When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
must confess that enjoy listening to Christmas music this time of year. Something just feels right when I hear Michael Buble cover classic Christmas hits while I’m working at my desk. And these long dark nights somehow seem less oppressive as I drive the lonely back roads of Connecticut when “I’ll be home for Christmas” comes on the radio.
The songs combine with all our other holiday trappings: the candles in windows, the wreaths on every flat surface, the sight and smell of colorful Christmas cookies, and the friendly holiday greetings from strangers. They weave together and form a sense of supreme well-being, of happiness, and of peace.
So powerful is this holiday spirit that the stories from scripture that lead up to Christmas, and indeed the Christmas stories themselves, can feel out of place. After all, the stories of Advent and Christmas always have an undercurrent of fear, uncertainty, and even danger to them. Mary is told by an angel that her life will be turned upside down. Zechariah is struck dumb at the announcement of his son, John’s, birth. Shepherd are terrified by the appearance of angels in the sky overhead. The wise men are confronted by the evil and duplicitous motives of Herod, leaving Bethlehem by a different route to escape his attention. Mary and Joseph are forced to flee with Jesus, escaping ahead of Herod’s murderous rage, as he orders the killing of all the children under two years of age.
And then, of course, there is the story of John the Baptist, who is now in jail. The prophet in the wilderness, the outspoken man who baptized Jesus, is now in jail. And sitting in prison, John is feeling many things. Hearing word of Jesus’ activities and teachings throughout the countryside, John is feeling many things.
John is feeling some doubt. From his newfound place of helplessness in prison, John is wondering if he threw in with the wrong guy. Each day that passes, each new sun that rises and does not bring the savior’s fiery judgement to set him free from his bonds, John’s doubt grows. Jesus was not turning out to be the sort of savior John would have hoped for.
John is feeling some anger. With each new report of Jesus’ meandering journey, of his unusual teachings, of his miracles and healing, John grows angrier. Jesus is not bringing the judgement that John longed for. Jesus is not delivering the divine justice that John hungered for. The longer John sits in captivity, the angrier and more desperate he feels. He sends chastisement to Jesus, telling him to hurry it up. John’s need for salvation is pressing urgently on his mind.
John is feeling afraid. He knows that imprisonment rarely ends well. Indeed, when we look at the stories of prisoners in scripture, we know that most of the time jail means death. From our privileged position as readers of the story, even as John is fearing for his life, we already know that he will never again see freedom. We know that he will die in bondage, his head served up to his captors upon a silver platter.
But for now, John is still alive. For now, John is wrestling with the question, “Will God save me?” John is wondering if he is now alone even as he longs for reassurance. For now, John is afraid.
No, these Christmas stories don’t match the Christmas story that we tell ourselves every year through songs on the radio or specials on television. They stand out jarringly against the backdrop of brightly decorated Christmas trees and Norman Rockwell paintings of Santa Claus.
No, these stories do not match our cultural celebration of Christmas. And yet, the resonate with something deep within us. When we are being honest with ourselves, there is a part of us that understands where John is coming from. Beneath the thick and glossy lawyer of Christmas cheer and holiday decorations in which we wrap ourselves, we too have doubt. We too have anger. We too have fear.
Perhaps most of the time they are quiet enough that we can ignore it, maybe even forget that they are there. Other times, they burn hot in our hearts as we drive in for another round of chemo therapy, or lie awake in our bed at night while our spouse lies in the hospital, or as we weep for a loved one we have lost in the silent moments when we find ourselves alone.
It is in moments like these that we find ourselves questioning whether Jesus is the sort of savior we thought he would be. It is in moments like these that we find ourselves angry at God for not moving fast enough, for not bringing us the justice or salvation we wanted. It is in moments like these that we find ourselves feeling very alone, in desperate need of comfort and reassurance in the face of fear and the unknown.
In these moments, Jesus’ words come to us, just as they came to John as we waited in jail. In these moments, Jesus’ words come to us bearing the true message of the Christmas season. It is not a message of peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity. Nor is it a message of naughty and nice lists and family celebrations. It is the message that you are not alone.
Do not fear, for you are not alone. Do not fear, for God has already come into the world and has entered the depths of our broken humanity and the worst of human suffering. Do not fear, because even in the darkness of the pit and in the most desolate shores of our lives, even there, God is with us.
And Christ brings salvation. It is not the salvation we have always wanted, nor the salvation that we have hoped for. It is the salvation that we need. It is the salvation that causes the blind to see clearly. It is the salvation that opens the ears of those who do not hear. It is the salvation that causes the lame to leap like deer and those without hope to find assurance.
For our salvation is that the kingdom of God draws near. It is the good news that in the fallen-ness of creation, God has not rejected us. In our brokenness, God does not push us away, but pulls us in, closer to God. And it begins at Christmas with the one called Emmanuel, who has come to share with us the message that God is with us.
Preached by Adam Yates