The Already and Not Yet: Advent 3
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Looking forward in Jesus’ life, long after his birth, he was asked by John’s disciples if he was the coming one, or if they should look for someone else (Matt 11:3). John had been sent to prison by Herod Antipater and things were looking grim. John, understandably, wanted to know if Jesus was going to overthrow unjust kings and kingdoms, commence the messianic age and free his relative, John, from prison. Jesus’ response to John’s disciples’ question is confusing: “Go tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news preached to them. Blessed is the one who does not stumble on account of me.” Why would anyone stumble on account of this description of Jesus??? Healing folks and raising people from the dead all while not forgetting to preach good news to the poor sounds like a pretty successful ministry. But Jesus’ words no doubt caused John’s disciples and John, in turn, great sadness. Why? It’s because of what Jesus did NOT say.
Looking back at Isaiah 61, we see that when Jesus mentioned proclaiming good news to the poor, he referenced this well-known passage of scripture to describe his ministry:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn… (Isa 61:1-2)
Indeed, Jesus’ description of his own ministry referenced several passages from Isaiah, most notably:
I the LORD have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will keep you, and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; To open the blind eyes, to bring out the captives from the prison, and from the dungeon those who sit in darkness (Isa 42:6-7).
Say to those with fearful hearts, Be strong, do not fear: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with divine retribution; he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap as a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing… (Isa 35:4-6).
Jesus pointed out that he had already performed several of these activities. He opened the eyes of the blind, he unstopped the ears of the deaf and he helped the lame walk/leap. What he did not claim to do was free prisoners or come with vengeance. These famous passages of Isaiah would have been known by John, his disciples and Jesus. In answering John’s question the way he did, Jesus was recalling to his relative’s mind the truth of scripture that God promises to free God’s people from prison, but at the same time admitting that immediately overthrowing the corrupt and violent political system was not Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus told John with this answer that he was going to let him die in prison.
Blessed are those who do not stumble over this Jesus.
As this week’s lectionary reading from the gospel of John makes clear, John the Baptist was not the Light, the prophet, Elijah or the messiah. He merely was sent to testify to the coming of the Light of the World. And after he had done so, he was captured, imprisoned and murdered. Jesus, who is the mind-blowingly powerful instrument of all creation (John 1:3), did nothing to prevent his relative’s death. What he did do was remind his friend, relative and co-worker in the gospel that God has been at work proclaiming freedom to captives and release from darkness to prisoners for hundreds of years before John was born, and God’s people would continue to be anointed to do so even after John was killed.
Jesus’ birth did not mark the completion of all prophesy or the accomplishment of the Kingdom. His birth, rather, started a new chapter in just how drastically God was prepared to act and enter into human time and space to save us from captivity to sin and death. We, as Jesus’ disciples, join him in proclaiming, as he did on another occasion (Luke 4:18):
…the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…
During this season, let us mark Jesus’ advent in our hearts and in our actions!