What keeps you up at night? It’s a very personal question, isn’t it? Whether you can answer this question openly and honestly is a measure of how close you are to the person who asks it.
We should count ourselves blessed if there’s at least one person in our lives with whom we feel comfortable enough to share what it is that keeps us awake at night.
Today we find John in prison. Last time we saw him as a powerful preacher, to whom people streamed from Jerusalem and all the Judean countryside to see and hear. He had one message: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight this paths for him.” This is what we heard last Sunday.
But things didn’t turn out for him as he had hoped. The path for him did not lead to bigger and better things, but rather to a cul-de-sac. John is in prison. He had the courage to witness before the religious authorities, as we saw last Sunday. Later he had the same courage to defend justice and truth at the court of the King Herod when he accused him of adultery and corruption.
And this landed him in prison. There he has time to contemplate the course of his life. Sleep has eluded him; the dark nights have seemed endless as he wrestles with hard questions.
John did what God told him to do, but now he wonders whether it was really God speaking to him in the first place. He stares into the darkness in which the dungeon has enveloped him. He asks himself if he is still on the right path. He asks if he was supposed to turn left, when he in fact turned right. And he asks if there is still a larger plan that somehow comprehends these adverse circumstances in his life. Just like Joseph before him, he too wants to affirm that what his enemies meant for evil, God meant for good.
I’m sure that we have stood where John stands today, at least once or twice in our lives. During those long nights, when we lie awake, unable to sleep, we have asked those hard questions. We’ve questioned God’s plan for our lives. And we’ve wondered why God does what he does.
John presents to us a very different figure today. Bold and confident in his preaching last Sunday, today is he less sure of himself. Strong and courageous in the face of the opposition of the Pharisees and Sadducees last Sunday, today he is doubtful and faint-hearted.
The one whom he proclaimed in the wilderness, the one who determined his own fate—is he really the one who is to come, or are we to expect another?
We have asked the question that John asks today. We have been saying that Advent is about watching and waiting. But when will the waiting be over? Or will it ever be over?
Advent is not only about a major biblical theme we make front and center each year at this time. It is about the human condition, as poignantly expressed in Samuel Beckett’s classic drama, Waiting for Godot. In this famous play, two characters Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a man named Godot, who never shows.
We wait for many things in life, maybe even things that we expected to receive from the hand of God. What are the big things we are waiting for? “The ability to love in a deeper way? The time when we don’t fall into those same old traps as we always do? A new vision for our lives? A change of heart?” (Mark A. Villano). Will the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ give us those things we are waiting for? Or are our expectations misplaced?
Waiting is hard, but waiting in the dark is even harder. Advent gives expression to this today, as we sung this morning.
“O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
The longer that John languishes in that dungeon, the more desperately he needs to hear the words that the Prophet Isaiah received, as we read them in our first lesson: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you” (Isa. 35:4).
Indeed, these words are not only for John. They are for all those who are weak and fearful and hurting. Author Debra Rienstra proposes that Advent is the time when we are allowed—or even encouraged–to give expression to our longing to be made whole. Advent is the time “when we mark the vast distance between God’s redemptive purposes, the promises and visions held out for us to cherish, and the state of the world as it is.”
Calvin Seminary professor Scott Hoezee tells us that we have a holy responsibility to come alongside one another and point one another to a better day, a day that will come because our God has come to us in Christ, and will come to us again.
Is this not in essence what Jesus is doing when he gives to John’s disciples a message to bring to John?
Jesus answers John indirectly, as he almost always does with everyone in the gospels. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt. 11:5).
Jesus’ words echo those of Isaiah in our first lesson. They came to his mind when he contemplated what he was going to tell John. In his magnificent vision of salvation, Isaiah tells us that the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy (Isa. 35: 5,6).
In biblical times, the common belief was that the blind, the poor, and the lame were not merely unfortunate, but cursed because of their sin. Their disfigurement furnished incontrovertible evidence. That is why people shunned them. You wanted to stay away from them, point them out as unclean and have them removed. Jesus says that in the salvation revealed in him, the blind and the deaf, the lame and the poor, are loved, included, and set free.
