When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
John the Baptist, you'll remember from last week,
was a charismatic figure, a prophet,
whose life was centered around speaking truth to power,
calling folks to a radical reorientation of their lives,
ridiculing religious and political leaders,
proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, whom John believed to be Jesus,
and screaming at folks
(in his camel's hair underwear, while sucking grasshoppers off of his fingers)
to be prepared for the fulfillment of God's promises,
which included, for John, what he believed was: the promise of the wrath to come.
Luke's Gospel tells us that John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins—and that even when John was in Elizabeth's womb, he leapt at Jesus' presence—a sign that the prophet was already prophesying about the Christ—even before his birth.
Matthew's Gospel doesn't include that detail
but he does, just like the other Gospels,
have John show up as forerunner to Jesus,
proclaiming the words of Isaiah 40,
passionately urging us to : “Prepare the way of the Lord”
(the preparation for which, we learned last week,
included getting dunked under the water, as an outward sign
that folks were committing to a radical reordering of their lives and their priorities.)
(Jesus, [we read last week, proclaimed John] who would come after him, would dunk folks in a new way, which according to John's cryptic words, would include the Holy Spirit and Fire.)
According to the Gospel of Matthew,
In the midst of one of John the Baptist's
big camel-hair underwear-wearing dunking parties in the Jordan River,
Jesus, of all people, shows up, coming to John to be dunked.
John refused, as he recognized Christ to be:
“the one who is to come”
the one was telling everyone about,
and in John's mind, the one who had nothing to change.
So why get dunked? Why get baptized?
There was nothing for Christ to repent from.
Jesus is the orientation toward which John was calling folks to orient themselves.
But Jesus insists.
You'll remember that upon getting dunked under and coming back up,
that the heavens opened,
and a voice spoke to Jesus,
affirming that he was God's Son, the beloved, with whom God was well pleased.
(Perhaps a Testimony even more for the ears of John than for the ears of Jesus himself)...
Immediately after Jesus' baptism, in Matthew's Gospel,
Jesus was pushed by the Spirit into the Desert
where he was temped by the devil for 40 days and nights.
From that point on in the Gospel, John disappears.
He drops out of the story.
Until this morning's reading.
(7 chapters later.)
According to the 1st century Roman historian Josephus,
John the Baptist was gaining such a huge following
that King Herod thought it best to preemptively put John to death
Just in case John's growing following would prove to be a threat to the Roman Empire.
Therefore, Josephus tells us, John was sent to death row,
and locked up in one of the castles of the Empire.
The Gospels include other details.
They tell us that John,
in his every-fiery calling-out-of-folks-in-power way
at some point took it upon himself to call out Herod Antipas
for divorcing his wife
in order to marry his brother's wife
(whose name was Herodias).
(How cute: Herod and Herodias!)
(Herod was afraid to kill John, Matthew's Gospel tells us,
because Herod was afraid it would cause an uprising).
[It makes a difference who's telling the story].
One night, the story goes, Herod threw a birthday party for himself.
And he invited all his rowdy friends.
got really, really, really, really, really trashed.
And at some point in evening,
some drunk thought it would be a good idea to send out “Salome”
to do a little “dance” for the gentlemen.
Salome is Herod's stepdaughter. Herodias' daughter.
And Herod's step-daughter (Salome) “so pleased Herod” says the Gospel,
Herod's step-daughter so pleased Herod,
that Herod (in his drunken stupor) promised her anything she wanted,
at which point her mother prompted her to ask for John's head on a platter.
Sometime between John's imprisonment and John's execution,
John, who spent his life proclaiming “the one who is to come”
and who had devoted his life to nothing but that proclamation,
now found himself in prison
waiting no longer for the messiah,
but, rather, for his death.
Perhaps wishing he would have become a plumber instead of a prophet.
I would imagine that John was probably questioning
whether anything he had proclaimed so passionately,
or believed so deeply,
or screamed himself hoarse over in his camel-hair-underwear,
was really true,
was really worth it,
was really going to change anything or anyone at all.
So he sent out a few of his disciples
to find Jesus
and to ask him:
Are you the one to come? Or should we wait for another?
We never learn if his disciples get back to John to give him his answer.
This week we add the candle of Joy to our Advent wreath.
I imagine John the Baptist, this morning, as feeling anything but Joy at this point in his life.
It seems to me that folks like John the Baptist,
or Dr. King,
folks who made it to mountaintops
and had seen promised lands,
even though it became clear at the end of their lives
that they weren't going to reach such promised lands themselves,
held onto something that kept them fighting
until their deaths,
hoping that, if not in their lifetime,
then in the next,
or perhaps the one after that
such visions of joy might be made complete.
I think that's the Joy that Advent might be calling us to.
That “almost” joy of a birth about to happen.
A joy not fulfilled.
But a joy in anticipation, nonetheless.
Not the fleeting, temporary, happy-feelings we get
form Christmas presents
or a facebook poke,
but a joy that comes
from a vision of something greater than ourselves,
an expectation, a hope
worth living for,
worth fighting for,
(and in the case of John and Dr. King)
worth even dying for,
that the vision granted
will likely never be fulfilled in our lifetime.
The challenge is finding that vision for our lives, for our churches, for our neighborhoods.
Contextualizing that vision in our communities.
Imagining our communities as already but not yet Promised Lands.
Perhaps the call of John this Advent is a reminder:
To yet again ask the question:
Where is our center? What drives us?
What light will we seek to kindle within us right now
so that when we near our ends
we might be able to ask
in joyful, yet anxious, anticipation:
Are you the one?
Or should we wait for another?