3“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This year, during Advent, the Gospel of Matthew invites us to sit in what we are calling The Waiting Rooms of Christmas. In the first week of Advent we were waiting in the apocalypse. In the second week we joined John the Baptist in the wilderness. Here, in the third week, we find ourselves waiting with John again, but this time in prison.
Apocalypse, wilderness, prison. These are the waiting rooms of Advent hope-not the cheap hope peddled by a fear-filled culture of excess, but the deep hope that holds us in our greatest moments of despair. Whatever else the Incarnation means, it surely means that God is eager to wait with us and transform our waiting by God’s presence. The Incarnation transforms Apocalypse into the great unveiling of peace; wilderness becomes a garden of grace. And Prison becomes the graduate school of faith where we discover ourselves set free.
John is about to lose his head to King Herod’s crazed soul and he is having second thoughts about Jesus. He’s having, what we call, a crisis of faith. He sends a messenger to Jesus and asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Notice the verb “wait!” John has lost the prophetic vision and great confidence he once had in the Wilderness. Jesus sends a message back to John in prison. We don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that Jesus’ words liberated John to face his own death with a renewed sense of freedom-the kind that transcends all the unjust prisons of this world.
This week’s text is the reminder that Gospel freedom happens to us while we are still in prison. The Divine Break-in of the Incarnation leads to the Great Escape. We do not escape prison and then know freedom. We know freedom that we might escape. This is the shape of the Gospel.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. It was there that he received the gift of freedom that changed his life, his country, and the world. It was in prison that he learned to love his enemies and pray for those who persecuted him. It was in prison that he was set free from his oppressor. Mandela was FREE long before he walked out of prison.
Jesus replies to John’s crisis of faith with news of a divine break-in. Yes, the good thief strikes again! He sends word back to the captive, “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised.” Notice the use of passive verbs. The blind, lame, etc. all receive their freedom. They don’t take it, or make it. They receive it.
All those who have been set free, no matter how hard they work for their own freedom and the freedom of others, experience freedom not as a reward, but as a gift. And this is precisely what Jesus is giving John-a gift. As if summing up this whole business of the Divine Break-in, Jesus adds, “The poor have good news brought to them. Blessed is anyone who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:5)
Can we see? The tables have turned. John, who is the greatest of all the prophets, is one of the poor who is in soul-shaking need of the Gospel for which he is about to die. Mercifully, Jesus is smuggling a message into the messenger. Jesus is bringing good news back to John who is held captive, not only by a crazed maniac but also by his own expectations of the Gospel.
Jesus asks only one thing of John-that he not be offended by the crazy, reckless, wildly unconditional gift being given to ALL.
“Blessed is anyone who is not offended by me.” This is true freedom!