In the Gospel for last Sunday we heard the stirring words of John the Baptist at the Jordan River concerning the one who is to come. The Messiah, he said, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire; “he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!”
In the fashion of a swashbuckler, the Messiah’s arrival will be dramatic, to say the least.
But Jesus does not fit the mold. He comes on the scene as one who proclaims the kingdom of God, calls upon people to trust in God, heals the sick, and befriends tax collectors and persons labeled “sinners.” It is little wonder that John, now sitting in prison with time to think, questions whether Jesus is the one to come or not. Jesus fits neither John`s expectations nor those of the Jewish people in general. John’s question then is therefore totally understandable: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we to look for another?” Something about Jesus’ ministry disappointed John sufficiently as to make him doubt the very identity of Jesus as the Christ of God.
The reply of Jesus is neither a yes nor a no to the question. He points to what he has already been doing. True, it was not quite the razzle-dazzle John has expected but at the deepest levels Jesus was doing kingdom work.
Maybe preaching hope to the poor and marginalized people did not seem like much, especially if one is expecting the Messiah to overthrow the Roman yoke that suppresses them and slam his fist into the face of Pontius Pilate, Herod, or Caesar. Jesus simply reminds John, by way of his disciples, of what he has been doing: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. That which Isaiah envisioned in his prophetic oracle—our First Reading —is now taking place—the kingdom of God is breaking in upon the world. Whoever perceives the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy will recognize that Jesus is the Christ, “the one who is to come”, and will be blessed.
Following that declaration, the subject is changed. Jesus asks the crowds questions about John. Indeed, John is “more than a prophet” in that he has a superior role. He is the herald of the Messiah’s coming, preparing his way. John is the messenger promised by the last of the prophets (Malachi); he is Elijah who is to come. John is extolled as the greatest of human beings. Then Jesus speaks directly about us when he declares “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John the Baptist].”
John did not live to see the ministry of Jesus unfold; he was executed by Herod during the time of Jesus’ ministry. But we — even we, ordinary Christians, who are “the least in the kingdom” have seen the ministry of Jesus come to its fulfillment. We are blessed to be living on this side of Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification, and be a part of his body, the Church. We are not people adrift in the world with uncertainty about who we are, how we should live, or where we are going.
In the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist seemed so confident in his preaching about Jesus as the one who was to come. So his question in today’s passage may seem a bit puzzling. Perhaps it is a way of putting the question of discipleship directly in front of us, of making John’s question our own.
But how and why place this passage on this Third Sunday of Advent—Gaudete Sunday? Surely, there were other choices. Who needs a story of doubt as to who Jesus is a scant two weeks before we celebrate the birth of Jesus precisely on the belief that he is the Messiah?
No, doubts about Jesus don’t seem to fit Advent. This is a time of the year to be sure.
As an Advent passage two weeks away from celebrating Christmas, Jesus uses John’s doubts to remind us of what is truly important: faithfulness to the King and his kingdom in which our true citizenship lies. We may not join John in doubting whether Jesus is the One or not. But if we believe Jesus is the One, we can properly question how well we are following him. Jesus leads to a cross first and calls us to sacrificial living in a discipleship that anticipates doubt, questioning, resistance, and even outright persecution.
The Season of Advent intrudes into the history of the world and into our lives. The mood, the hymns, and the prayers, of this season seek to open us up to renewed ways of thinking and behaving.
Each year we resolve to keep the “Christ” in “Christmas”. This is a time of the year to be certain, to be firm, to stand up for the truth lest our whole celebration be watered down and become simply a “happy holiday”.
How great a promise does God hold out for you and me this Advent season? A promise so great that even the least person in the kingdom of God is greater than John. While John stood in the Advent of the kingdom, we disciples of Jesus stand within it. Rejoice!