Almost like a summary of all the healing that he has been doing, Jesus adds that the dead are raised to life. This is apt because all those afflicted by disease and ostracized as unclean feel as if they are closer to death than to life, as if they are destined to live in the darkness of a grave rather than in the light of life.
The person and preaching of Jesus awakened them to new life, giving them the motivation to thank God revealed as the one who is for them and not against them, as the one who desires to bless them and not to curse them. Jesus preached this message to the poor, because it is precisely the poor who always live on the border between death and life in their misery.
God’s love will change everything. And it’s beginning to happen right here, right now. That is the message that Jesus has for John.
Through his own actions, Jesus knows and reveals himself to be the agent of God’s salvation, when God will heal every misery of his people, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
It is important for us to note that Jesus honors John’s request. Here we can learn an important lesson from what John did: he asked and waited on Jesus’ answer. John needed reassurance, and so he asked for it.
Do you need reassurance? Then ask as John did, and wait on God’s answer. “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). This is an open invitation that Jesus extends to all his followers. We should accept this invitation, especially if our lives are shrouded in darkness, as John’s was, especially if our perplexities keep us awake at night, as John’s did.
Jesus honors John by responding to his request. But he also honors John by vindicating him.
“Vindicate” is not a word that we use very often in our everyday speech, but it is an important one to know, especially if we want to understand God’s ways. How often do we read in the Psalms: Vindicate me, O Lord, for I walk with integrity before you (Ps. 26:1). Vindicate me, O God! Plead on my behalf against an ungodly nation (Ps. 43:1). But what does this mean?
Let’s say you believe in a cause. Indeed, you believe in it so strongly that you devote most of your free time and large sums of money to it. Then come the doubters and detractors. “You’re wasting your time.” “You’re throwing away your money.”
They explain to you how your cause is futile, that your dedication to it is pointless.
The negative influence from them tests your resolve. It tries your dedication to your cause. And if a person or event does not prove in their eyes that your cause is just, that you are right in dedicating yourself to it, you will collapse beneath its burden. But if or when this does happen, we say of you that you are vindicated.
This is what Jesus does for John, as he turns his attention to the crowds. He wants to impress on them who it is that they encountered in the wilderness. In the presence of John, they were in the presence of true greatness.
Of course, to see this requires a change of perception. Parenthetically, this is an important truth of the gospel. In receiving the gospel, we learn not only what to see, but also how to see. But all can see that John is not a “reed shaken by the wind.” He is not someone “dressed in soft robes” that goes about in “royal palaces.”
No doubt Jesus has in mind here Herod Antipas, the very one who threw John into prison, as we mentioned earlier. Reeds appeared as an image on coins minted during the reign of Herod Antipas, and the “soft robes” most certainly are an allusion to the extravagance of Herod’s court.
In the courts of power–that is where the world looks for greatness. But Jesus redirects the gaze of the crowds to the wilderness, where no one expects to find greatness. There is John. He is a prophet. Rather, he is more than a prophet.
This is high praise coming from Jesus. But John’s greatness is not an end in itself. It is subordinate to the cause to which he dedicated himself. He remains the one who points not to himself, but to the one to whom he was specially chosen to witness. He is the messenger whom God sent ahead of Jesus, who prepared the way for him.
John serves as an example for us today in the middle of this Advent season. For in serving Jesus, he is really serving us, who are least in the kingdom of God but for that reason greater than John.
When we wait in the darkness, when our perplexities keep us awake at night, we don’t lose heart. We don’t give up, but instead we inquire. “Show us, O God, that our watching and waiting are not in vain.” And just as Jesus reassured John, so God will also reassure us. “He will strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” (Isa. 35:3), so that we too can stand, so that we too can renew our dedication to the cause. He will do this for us, so that in the darkness of Advent, we, like John, can point to the light that has already dawned, and that will soon bathe all things in light.
Be patient, therefore, until the coming of the Lord (Jas. 5:7). Amen.