Advent 3 – John the Baptist – Isaiah 35: 1-10 (p.719) and Matthew 11: 2-11 (p.1427)
Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, when we traditionally think of John the Baptist and the way in which he prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.
Luke relates how John was born as the special child of elderly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and he explains how Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth before John’s birth and after Gabriel had told her that she too would have a child, who would be called Jesus.
So, not only were John and Jesus related to each other, but also they were of a very similar age. Luke tells us that Jesus began his ministry when he was 30 years old (Luke 3: 23), so John must also have been about 30 when he came from his solitary life in the desert and began to preach. Isaiah described him as, “A voice of one calling in the desert” who said, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Isaiah 40:3).
John’s job was to prepare people for “the kingdom of heaven”, which he said was very near. To be ready for God’s rule they must “repent” – that is they must make radical changes to the way they were living. And people had every intention of doing that – They asked John what they should do to alter their ways. He pointed them in the direction of care and consideration for those around them, and he baptised them as a sign of their intention to change.
John was not afraid to tell people when he saw wrongdoing going on. He even extended his rebuke to Herod, the governor of Galilee, who had divorced his wife in order to marry his own niece, who also just happened to be his brother’s wife at the time. Herod was not amused and put John in prison. And this is where we find him in today’s gospel reading (Matthew 11:2).
Poor John was experiencing a crisis – In his prison cell he was no longer as sure about Jesus – about all that he had preached about him – about the rule of God that he had been so sure was near.
John was incarcerated at the fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea. It must have been scorching hot and very uncomfortable – torture for a man who had been used to living outdoors for much of his life, and able to stride freely over the hills. No wonder he had questions and doubts in such a situation.
John’s disciples kept him informed about what Jesus was doing and saying, but perhaps Jesus was turning out to be a different sort of Messiah to that which John had imagined – or worse, maybe he wasn’t the Messiah at all…
In his mind things were becoming confused and out of proportion; because of his situation doubts were beginning to grow; he was no longer so sure… So John sent his friends directly to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).
John had announced the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, but while he was languishing in prison, the work that Jesus had been doing had not brought the results that John had expected. It was only natural that he should feel disappointed – He needed reassurance. Perhaps he felt Jesus needed urging to greater action….
We don’t know how well John knew his relation Jesus – it’s possible they had never actually met in person until Jesus came to John to be baptised that day, but the message Jesus sent back to John in prison should have been reassuring – It gave John plenty to think through while he had so much time on his hands.
Jesus said, “Go back to John and report what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear…” (Matthew 11:4-5).
It was a strange message to send, but these were the very same things that Isaiah linked to the coming of the Messiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
And of course John would know this passage and would be able to put two and two together and to realise that he had not been mistaken about Jesus after all. Physical deficiencies such as blindness, deafness, dumbness and being lame would all be put right when the Messiah came, and here was Jesus performing miracles of healing which addressed all these problems for people.
Matthew adds two other things, which Isaiah leaves out – “The dead are (being) raised, and the good news is (being) preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). Who are these ‘dead’ and ‘poor’ people? Yes, Jesus the Messiah did raise people to life in a physical sense and many people he talked to were not well off, but there is more to both categories than being physically dead or economically hard up.
These people are pictured as ‘dead’ and ‘poor’ because they don’t yet know “the good news” which Jesus is just beginning to explain to them. John preached a message of repentance, and Jesus is now offering them salvation – the two parts of the message fit together perfectly, and both are necessary for the establishment of God’s kingdom. Both Isaiah and Matthew imagine people’s reaction when they hear this good news – they will “shout for joy” and “leap like deer” when their ears are “unstopped” and they are able to hear and to truly understand.
But inevitably there will be those who refuse to listen and who are not delighted at the coming of God’s rule.
As well as being a time of looking forward to the full establishment of God’s kingdom, Advent for us is a time of considering that subject which we do not want to think about – the end of the world as we know it, the return of Christ, and how he will deal with those who want nothing to do with him.
However, a king must rule, or he is not a king at all, and that means he must put down any rebellion. There is plenty of rebellion in our world – you only have to listen to the news any day to know that love does not rule.
The Bible is full of warnings that things must change, and of course both Isaiah and John the Baptist were talking about this situation. John’s answer was to point to the one who was to come after him and to say to those who would listen – ‘Your part in this is to acknowledge things need to be different; to say you want to see change in your own ways of being and doing, and to leave God to work out what happens to everyone else. You have a choice in the way you respond to him, but not in the final outcome of things – that is God’s business and his alone. Thinking about that dreaded idea of judgement is all about recognising who God truly is and giving him his due.
It is not about a judicial or even a military event, but about God acting to claim the honour due to him as loving creator and ruler of the world.
Because God must assert his position, he must make us aware of the results of rebellion, but that is not what he delights in. What he is working towards is salvation and great joy for a redeemed and remade world, and Isaiah 35 is a beautiful poem describing this.
One commentator says, “In chapter 35 it is as though a brilliant shaft of light breaks through the clouds and all is bathed in splendour again. Arid wastes burst into bloom as the glory of the Lord comes down like refreshing showers, and the whole earth shouts for joy. It is a vision to steady trembling hands, strengthen weak knees, and lift fearful hearts” (Barry Webb p.144). What an encouragement this must have been for poor John stuck in his prison cell.
A great highway is described in verse 8 – “The Way of Holiness”, which leads to Zion, the city of God.
In Old Testament terms this was the road to Jerusalem, the place where God had his earthly dwelling place, and where pilgrims would go to worship him in his Temple.
In the New Testament the letter to the Hebrews takes this idea a step further saying, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” (Hebrews 12:22). The highway in this passage leads to heaven, but not just to heaven – it leads also to God himself. It is not the golden streets or the pearly gates that make heaven what it is, but the very presence of God. And it is God who provides the way to get there. This highway is only for those who accept the need of repentance that John preached about, and Jesus’ offer of salvation, made possible through the cross.
If you ever feel weary, down in the dumps, disheartened or unsure read these verses from Isaiah 35 – without doubt you will feel better! But they will also remind you of where you are going – You are on the highway leading into the very presence of God. Life is a journey – a journey along The Way of Holiness, which ends in the joy of heaven.