Isaiah 35: 1-10
Matthew 11: 2-11
What do we expect from our Messiah?
Though it may have felt weird, there is a reason we sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” followed by “Lo, How a Rose e’er blooming” this morning. I wanted us to have a tangible experience of these shifting expectations the followers of God have always had about our messiah.
The triumphal “glory of the coming of the Lord;” who “is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;” and who “hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; his truth is marching on” clashes, both tonally and thematically with the “Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispelling in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.” We can’t just gloss over these unmet expectations for the messiah, especially when today’s passage from Matthew reminds us that John the Baptist himself wondered—“Was I mistaken? Is this the guy we’ve been waiting for?”
We didn’t spend much time on the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah last week, other than to say that the qualities of human behavior that are exhibited by the branch from the stump of Jesse (a metaphorical way of saying the Messiah would come from the line of David, who was Jesse’s son.) was “unnatural behavior,” and that sometimes our call as Christians is to behave in very unnatural ways. Since, after all, violence, vengeance, fear, and self-preservation are fairly natural things.
We didn’t really focus in on things in Isaiah’s prediction that this Messiah would “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” We also kind of skipped over Matthew’s account of John the Baptist, where he is inspired by this text in his ushering in of the Messianic age, saying
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
You can’t blame all the Jews who took a look at Jesus, and thought: “nice guy, but not the Messiah.” You can’t blame them because Jesus wasn’t doing the things that the Messiah was prophesied to do. This was even a bone of contention later on when the first generation of Christians were trying to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, even though he didn’t accomplish what the scriptures said he would.
The Second Coming of Christ was an idea developed throughout the beginnings of Christianity to help explain to the Jews how Jesus could be the Messiah, accomplish some of the tasks foretold by Isaiah and the like, and then return later (what they all expected to be in their lifetime) and accomplish the other things, such as destroying the wicked, reigning in majesty, expelling the invaders, etc.
But in the midst of Jesus’ first appearance, John, who had heralded his appearance at the Jordan, and had knelt before his feet, claiming to be unworthy to baptize him. This same John is growing somewhat impatient.
Leah Goodwin, of the Swedenborgian Chapel in Cambridge, MA writes,
John knows exactly who Jesus is. According to the story about Mary
visiting Elizabeth, John’s mother, while they were both in the womb, John knows
the very sound of Mary’s voice, even from the darkness of his own mother’s
belly. John knows, even before he or Jesus has a name, that this other fetus is
the anointed one, the Messiah. And knowing that, despite the cramped quarters,
he quite clearly expresses his joy with what must have been, for Elizabeth, a
But times change, and the experiences of life complicate
what once seemed so clear. In this morning’s Gospel reading we find John the
Baptist, the great messenger of God’s coming reign, the prophet of the
wilderness, in a dark enclosure vastly different from the safety of his mother’s
We find him in prison - though, ironically, still in the wilderness,
for he is imprisoned, according to other sources, in the dungeon of Herod’s
wilderness palace at Machaerus. And this time, news of Jesus’ work in the world
does not have John leaping for joy. Jesus’ lordship, at least as far as John
sees it, is not quite so self-evident as it used to be.
Matthew writes, “When
John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” What Matthew might as well
have written is “when John heard what the Messiah was NOT doing,” because as far
as he was concerned Jesus was not sticking to the script. Healing, liberation,
good news, all right, but let’s get down to some apocalyptic business. Where was
the smiting? Where was the ax lying at the root of the trees about which John
had warned his disciples? Where was the unquenchable fire?
And so John, from
prison, sends his own disciples to inquire about the matter. “Are you the one
who is to come, or shall we look for another?” they are told to ask.
question is a bit shocking, if you think about it. How can John, of all people,
John who baptized Jesus all unwilling because he thought Jesus should baptize
HIM - how can John question whether Jesus is “the one who is to
Actually, it’s a legitimate question. Jesus was not the only person
claiming to be the Messiah, the “Anointed One,” running around in first-century
Palestine. He was also not the only folk healer, not the only social justice
speaker, not the only imparter of secret knowledge in the region, either. And
John, remember, is in prison, which does not immediately seem an appropriate
place for the Messiah’s forerunner and relative.
So, the question presents
itself: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Thus
confronted, Jesus uses the words of Isaiah, as well as a matter-of-fact call
upon empirical evidence, to answer. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he
says to the Baptizer’s messengers. “The blind receive their sight, the lame
walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Actually, yes, Jesus seems to say, look for another. Or rather, look at me
another way. Shift your perspective. No, my ways are not precisely as John
prophesied - but look around you. Quit ruminating about the missing winnowing
fork and the disappointingly absent unquenchable fire and the ax which is so
conspicuously NOT laid at the root of the tree. Wake up! What do you hear? What
do you see?
What John's disciples had heard was the Sermon on the Mount,
with its message of forgiveness, generosity, gentleness of spirit, heavenly
reward, and God’s care. What they had seen consisted of ten miracles, which
Matthew depicts as having been accomplished with an endearing mixture of
tenderness and authority. What they had not heard was a good dose of smiting, or
separating wheat from chaff.
Meanwhile, Jesus has the wherewithal to hold
the work of his own ministry alongside Isaiah’s promises of restoration and
healing. He specifically claims compassion as the sign of Messiahship. Jesus’
deeds reveal that the kingdom of God is already at work - already present and
spread out among the people whose lives are changed by his deeds. Jesus,
clearly, is not precisely the Messiah that John expected. “One who is more
powerful than John” has indeed arrived -- but his power is different, and
unexpected, and not altogether satisfying to John, John who is in prison, John
who will die an awful death, John who is not convinced that healing infirmities
alone is going to redeem Israel.
John the Baptist struggled to square his
vision of the Messiah with the reality of Jesus -- and he had every reason to.
We struggle, too. This struggle, in fact, is what the season of Advent calls us
toward. Advent is a reminder to us to let God out of the box, to let go of our
preconceptions about who this Messiah should be, to release our grasp on just
what we think our salvation should look like and where the Lord is going to lead
us in our soul’s journey.
Advent is a time in which we are called,
individually and communally, to open our eyes to the kingdom which we claim to
believe is already spread out among us. It is a time, I suggest, in which it is
worth asking this question: Shall I follow the living Lord, or shall I simply
follow my notion of who the Lord should be?
For Jesus is saying to us what
he says to John: “I did not come for titles, or to collect my kingly dues. I
came to bring life to the dead. Do not ask me who I am - look, instead, at the
life I am stirring inside of you.” The Lord abides within us, is present in
every level of our existence from inmost soul to the tips of our fingers. And he
wants to heal us. He desires that we be whole. The Lord awaits his chance at
advent within us, and he will never leave us. There is, after all, no need to
look for another.