a tribute only on his own terms: that is, the re-defining of the idea of greatness in the Kingdom.

In this way our Lord signals a new paradigm — a new scale of values in the Kingdom of God. Our Lord saw Himself as “the least in the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 20: 25 — 28) — the servant of servants, in fact, a slave to all. In the Kingdom, our Lord accepts the title “greater” only because He is willing to be the least. And that is to be the new way for every disciple to follow! This calling to be the least in the Kingdom of God is hereby established as a foundation principle for the evangelisation of the world which the Messiah has come to inaugurate.

It would help us to re-read Matthew 3: 1 — 12. Here John describes himself as so much the least, that he is unworthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah. In Matthew 11: 11, Jesus calls him greater than any man who has ever lived.

Also in chapter 3 of Matthew, John talks of one coming who is, “greater than I”. In Matthew 11: 11, Jesus is sealing His claim to be that One, greater than John the Baptist, but who chooses to come as the least, in fact, as a slave (Matthew 20: 25 — 28).

This message presents us with one of the most wonderful moments in the unfolding of the story of the salvation of mankind and we are permitted, as it were, to be present and, in our meditation, to be part of what transpires.

Only our meditation of this great paradox, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will open to us its spiritual treasures, for this is the true Messiah John was sent to present to the world. In a wonderful way God chose to incorporate John’s very humanity in the revelation of his Son as the Promised One.

Conclusion

A lone voice, buried in the depths of a sombre, distant fortress prison, thrilled by what he has learned from the reports of others yet uneasy about the meekness of Jesus, asks, clearly with the words of Psalm 119 in mind, “Are you the one who is to come in the name of the Lord?” This cannot really be the question of a doubter, but of an honest person whose faith begs to be lifted to new levels. Jesus understands this. He therefore does not answer, “Yes”, but speaks in a higher form of language John is capable of receiving at his inner depths. It is a reply of great warmth which would nurture him until his cruel and fickle execution.

John the Baptist, pinnacle of all the very finest in Judaic faith and culture, and though he performed not a single miracle — greatest of all the prophets, greater even than Moses — was allowed to see, if only very briefly as it unfolded, the age of fulfilment. Indeed he is part of the age he prophesied.

He marks both the end of the former age, and the beginning of the Kingdom. His faith is honoured by Jesus. In him, prophecy begins to be fulfilled.

The One John pointed to now takes the role of leadership into the Kingdom.

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