Will I Wait Forever?
John the Baptist is the world’s most famous public relations guru. In the gospel accounts, John’s entire purpose was to stir up the people, to get crowds pumped for this messiah fellow about to show up, whoever that would be. John wore ragged hermit’s clothes. He preached fire, brimstone and repent-for-the-end-is-near. He baptized those already counted as God’s people to signal that even the chosen people must cleanse themselves for the messiah’s coming. John worked himself into a frenzy building a revivalist network so that when the messiah he heralded at last arrived everyone will be energized and set to start this revolution from heaven. Jesus shows up, John baptizes him, everything looks good… and then John the Baptist disappears from the scene. Now John the Baptist rots in prison. Off-screen, John got himself arrested for pointing out it was gross for King Herod to marry his brother’s ex-wife. Herod’s sister-in-law / wife did not appreciate John’s marital advice and had him arrested. Three chapters after today’s scripture, Herod’s queen will arrange for John’s head to be on a silver platter, literally, as a whimsical birthday present. Once John electrified crowds and himself looked with hope to the coming of the messiah. But now? Mr. The Baptist doesn’t see much reason to hope anymore.
So he sends messengers to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?” “God said I was supposed to welcome the messiah, to pave the way for the chosen one. Are you the one my entire life was meant to be about? Did I bet on the wrong messiah? Perhaps you are the messiah… but you just won’t help me? Did I let you down? Is that why your miracles won’t get me out of prison? Look at all I did for you! I gave years of my life for your cause, Jesus! You are the chosen one sent to save God’s people… so why aren’t you saving me? Or did I simply misunderstand what your messianic mission was about? I thought you would wield the fiery sword of the Lord’s justice. But here I sit, unjustly imprisoned, and you’ve done nothing to free me.” Christ in today’s text says, “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” John knew at one time that Jesus was the messiah. John went told it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. But now the fun is over. John is in prison. Jesus is not helping. Is Jesus the one? Or will John wait forever?
I know the feeling. You look forward to something for ages. You work hard. You finally get there. And you wonder: is this it? My first summer of college, I chaperoned a church youth group beach bonfire. The youth pastor said, “Just follow my station wagon.” So I did. At a left turn on a T-intersection, I was held back by traffic going the other way, but with some fast driving and tight turns on some coastal mountain roads, I caught back up to the station wagon. And I followed the guy. And I followed him. I started wondering to myself, “I’ve driven to this beach before. It shouldn’t take this long. Is this it?” The kids in my backseat started wondering the same thing out loud. Then the car in front of me started speeding up. So I sped up. He started driving really aggressively, hugging the turns and gunning the straightaways. So I drove the same. It was a low-budget car chase. Finally, the station wagon pulls onto a shoulder, and I pull up behind him. We’re in the middle of nowhere. I scoot my car up next to the youth pastor to chew him out. And a terrified family of three looked back at me from the station wagon, no goateed youth pastor in sight. At least I didn’t have to carpool kids anymore that summer.
We all know what it’s like to feel lost. Sometimes life doesn’t turn out how you expect. Sometimes our big break doesn’t ever come. Sometimes prayers don’t get the answers we want, and we’re left scratching our heads. Sometimes faith is hard. Sometimes the moment you’ve been waiting for falls flat with a thud. Sometimes you literally get lost with a carful of terrified middle schoolers. Advent is a season of waiting for Christmas that’s meant to mirror the waiting we do in our lives year-round. But with Advent, we know Christmas is guaranteed to come on December 25th each year, barring the Grinch stealing it, of course. Yet in life, we often wait and hope… and we don’t know when our waiting and hoping will pay off. We don’t know if our waiting will ever pay off. Sometimes we’re not even sure what we’re waiting for. It’s easy to be in Johnny Baptist’s shoes this time of year. “Is this it? Is this what I waited for? Was I wrong to hope for that? Was it just that I wasn’t good enough? Should I settle for good enough? If I don’t, will I wait forever?” When I was a boy, supercharged with teenage hormones, every time I met a new girl my mind would immediately ask: “Is it her? Is she the one? Is it love? No? Okay… but what about that one over there? No, alright… well, will I just be single forever?” Each new acquaintance sparked hope for genuine love and romance, that eternal butterflies-in-stomach hope that maybe she’ll choose me. But while puppy love may get left behind with age, such hopeful wondering and waiting follows us across our lives, from work and family to sickness and grief. We all wonder: “Is this it at last? Or do I keep waiting? Will I wait forever?”
