Scripture for the third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.1-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
John the Baptist, languishing in Herod’s jail without a promising outlook, sent a message to Jesus. It was blunt. “Are you the one?” He had probably heard much about Jesus’ teaching and miracles, and sent messengers to Jesus who returned with a list of fulfilled prophecies. John probably wondered whether Jesus might manage one more fulfilled prophecy: to set free the prisoners. If the gospel was written like the script for a swashbuckling film, Jesus would come dashing in to remove the guards, open the doors and free John.
But this is not an adventure film, and Jesus as Messiah was not – is not – will not be – a sword-swishing buccaneer. That is not the kind of heroism he demonstrates. Instead, Jesus immersed himself in the very real life of humanity, with all its trials and tribulations. The bible does have its stories of freedom from prison (Peter, freed by an angel; Paul and Silas, freed by an earthquake), but in God’s time to fulfil God’s purpose.
When prayers seem to be unanswered, when our expectations or hopes seem to be dashed, we may find ourselves with John, wondering, “Are you the one?” But what John could not have known is that instead of freeing him, Jesus would follow: his journey led to the cross. After that, things improved rather dramatically (as in resurrection), but John and Jesus’ disciples could not foresee that. Jesus allowed himself to be taken into the darkest parts of human life, to share them with us.
Advent comes at a dark time of the year, as days shorten and nights lengthen. We know that seasons progress in a cycle; unlike Jesus’ followers, we know how his story unfolds; our challenge is to take what we know, and in our darkness, to understand that Jesus is available to be encountered in light. He might not come as a swashbuckling hero, but he will join us in the prisons of our lives.
Is he the one? That is a question that each must answer for themselves. Maybe each of us has the prophecy unfulfilled, the prayer seemingly unanswered, the one thing that seems to have been overlooked. If so, we need to remember John the Baptist, and that he was immersed in a story whose conclusion he did not know. So are we.