John's question is really the question for hearers of every age. More clearly than perhaps any place in the gospel, the writer fairly leaps over the characters on the stage of the narrative
and places the question smack-dab in our own laps. What will we make of this Jesus? Is he indeed the Messiah? For us? If not, how will we be opened to hear and see him as Messiah in such a way that he becomes the very reality of God's blessing in our lives?
Living in the midst of Advent, perhaps the question is premature. Along with John we say, "Give us more data." But when the kingdom comes it is not a matter of more data. We pray, "Let your kingdom come." Martin Luther says, "God's kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us" (Small Catechism). Luther elsewhere says it is not enough to preach the works, life, and words of Christ as historical facts; rather Christ needs to be preached so that he becomes Christ for you and me (Freedom of the Christian). How will we read and hear to that end? Here, then is the deep question of faith, the leap from unbelief to belief, and the mystery of God's kingdom at work in us.
John's question is also the great "why?" Last Sunday, we listened to John's preaching and to his expectations that this coming Messiah would really "clean house" (3:11-12). Now John is in prison, and we might be forgiven if we join him in his questions. If this Jesus is really the good news of God, then why is there still so much suffering and pain, evil and destruction, or hurt and brokenness among God's creation? The answers lie in our imagination and vision. What do we expect to see in this Messiah? And what will we make of him?
Hearing and Seeing
If we are to receive this Jesus as God's Messiah "for us," then it will call for a dramatic new creation of ones who are made to hear and see in new ways. Our expectations and our hopes need reshaping. Jesus says, "Go and tell John what you hear and see" (11:4). Such seeing will need to be shaped both by the visions and hopes of prophets, those who have gone before. It will also need to be shaped by what is happening here and now among us. Where do we see the creative power of God at work amid the suffering of this world? Where do the blind, the lame, the sick, the poor have good news brought to them? And where do we find ourselves to be instruments of God's creative power? Such hearing and seeing will return us to the theme of repentance and renewal that were part of John's preaching of the kingdom. It is part of Jesus' message to disciples as well. "Be not only hearers but doers," he says at the end of his sermon (7:24). "Let anyone with ears listen," he teaches in his parables (13:9). "Many have longed to see and hear what you have and did not," he reminds his disciples (13:16-17).
The preacher in Advent will need to be the eyes and ears of the people. Where do we see the Messiah's promising presence at work in world? Or do we see it at all? For disciples of any age such seeing is not always easy. Nor is there even any guarantee that it will be for us a matter of good news. That will again be shaped by our expectations.
Blessing or Offense?
Jesus says, "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (11:6). To hear and see in this way is to acknowledge that Jesus is indeed the one who is coming as God's Messiah. It is to believe that there is power for new creation in God's call to each of us as disciples, to be transformed by repentance to bear fruits of love and mercy. It is to know that the deeds and words of renewal and hope that take shape in our world because of him through us and through others are marks of God's salvation. All of these are ways of talking about the "blessing" of God. "Blessing" is an important, if not the key theme for Matthew. It is a code word for the heart of God's good news of mercy and grace. Such mercy is not just metaphorical expression, but is real in the life changing and world changing power of Jesus and his disciples among whom we are included. "Blessed.blessed, " is Jesus repeated refrain at the beginning of his sermon (5:1-11). The words of beatitude are not first of all a call to be up and doing, but rather words of assurance, to know the blessing that is ours in the call and promise of God. "Blessed are your eyes," Jesus commends his disciples when he uses parables to help them envision the new ways of God's kingdom (13:16). "Blessed are you, Simon," he responds to Peter's central confession of him as God's Messiah (16:17).
If blessing is the key mark of discipleship for Matthew, then its flipside or opposite is "offense" (11:6). Offense (Greek root: skandalon as either noun or verb, and often disguised in English translations, such as in 18:6-9) is the stance of unbelief. The key question of our lesson and of this Advent season is whether the good news of God's blessing in Jesus will take root in us and produce the fruits of faith or whether it will be the cause of our turning away. In the narrative of Jesus' birth we are reminded of the differing reception of the "good news" in a Herod or in the magi. As we move closer to the celebration, the question is not put more earnestly, "How will we receive him?" Is Jesus for us "the one who is come" or do we keep looking for another-or for others or other things that will fill our expectations of what we would like our God to be? Before we answer that question too quickly, we should take another look at John in our lesson.
What about John?
At the beginning of the gospel John seemed so confident in his preaching about Jesus as the one who was to come. So his questions now seem at best a bit puzzling. Several explanations of his question might be given. We have already suggested that putting this question in John's mouth may simply be Matthew's way of putting the question of discipleship directly in front of us, of making John's question really our own, and thus facing us with the issues of faith and unbelief, of blessing and offense, which are at the heart of this gospel. A second suggestion returns to the matter of expectation and fulfillment. As much as Matthew paints John as the forerunner who proclaims the kingdom of God, still John remains only on the threshold of the kingdom. To judge from his preaching, the Messiah he expects will come with fire and brimstone, with winnowing fork in hand, to exercise judgment, or, as we have said, as one who will "clean house." Instead what John hears and sees is one who brings forgiveness, healing, and mercy. Only Matthew's Jesus explicitly says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," not once but twice (9:13; 12:7).
Is this a Messiah that John or we can live with? Do we really like a God who insists on coming to forgive, to show mercy, to call even the unrighteous to repentance? We think, for example of the parables of the unforgiving servant (18:23-35) or the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16). Maybe that's a kind of surprise that neither John nor you or I can live with.
How great a promise does God hold out for you and me this Advent season? Matthew's answer is a promise so great that even the least person in the kingdom of God is greater than John. It is a promise so radical that even one as great as John can miss it as he looks for the mercy and justice of God in the wrong key, and so risks missing the kingdom when it comes.
But to be able to answer a "Yes" to John's question is to know that we have experienced what Matthew means by the "blessing" of God. It is to have truly experienced what the Advent expectation is all about in its promise to transform our vision and hope.