Prophets are not usually the happiest of people. There’s a reason the word jeremiad exists, and it has everything to do with the irascible disposition of the prophet Jeremiah. When God speaks to you directly and tells you to go say and do things that might make you, at the very least, unpopular, that can make you a bit irascible.
And so, as we saw last week, the prophet John the Baptist did not come off as the happiest of fellows, though it does seem to me that he took a certain pleasure in his work. As popular as he was in amongst the underprivileged, he was immensely unpopular with the ruling class, and that eventually caught up with him. Today we find John in jail, effectively silenced, and he must have known his end was coming.
John the Baptist was in jail “because of his confrontation with Herod over the king’s unlawful marriage, sends disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they have been expecting. That action triggers one of the most fascinating exchanges in the Gospels.
“Matthew makes it clear that there is no question in his own mind as to the identity of Jesus. He writes: “When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him” In other words, from his post-Easter perspective, Matthew has no trouble referring to Jesus as “the Christ.” But the Baptist apparently had his doubts. Why? Among the varieties of Judaisms of the first century—among, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes—there was a corresponding variety of images of the Messiah. Some expected the Anointed One to emerge from the priestly caste. Others looked for a prophet like Moses. Many expected a son of David cut from the same combative cloth, i.e., a warrior king who would defeat their enemies and establish political autonomy for the people of Judea. John had preached a coming Judgment Day, when the ax would be laid to the root.
And then “along comes Jesus, telling stories, eating with sinners, and healing. While is it possible that John knew perfectly well that Jesus was the Messiah, and, as a pedagogical ploy, was simply setting his disciples up to discover that, for themselves, it is plausible that the question of Jesus’ identity was very much (John’s) own.”1
This is the natural response of someone who knows time is short, who just wants to hear some comforting words, to hear that his life was well spent, to know that he heard God clearly. Knowing that, John’s question is especially heart-rending: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Others will have that same question, faithful Jews who gathered around Jesus and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
I want a plain answer, if not for myself, then for John the Baptist. But Jesus’ answer was not yes or no, but more like a proof: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
In other words, Jesus’ message to John is something like “You know your Scripture better than most. What did Isaiah say about the Messiah? What did the prophets say about what the Kingdom of God looks like?”
This Sunday is Gaudete Sunday, Rose Sunday; some others call it Stir Up Sunday, a reference to the first words of today’s Collect. Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. We pray all that without knowing exactly what that might look like, but then Jesus lets us know what happens with the power of the Lord is stirred up: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
And so, even in confinement and in the midst of death, John the Baptist had his answer and the comfort and strength that came with it, and now so do we.
1Dennis Hamm, SJ http://liturgy.slu.edu/3AdvA121116/theword_hamm.html