John the Baptist in prison

Presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC in Brattleboro, VT
December 15, 2013  (Advent, Week 3)


Luke 1:47-55 (The Magnificat)
James 5:7-10 (“Be Patient … Strengthen your hearts”)
Matthew 11:2-11 (“Are you the One who is to come?”)

This is Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent; and tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”   

Our Advent readings started two weeks ago with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!” They end next week with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!”  And, as I said earlier, the word Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.

As Advent progresses, our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases.  Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.

This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards.  The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection.  To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History.  Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ.

Advent binds the future and past together.  It reminds us that there is a tension between them, and that this tension is where our faith is centered – the conviction that there is a known end to the road we are called to follow through History, and that God is continuously involved, even though the path that our feet tread at the moment is never clear to us.  You see this tension in each of our scriptures for today.

In the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke (much of which we sang as our first hymn this morning) Mary begins by saying “My soul rejoices in God my saviour!” and she ends with “He has helped his servant Israel … according to the promise he made to our ancestors …”  Mary is linking past, present, and future – naming the promise made to Abraham long ago; and rejoicing because the long wait for its coming fulfillment is over.

In our first reading, in his Epistle to a Church that wonders why the Messiah has not returned, and why the suffering continues, James tells us to be patient and take comfort, in the same way that a farmer waits for the crop to mature, and warns us that the Judge is standing at the doors.  In other words, the time is at hand, and God is waiting to see the results of the work of the Messiah.

All of this comes to a head in this morning’s Gospel reading, where the Baptist’s disciples confront Jesus.  But first, let’s consider the setting of the story.

Poor John the Baptist.  He discerns that Jesus is the Savior, that the long wait is over.  And yet, despite the Messiah’s arrival and despite the Baptist’s faithfulness to the call of God, he is thrown into prison by Herod Antipas, a weak and pompous King, and a tool well suited for Rome’s oppression of Galilee.

I imagine John sitting there in Herod’s dank, dark prison.  Days turn into weeks, then months, perhaps longer.  And as time stretches on, alone in his cell, he begins to ask himself “What is going on?  Why am I here?  The Messiah has come, how come I am not free?”

We are told by Matthew that the Baptist, in prison, hears what Jesus has been doing; but, what has Jesus been doing?

Our first clue is way back in chapter 4, where we are told that after the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus withdraws to Capernaum and begins to preach “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!”   And eventually, in the chapter previous to today’s reading, Matthew tells us that the disciples have been sent out by Jesus to “go … to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. [And] as [they] go, [to] proclaim the good news, [that] ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

And then we are told that John heard this, and sent his disciples to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

John is worried.  Was he wrong?  Perhaps the wait is not over.  Perhaps Jesus is not who John thought he was.  Perhaps all that he risked, even his own life, is for naught.  If that’s the case, then John can be certain that his time in Herod’s prison will not end well.

And Jesus answers Go … 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.”

Huh.  No new information here!  Jesus is merely telling John’s disciples to go back and tell John what he already knew.

Why?  Why respond in this way?  Why repeat back to John what the twelve disciples of Jesus had been told to do in the previous chapter?  Jesus words seem to be incredibly disrespectful of The Baptist and his ministry.

But, there are two important and subtle points here in Matthew’s narrative: First, Jesus sent his disciples out, commanding them to minister to the lost sheep of Israel.

When The Baptist asks if Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells him what his disciples have been commanded to do.  Jesus is not telling John what Jesus is doing!  Because Jesus, frankly, isn’t doing much at that moment.  Throughout chapter 10, all Jesus does is tell the Disciples how to do their new job, and warning them of the pitfalls and obstacles they will encounter.

Second, we are never told whether John’s disciples actually deliver Jesus’ reply.  Whether John receives the answer, and how he responds, is irrelevant to Matthew’s narrative.

From Jesus’ (and Matthew’s) perspective, the point here is not what Jesus is doing, or whether he is the Messiah John envisioned him to be.  The focus is on what Jesus’ disciples are being called to do; for that is where the Kingdom of Heaven is to be found.  The waiting for the Messiah is over because the Kingdom of Heaven is here.

And then Jesus continues, turning to the crowd and saying “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

Like John, the people already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and they were waiting for a sign from him to confirm it.  They had specific expectations of what the Messiah would say and do, and what that would mean for them, as did The Baptist.

Jesus already knew that the Baptist would never wear a soft robe, and that the closest he’d get to living in a palace was his prison cell.  John and everyone listening to Jesus’ words expected the suffering and oppression to end.  Good times were about to happen.  God’s abundance and power were about to be revealed, delivering the people and the land from bondage.


But Jesus didn’t say that.  Instead, he focuses on what his disciples are called to do.  It’s not about him.  What matters to Jesus is whether the call has been answered.  In fact, he underlines this a few verses later when he says “to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’”

Jesus has flipped the table on us, and on John The Baptist.  The question is no longer one of how long must we wait for the Messiah to come, because that has already happened.  The question is now how long must God wait for our response.  The future has already been made manifest.  History has achieved its purpose.

Jesus did not answer John’s question because he could not.  For the answer lies with us, not with him.  The Messiah’s coming is not a free lunch.  All he could do is be a witness to the future, a future that could only occur after the Messiah is already here and waiting.  A future where we must respond.  The future is up to us, not to The Baptist, nor God, nor Jesus.  We need to claim the future for ourselves.  It’s already here, right in front of us.

And let us remember the purpose of the Gospels. They contained nothing new when they were written.  If anything, they are a subset of what the believers at that time already knew.  Their purpose is to provide a foundation for the future.  That is why they are called the Gospels, a term that (as you know) translates as “the Good News.”  They are not known as “the Life Histories of Jesus.”  They are not about the past, but the future, our future, the Good News, our Good News – which is here now.  They are a message and an instruction manual.  A gift to us from the past, telling us what is central to our walk as disciples of Christ, telling us how we are to respond to the Messiah’s call, if we are to claim the future promised to us.  We are as much the disciples Jesus is telling The Baptist about as are James, Matthew, Peter, Paul, or Judas.

Finally, there is a subtler message in the Gospels, and especially in today’s reading.  It is the theme that underlies Gaudete Sunday, and it is a critical message for us in this, the Advent Season…

And that message is that Christ has walked the Earth, and will again.  We have been called to follow the Messiah’s example and call, which is to proclaim the good news that “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

In other words, even if we are in prisons, which we are.  Even if the way forward is in doubt, which it is.  Even if the world around us is falling apart, which it will, we are commandedCommanded … to rejoice, as James said.


Because we know the end of the story.  We know how and where history ends.  We know that our troubles will pass away.  We know that the resurrection is real, that the Messiah is present, and that the immanent victory of God’s Kingdom over the corruption of this world is already a reality.  We know that God is with us every step of the way; and that we have been commanded to share this Good News with all of God’s children.

Gaudete – Rejoice!  For our waiting is over, and God’s waiting has begun.


Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site). 

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/.

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