3rd Sunday of Advent
Is 35:1-6a, 10; Jas 5:7-10; Mt 11:2-11
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Is this the same John the Baptist who leapt in the womb when he came into contact with the newly conceived Jesus?
Is this the same John who pointed to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”? And who told the crowd, “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” What has shaken his conviction?
John, and the Jewish people in general, had a lot of preconceived ideas about what the Messiah would be like. This mild and thoughtful and caring Christ wasn’t living up to his expectations. He wanted a deliverer who would bash heads and kick butt. He was looking forward to a return to the glory days of King David and, later, the Maccabees, when Israel would again rule the Promised Land and all their enemies would be afraid of them. John’s message had been, “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. . . . His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:9, 17). But here was this fellow from Nazareth making statements like, “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” Instead of getting an army together and kicking out the detested Romans, Jesus and his band were giving their attention to lepers and cripples and sick people and saying radical things like “Turn the other cheek.”
I can just hear the thoughts inside John’s head as he gets more and more weary of his prison cell, “Come on, Long Awaited One! Would you quit futzing around and get on with the show! Like, I need you over here, man! Break the teeth of this Herod guy and show him your true colors! We’ve been oppressed long enough! It’s time to show the world our true worth.”
But God’s plan didn’t quite fit that model. That the Messiah would end up corresponding with the Suffering Servant figure foreshadowed in Isaiah was a hard pill to swallow, and many of the contemporaries of Jesus couldn’t bring themselves to accept it. To this day they are still awaiting a Messiah of their own construction.
From what I hear, some TV evangelists preach a “gospel of prosperity.” If you follow the commandments and go to church on Sunday God will reward you with success. They demonstrate their point by wearing fancy watches and expensive suits. I remember hearing that Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker had a dog house that was air conditioned. But in reality, it seems like the closer we get to the Lord, the more misfortune and bad luck befalls us. We end up finding out with John the Baptist that God’s plan doesn’t always fit our expectations. We complain to him, “Come on, God! I’m doing everything on my end. How about kicking in a little on your end?!”
But could it really be any different? What kind of a trail did Jesus blaze, our Leader and Captain in this endeavor? He’s the one who shows us the true path to the Father. A life without the cross is a life without Christ. He was God and could have chosen any lifestyle when he was on earth. Instead of luxury and honor, he chose humiliation and rejection. Instead of a palace and financial security he was able to say of himself, “Foxes have lairs and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Somehow, suffering and disappointment are a lot more effective in bringing about God’s kingdom than living life on Easy Street. God’s plan is much deeper than ours, his vision is much more far-reaching. Only after we die will we be able to see the tremendous value of what we see now as calamities. And think about it . . . I am much more impressed and inspired by someone who loves God with all their heart who has had multiple physical ailments and has lost their job and maybe a spouse, and maybe a kid to drug overdose or suicide. If they’re still faithful and loving God after that, then they’re definitely not doing it for what they can get out of him. God cannot but be touched by someone like Job in the Old Testament who got the book thrown at him when it came to misfortunes, but could still say in all sincerity, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
From the world’s standpoint, both the life of John the Baptist and Jesus ended in failure and defeat — they crashed and burned. But like the Sphinx, they arose from the ashes and ended up having way more of an impact on history than any of the big-shots of their time.
I was struck the other day by a line I read in the book The Way of Divine Love. It is written about a “victim soul” named Sr. Josepha Menendez. The quotation reads, “I must trust the Heart that watches over me; and the measure of my suffering, as He has many times told me, is the future measure of my consolation” (p. 185). I love that correlation between present suffering and future joy.
And I find it comforting to see that even someone of such great stature as John the Baptist could go through moments of doubt too. Yes, God’s plan doesn’t always meet our expectations. That plan may seem utterly messed up and totally stink, but God’s understanding of the bigger picture is so far beyond our finite world. We need to let God be God and get out of his seat. Even though we question whether God really is in charge, and think to ourselves, “This ain’t no way to run a railroad,” we have to make an act of faith and answer John’s question with, “Yes, he is the one who is to come, and we do not need to look for another.”