(painting by Bernardino Luini, "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist," (1513).
And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Mt. 11:2)
John, being locked in Herod’s rotting dungeon, sent word to Jesus asking if He was the one to come and redeem Israel – “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
As John was chained up and locked down in Herod’s cold jail – he needed the help and comfort of the Christ. He needed a sweet release – a rescue mission – from on high. He needed an advent – a coming of Jesus to set him free. Not to protect his neck from Herod’s cold sword but to preserve and keep his whole body and soul – to redeem Israel and forgive sin.
Jesus said that among those born of a woman there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet here, the greatest of all men born of a woman, is locked up, likely tired and beaten. Here the greatest of all men sends a message to Jesus, asking “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Even the greatest of all men, the fiery preacher from the river Jordan needed his doubts to be expelled. Things were far from clear at the bottom of Herod’s damp dungeon. Death loomed over him, and what frantic fears must have taken hold of him. Surely he was not a reed shaken by the wind – to be sure – but he was a man, - a flesh and blood man – like us. Like us, John had to do battle against the sinful flesh that clung to him.
He was likely afraid of death, fearful over sin, and looking for comfort. Do not be offended by John’s question, “Are you the one, or shall we look for another.” It is a faithful question. John needed to know if Jesus was the one who would free the church from all her sins. The patriarchs of the church are invited by their Lord to inquire of Him.
Like a child asking his mother if she loves him, John asks, "Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?" He knows the answer but wants reassurance, wants comfort. He wants to hear again what he already knows.
This is the language of faith and it is a sort of love language. Faith seeks reassurance and comfort. Faith seeks an answer where doubts spring up. And this is good. Faith goes to where God promises to be. Are you the one to come?
John is like a bride asking her husband if he truly loves her. The answer of course is “yes.” No matter how many times it is asked – it remains true. But with John we ask because we love to hear the answer. It is why we gather here, week in and week out. Together we cry out, Lord are you the one? Where else shall we go? You have the word of eternal life? Lord, Do you love me? Do you care for me? Do you forgive me?
And this is the great surprise of being a Christian that is always new to us. To be taken back. Continually. Yes, I love you He says. I forgive you all your sins, He says. Do not be afraid. I am with you – He says.
You probably will not meet martyrdom like the holy innocents in Newtown, Connnecticut. Nor are you likely to get your head lopped off like St. John. But you will face crushing disappointments and trials along your way. And your time of waiting, of suffering, and persisting is worth it. Your trials are not insignificant – for your bear the marks of Jesus on your forehead – in your heart. In your wrinkles – in your bones.
You will not receive the cold blade of Herod’s sword but you will feel the cutting betrayal of a friend or the stabbing insult of a neighbor. Many will feel the crushing blow of loneliness in these cold dark weeks.
Like John’s musty, cold, and dark jail cell it is very messy down here – even amidst the joy the coming holy day. Our lives often feel like a dark prison – where no light shines. Our nighttime news casts a dark shadow over our homes.
There will be voids and patches of darkness this Christmas time for you personally. As you gather around the turkey, pie, and brandy – there will be family missing this year from divorce – a son will be missing – another family member will be crippled by depression - parents will show new signs of Alzheimer’s.
Like John the Baptist – your pain and agony is temporary – and it all will soon pass. John’s question becomes our own. “Jesus are you the one who will come down and save us or shall we look for another?” The question is a good one. And Jesus is your “Yes.” He is your amen. He is your “Yes, I believe – help my unbelief!” Jesus is your man. He is your God who comes down to you. And you need not look any further. For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
John the Baptist was called the greatest among all born of woman, because he pointed to Jesus, and said “Behold the Lamb of God.” He was great because he waited for Jesus and believed in Him. And Jesus loved John, before He leaped in the womb.
You are called great in heaven because Jesus has made you His own. You wait for Jesus – like a child waits for his father to lift him up and into his lap.
Come Lord Jesus!
Unlike, Santa Clause, Jesus does not just come once a year to give you a bunch of crap that you don't need. Your new stuff will not cover up your pain. But Jesus comes today with healing for hurting people. Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Drink this cup – it is me who is with you – He says.
There is a real mess down here. A violent, agonizing mess. But He is down here among us. In the muck and sin of our lives He is with us. In your own prison – like John – He is with you. In your ears, in your heart. In your bones, and on your lips. Jesus has scrubbed you down – washed you clean from all sin – and has made living saints out of you. Waiting – persisting – and standing strong for his coming.
This is why Isaiah preaches to us, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, Be strong; fear not!” He is coming to rescue you and your little ones.
The Lord is compassionate and merciful to you. He has gone before you to prepare the way – the way of the bitter cross – a cross that has become so sweet for you. And when the time is right He will exalt you – and lift you up. And you will behold His face – and He will shine like the Sun and so shall you.
There is no depression at His coming. There is no darkness and anxiety. We have a heavenly Father, whose heart we clearly see in Jesus – in his lowly birth, suffering, and cruxifixion. There is only Joy – for the kingdom of heaven has come near – that is to say – Jesus is coming to you.
The advent candles are being lit but no light is comparable to the light of Christ who will scatter all the darkness. He will bring you into his marvelous light. The violence and dark gloom in which we fumble around – will dissipate – and this veil of tears will be lifted.
Jesus shall be born in Bethlehem to young Mother Mary and soon we will have to endure and wait no longer. The singing of angels can gently be heard in the distance. Joined by a great chorus of little children who have gone on ahead of us. They beckon us on. He who has ears let him hear.
Blessed are you who hear the words of Jesus. And blessed are you who suffer and wait for Him. Pretty soon now, you’re waiting will all be over. This valley of tears will be ended. And all our children will finally be safe.
Come Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Amen.