Last Sunday we heard one of the most moving exchanges in the Gospels. I find it difficult to resist the interplay between the imprisoned John the Baptist and Jesus at the height of his public ministry. I really feel for John the Baptist in this passage. He is an extraordinary figure. I glimpse him in the womb at the beautiful encounter between Mary and Elizabeth. I see him in the wild, something of a colossus, straddling the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. I see his wild hair blowing in the wind, his beard, the camel skin. I hear him bellow out the message. It is a message that is both urgent and without compromise. I hear his key word, repent, reverberate through the ages. The Baptist cautions us that we do not have an endless amount of time. I see him in the dungeon, listening to the music that accompanied the devious and seductive dance of Salome. Did he die calling Herod and his dysfunctional family to repent? Was his death a silent witness? Did he die with the name of Jesus on his lips? Was the sacred name simply filling his heart? Whatever about these glimpses, we visit him now in prison.
For all his strength, power and determination, we encounter a John who has a core question. Is he lonely, frightened? Is he being tortured or simply left to rot? Does he wonder what was it all about? Does he wonder what will happen? All of these may have some truth, but they are of course speculation. However there is no doubt about a very specific question. It is a question that seeks information but at its core essentially seeks reassurance. Clearly it speaks of something that has preoccupied him. So much so he charges some of his group to take the question to Jesus.
It would appear that questions play a key role in the life of Jesus. Many question the actions and words of Jesus. Why does he heal on the sabbath? How can he cast out devils? Where does his authority come from? Is this the carpenter’s son? Indeed Jesus himself presents questions? What do you want? Has no one condemned you? Who do people say I am? In fact for hundreds of years before Jesus was born the Jewish people were always asking questions about the Messiah. When will he come? Will we recognise him? How can we be ready? What shall he be like? Will there be clear signs that he has arrived?
So with all that background we should not be very surprised at the question of John the Baptist? ‘ Are you the one who is to come?’ In a sense it is the most important question. Perhaps it is the only question. The surprise is that it comes from John, and whatever about surprise at the source of the question, the real surprise comes in the answer. One would have thought that such a direct question, ‘Are you the one?’ would result in a straightforward, direct answer from Jesus. However this is not the case, and not for the first time Jesus wrong foots us. The answer given by Jesus to the question brought to him, from John the Baptist appears to be almost in code.
If in fact it is a coded message from Jesus, it is a code that John would have deciphered immediately. We must remember that both Jesus and John were brought up as God fearing Jews, mindful of the Judaic law and steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. They were very familiar with the holy women and men of the Old Testament, and in a special way they would have been au fait with the prophets. It is likely they knew many scripture passages by heart. We remember when Jesus took up the scroll and read from Isaiah and informed the listeners it was being fulfilled as they were listening. His answer to John’s wonderful question is directly from Isaiah, whom we remember was preaching eight hundred years before Jesus.
Answering the question, ‘are you the one?’, Jesus tells those who will be going back to John, to tell the Baptist what is happening. He wants them to tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life. Essentially Jesus repeats what Isaiah had said many years before when he was describing the arrival of the kingdom. Of course he is describing a whole new world order. It proclaims God’s mercy and love. However embedded in the answer of Jesus is a gem that could have been easily missed, and when John heard it, it must have been a pearl of reassurance. Jesus says ‘ happy is the man who does not lose faith in me’! Effectively Jesus points to the evidence of the breaking out of the kingdom of God and at the same time gives John the reassurance he needs. Once John would hear what is happening he would remember his boyhood encounters with the words of Isaiah that he and Jesus would have grown up with. This is the answer that he hoped for. This is the fulfilment of all the waiting. This is the messianic promise. This is God’s kingdom breaking into the world.
As followers of Jesus do we recognise the kingdom of God breaking into our world? Are we workers for the said kingdom? Do we bring good news to people’s ears? When people see us do they glimpse something of the Lord? Do we hint at, or nudge, people to his love, joy and peace?