“…are we to wait for another?”

The Third Sunday of Advent, Year A.

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. 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.’

“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.”

Matthew 11:2-11

There is a strange comedy on Netflix called Look Who’s Back. It made some waves in the last couple years for its somewhat shocking premise. Through the magic power of contrived plot devices, Hitler wakes up in a park in modern Germany and sets off on an adventure trying to come to grips with the modern world. He begins with ambitions about re-establishing his power but everywhere finds that no one believes that he is who he says he is. Hilarity ensues when not only do people not take him seriously, they think he is a comedian and he accidentally becomes famous, the whole world mocking him. Like all good comedy, the film holds up a mirror to ourselves and our culture, and flippantly asks an existential question: What would happen if someone from the past suddenly appeared in our era? Would they be so irrelevant and foreign that we would only find them as a source of amusement? Naturally, the answer to the question largely depends on who it is we are talking about. In the case of Hitler, I am more than happy for him to be so irrelevant that he is nothing more than a self-parody. But what about Jesus? What would it look like if the second coming happened right now? For Christians this is not some thought experiment, a quirky idea to put into a film, but an immediate and oncoming reality. Jesus is coming back! A voice is crying out in the wilderness “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Depending on how concerned you are about the direction world affairs are going, He may very well be coming back sooner than we are comfortable to admit!

When Jesus returns in his glory, how will we recognize him? How will you know who he is? John the Baptist asks the question on our behalf, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

John’s apparent skepticism is rather shocking, after all, he is the voice of Elijah, proclaiming that the Lord has arrived! In many ways John is Jesus’ first disciple, before Jesus called Andrew and Peter, John was preaching baptism and repentance on Jesus’ behalf. Since before he was born, John has known that the Lord was coming. When John met Jesus at the banks of the river Jordan, he said to Jesus, “You should be baptizing me!”

What then, has happened to John? Why would he ask this question? John disappears from Matthew’s account after the baptism. Presumably John was captured and put in prison not long after he baptized Jesus, because in today’s Gospel, we hear from John’s disciples, but not the man himself until now. We know from later stories in Matthew that John never stops prophesying and preaching the good news, even making his captor Herod into a conversation partner, though that did not save him from execution [Matthew 14]. What then has changed since the baptism? Jesus’ ministry has grown to new heights.

In the time between his baptism and John’s question from prison, Jesus has defeated temptation in the desert, given the sermon on the mount, preached, taught, and has now been performing miracles, ranging from calming the sea to healing the sick. It’s these miracles that peak John’s interest. Though John lived in a world full of mystery, these signs are ticking all the boxes Isaiah and other prophets made when predicting the coming of the Messiah. Given this context, John’s question comes not from skepticism but from hope. Is this the sign of the new messianic age?

But John had it easy right? Sure, he was in prison and never got to see the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. But he got to meet Jesus face-to-face and to hear first-hand accounts of his miracles. How does it help us today when we’ve heard the promise, know the story, are living in the supposed messianic age, but still see so much suffering? Where do we get to meet God face-to-face? Where are our miracles?

But you know what? We shouldn’t need miracles to shore up our faith. We can recognize Jesus without miracles. After all, we have evolved beyond the gimmicks and superstition of our ancestors into a more thoughtful, educated humankind. In our era of technological and scientific marvels, we don’t need a burning bush, a pillar of cloud and fire, or non-medical healings. In fact, a lot of time has been taken trying to explain these stories away. Oh, well the red sea crossing was good knowledge of the tides, and the curing of the demon-possessed is a metaphor for mental illness, and faith healing are just placebos. It’s uncomfortable to believe that miracles happened in the past because they just don’t happen anymore. Even if we believe that there was a time when miracles happened, that time has passed. We no longer live in a world with miracles.

Only that’s not true. We do live in a world with miracles. We live in a world that is full of miracles, and not of the nostalgic kind where absolutely everything is a miracle because it is part of the created order. No, a miracle is an act of divine power that is beyond the natural order. Where we get confused is that we usually assume that miracles must be rare. Obviously, we don’t see burning bushes that speak to us every day. But that isn’t the only kind of miracle. For an alcoholic, every day sober is a miracle. Because to stay sober is to overcome through great effort and divine help the “natural state” of the alcoholism, which is to drink. To stay sober, the alcoholic must overcome their body chemistry, social stigma, cultural indoctrination, and more, every hour of every day. When we witness those in recovery, we witness a miracle. When a relationship has been broken by mistrust, but they are able to overcome their anger and reconcile, that is a miracle. When rivals or nations choose peace instead of continuing a cycle of violence, that is a miracle. When we trust in one another, forgive one another, love one another, that is a miracle. Whenever the sin that has become part of the natural state of the world is overcome, that is a miracle.

It is easy to doubt the miracles that we see all around us, after all we still very much live in a world of suffering and sin. Because we fear being hurt, it is our nature to doubt. For many of us the old adage, “if it’s too good to be true, then it is”, always sits in the back of our minds. Even John, the one crying out in the wilderness still asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Even John wondered and worried if Jesus was too good to be true. To that doubt, to that fear, look at the faith that brings us together, the hope that sustains us, and the love that surrounds us. It is the same power of God that gave the blind their sight, the deaf their hearing, raised the dead, and brought good new to the poor.

When we invite Jesus into our lives, we are opening ourselves to the healing power of God. We are inviting God to work miracles in ourselves and in our community. What’s more, when we recognize and invite Jesus, we become a sign, we become that miracle. We know who Jesus is because we recognize Him by His signs, the miraculous grace that permeates the world and those who follow him. Now that we see the His works all around us, we must become the voice in the desert, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

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