No One Greater
3 Advent, A
John the Baptist is a bit of an enigma at even the best of times. The last of the Old Testament prophets, yet his story begins the New Testament. The forerunner of the Christ who saw His coming, not just from afar, but face to face. A prophet who began his charismatic and forceful ministry to the un-numbered crowds of Jerusalem and Judeah, but who would end up his days sitting in a prison until his life was sold for a dance.
Yes, there are many things in the life of John which are puzzling. Not the least of which is the final episode before his death, recorded in the scriptures. The account of our Gospel reading for this morning. (2-6) “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? And Jesus answered them, Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
What's going on here? Is this really the same John who said without reservation: “Behold the Lamb of God” and “You Lord should be baptizing me.” How can he now ask such a question as “Are you the one”. Is this the same John who vehemently decried the disbelief of others with words such as: “Who warned you, you brood of vipers, to flee the coming wrath?” and “Behold even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree!” Surely, John has not fallen into the same disbelief and thus despair has he? What is behind this question?
Almost to a man the ancient church fathers say that John was NOT in a crisis of faith, but that this episode was for the benefit of his remaining disciples, that they might no longer be jealous of Jesus over John, but come to see the promised Messiah as John himself did, and so follow Jesus. Luther believed this too. Almost to a man, modern scholars say that this was brought on by a dark night of the soul. That John, for all his faith, had his hour of doubt. And who would not they ask? Stuck in prison, and no divine judgement in sight, who in his place might not feel scandalized – used? The blind see, the lame walk, lepers cleansed and deaf hear – but where is the release for the prisoner ... especially the one so wrongfully accused. Thus they say, the final words of Jesus are a gentle reprimand and call for repentance “Blessed is the one [you John] who is not offended by me.”
So which is it? How are we to view this enigmatic figure of John the Baptist? Was John, in the end, a paragon of faith holding firm in the face of persecution, or was he (when push came to shove) weak and prone to doubt, just like you or me? What are we to think? Let us look to Jesus, and see what He has to say.
(7-9) “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you. ”
In response to the question brought from John, Jesus pays high tribute indeed! Who is John the Baptist? He is a prophet of the most High. He is a man who brings God's word to God's people that they might repent and receive the Messiah. He is a man who does not serve himself or look to his own comfort, but does the work the Lord has sent Him to do. He is a man that is not easily swayed by the cares of this world. He stands firm upon the Word of God. He is a man whose entire life has been ordained by God for one purpose – to point to the Christ.
Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6 “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me ... Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
In the end, it really doesn't matter what prompted the question that John brought before Jesus. What matters is the witness it gave to the Christ. For John is the messenger of Chirst, and all that he does points the hearts of the people toward the fulfilling of God's covenant in the person of Jesus. In answering the question brought before Him, Jesus was clearly able to show that He was indeed the promised one of God – The Christ. The signs are all there, the prophecies are all fulfilled. The kingdom is at hand. Salvation has come for the weak and the weary, for the lame and the blind, for the persecuted and the imprisoned. Life and light has come into a world of death.
Whether on the banks of the Jordan in front of thousands, or alone and in prison, whether with forceful convictions or possibly even in a moment of doubt, John's life served to turn the hearts of the people to the Christ. To proclaim the great and glorious coming of the Saviour in the man from Nazareth. And that is why Jesus pays tribute to him, without reservation. Because the life of John rightly pays tribute to Jesus and His work as the Messiah. John himself is yet one more proof from Scripture that Jesus is this world's Lord and Saviour.
(11, 13-15) Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he ... For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
No one greater than John the Baptist – High praise, coming from Jesus! Of all those who waited and watched, of all those who gave their lives in calling people back to God, of all those who pointed to the coming One – no one, not one was greater than John. Not Moses, Not Aaron, Not Abraham, Isaiah, or Daniel. No one. John is the greatest of the lot. Indeed, of all the prophets of God, he is the only one who will himself be prophesied. For he will come at the end, in the transition from old to new. He will see the one he prophesies face to face. He will set people's hearts right – ready to receive the Lord, lest his coming should be only for destruction. Yes there was no one greater in all of Israel's prophetic history.
Yet for all this, John will not live to see the fulfilment of that great Messianic victory. He will not get to see God's judgement brought to bear on sin, death, and the devil ... through the cross of His only begotten Son. And that is why the least in the kingdom of heaven – you, me, and all who have followed Jesus – are greater than John. For we have seen the victory of the cross. We have seen the promise of the resurrection. We have been granted the full revelation of scripture, and we are free to go back to it any time we are in doubt, or are struggling with life.
For whether or not John struggled in his final days, we certainly do. There are times as we wait here for Christ's victorious return that we can't help but feel just a little bit scandalized by Jesus ... and maybe even used by God. The arrogant and the evil doers continue to prosper. The kingdom continues to suffer violence, and the world at times tries to wrest our faith from us by force. Why does he let sacred days like Christmas become so secular and meaningless that it is almost laughable? Where is the promised axe? Where is the justice? Why doesn't God seem to stand up for himself ... and us?
Perhaps this is John's final gift, not only to his disciples but also to us. That in our times of struggle we should hear Jesus' words once again: “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” The arrogant and the evil-doer will have their day, but that day is for God to decide. We should be content that today eyes are opened to the faith; the mute are given voice to praise God, bodies are made whole, lives are redeemed, and the dead are raised to everlasting life with their Lord. Forget the injustices of the world, we have the grace and mercy of God himself, given through Jesus.
In the end, it really doesn't matter what we think of the world around us, or our place in it. What matters is the witness our lives give to Christ. For we like John are messengers of Christ, and all that we do should points the hearts of this sinful and broken world toward the fulfilling of God's covenant in the person of Jesus. For the kingdom is at hand. Salvation has come for the weak and the weary, for the lame and the blind, for the persecuted and the imprisoned. For you amd for me. Life and light has come into a world of death. Through the one who is greater than all – Jesus Christ.