Jesus answers the fearful wondering of John’s messengers: “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 receive good news.” In essence, Christ’s answer to John asking whether he really is the messiah goes: “John, look beyond your prison walls at everything all around us. The sick are healed. The poor are fed. The outcasts are welcomed!” Sitting in prison, John the Baptist only sees his own misfortune. Jesus reminds him God’s grace is still very much at work, that the mission to which John gave his life still goes on, that indeed the messiah is here. Just look at all the lives he’s touched with grace and love. When asked, “Are you the messiah” by a man sitting in prison who desperately yearns to know his life wasn’t wasted, that there was a point to it all, that there’s hope for him beyond the jail he’ll die in… Jesus does not offer an academic reply filled with precise Biblical citations. Jesus simply tells John: “Look around. Hear. See what God is doing already. Rest easy, my friend. You did well.”
But that good news doesn’t get John out of prison. Indeed, when Christ normally lists the lives changed by God’s grace—“see the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor receive good news”—normally he also includes “and release for the prisoners.” Freeing captives is unusually absent from this list. I imagine John the Baptist, sitting in his prison cell, would have noticed that. Not all prayers get a ‘yes’ answer. And so though Jesus gives John the hopeful news that at last God’s kingdom is arriving, that John’s life has meaning and purpose after all… the incomplete list Jesus gives John reveals that God’s kingdom is not yet here in full force, that the fiery justice of the Lord is holding back a little longer so that God’s mercy might change a few more hearts instead. Indeed, Christ’s final words in today’s scripture reinforce the idea that God’s kingdom has started to arrive but is not yet here in full power and glory. “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.” Jesus declares John is the greatest mortal to ever live yet in the same breath declares something even greater is coming, something that will give all who believe a strength, courage and faith far beyond even the greatest of mortal believers. The kingdom of heaven has started to arrive, though it has not fully entered the station yet. John the Baptist was instrumental in bringing about this new dawn, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven will far exceed his holiness and might.
In our own lives, when we feel lost… when we’ve hoped so long we’ve forgotten why we started hoping… when we’re not even sure what we want anymore… Jesus’ answer is the same to us as it was to John the Baptist. “Look around. See God at work this very instant. Your waiting is already over. God’s kingdom has already begun to arrive.” When we bury a loved one and wonder if we’ll ever see them again, look and see Christians feeding the hungry in the name of Jesus Christ… and know that God’s kingdom is real, here on earth today and in heaven for eternity. When we fear what tomorrow may bring and worry over the news coming from doctors, employers or family… look and see that, even John the Baptist—“the greatest person ever born until Christ’s arrival”—had such worries yet found hope in the promises of the messiah who brought tidings of comfort and joy. Tidings of comfort because we are not comfortable. Tidings of joy because we are not joyful. We all have trouble hoping: that’s why we need a messiah like Jesus in the first place. When we yearn for meaning and purpose, whether in retirement’s rest or in the chaotic uncertainty of youth… look and see how God has guided countless generations that have come before us, given them exactly such courage, hope, patience and love. When news report after news report seems to signal utter disaster on the horizon, see and hear God’s kingdom at work in the believers who visit and care for the sick and the lonely in our midst. When like John the Baptist we get overwhelmed by evil and fear, when we wonder if we’ll be stuck waiting forever for change and relief, step back and notice how God is still at work.
It can be frustrating to wait. We often forget what it is we’re waiting for. We lose heart that it will ever come. Answers of “no” or “not yet” from God may cause us to doubt and wonder whether prayers are heard at all. Like John, we may even firmly believe that Jesus is the messiah yet even still wonder, if that’s the case, why hasn’t Jesus fixed it all up already. And the answer is that the Kingdom of God is already here… just not yet here in full. We see it in all the little acts of love inspired by God’s kindness. We see it in hard hearts thawed by forgiveness. We see it in mournful faces looking up with hope when reminded that death is not forever. So when waiting gets difficult, when you wish God would just hurry up already and fix up the place… look around you and see… that God is already at work. And perhaps—through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit—you can serve as God’s hands and feet, revealing the already-here nature of God’s kingdom in acts of love both big and small… so that those who yearn for the not-yet-here kingdom of God in full… might hold onto hope and take courage in their waiting.
Asked by John the Baptist, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers: “Look, hear, see: God’s grace is already at work in your midst.” As we wait for Christmas 2019… but also as we wait for true justice, lasting peace, mercy and healing for all… in our waiting may we grab hold of these signs, these tiny glimpses of God’s infinite love, these sneak previews of the glorious reunion in paradise… may we look, hear and see such signs that indeed God’s kingdom is already here… and so take courage in our waiting and watching for it to at last arrive in full. And may we do our part in showing such glimpses of heavenly grace and love to others. Praise be to God for this gift… and this calling. Amen.