The Third Sunday in Advent; Year A (12/15/2013)

Texts:Isaiah 35:1-10 Psalm 146:5-10 (8) or Luke 1:46b-55 (47) James 5:7-10 St. Matthew 11:2-11

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

11.2 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?” Jesus answered them, “Go and 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “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. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

11 “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

St. Matthew 11:2-11. New Revised Version Bible ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

No One Greater

No one, among those born of women, has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist. Strong words here, from Jesus himself, about this enigmatic New Testament prophet. A shirt-sleeve relative of Jesus (St. Luke 1:39-45), John is a central player in the Jesus story. His baptism of Jesus is the first story that all four Evangelists consider important enough to include in their Gospels. The church concurs, featuring him every year in the Gospel lessons for the second and third Sundays of Advent.

Last week we considered St. Matthew 3:1-12, and John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…” and, “I baptize you with water for repentance…” Here he is challenging his listeners to (1) be forthright about their own sinfulness, (2) be renewed by God’s radical forgiveness, and (3) be ready to have their minds transformed. Toward the end of last week’s Gospel he offers a hint about what is to come in this week’s Gospel: “…but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

This week we focus on the fact that John’s ministry is one of preparing people to experience the fullness of this “one greater than he, who will baptize with Spirt and fire.” John is convinced that Jesus is this person. In fact, he offers testimony to this even before he and Jesus are born. (St. Luke 1:44) So this week’s text comes as a bit of a surprise. Why does St. Matthew picture John in prison, wrestling with whether Jesus actually is “the one who is to come” (or shall we wait for another)?

Students of the Gospels have offered a number of possible answers to this question. Perhaps John is genuinely doubting whether Jesus is the one. (After all, fire and Holy Spirit haven’t yet become apparent by chapter eleven.) Perhaps it is a device that allows Jesus to interpret his own message and ministry in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy. (Isaiah 35:5-6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” — something Jesus will do again in verses 15-16.) Perhaps it is John actually carrying out the ministry entrusted to him by convincing his own followers to make their way to Jesus and see for themselves.

I suspect there is an element of truth in each of these possibilities — but the last of them rings most true to me. After all, why is it that Jesus describes John as greater than anyone else ever born of women? Is it not because he is the messenger sent to prepare God’s people to experience Jesus as the Messiah? Is it not because in sending his own disciples to Jesus he is doing the work that God appointed for him? Ironically, John’s greatness is expressed in his desire for others to learn that “one is greater than I.” As John himself says in the Gospel According to St. John: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John’s greatness comes from understanding that another one is greater. As he draws his first century listeners to Jesus, he seeks to draw us to Jesus as well. We turn to him each Advent, so that he might help us to experience this in a way that deepens our faith and transforms our lives.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What does the Bible say about the relationship between John and Jesus?
  2. How does John help the people of his day connect with Jesus?
  3. What does it mean that each of the Gospel writers places such emphasis on John’s ministry?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How has John’s call to repentance shaped my life and faith?
  2. What makes me think of John as great?
  3. Where do I see Jesus bring health and hope to blind, lame, deaf and poor people today?