Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 11: 2-11)

What a difference eight chapters makes if you’re John the Baptist.

Back last week in Grace’s sermon when we first met John, he was a very different fella.  We’ll call him the “Matthew 3” John.  Out in the wilderness in camel hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey, preaching and baptizing, telling some to repent and others calling brood of vipers.  Talking about winnowing forks and threshing floors and one coming after him whose sandals he could not carry.  This John was in his element!

Then we don’t hear from him for a while, until the 11th chapter. And it’s an entirely different John we find here.  An imprisoned John, a reserved John.  Gone is the passionate preaching and baptizing in the wilderness.  Say hello to silence behind thick stone walls and metal bars. 

This John is in a very different place – and I’m not talking just location.  This John, this “Matthew 11” John, is in a different place spiritually.  You can feel it through the ink printed on the pages of your Bible.  Something has changed in him.  See, John’s purpose all along had been, as Grace likes to say, about pointing – pointing people to the One coming after him who is The One.  Pointing to the one who would “make paths straight” and “baptize with the Holy Spirit.”  John made it clear: he was not that one.  He was not pointing to himself.  He was pointing people to Jesus. That was John’s purpose, and he was good at it.  He relished in it.  He thrived on it.

But there is no one to point to in a solitary prison cell.  There is no one around to hear your preaching, there is no river for baptizing.  John is out of his element, he is cut off.  And perhaps for the first time ever, John is wondering – wondering if perhaps he had misread the signs or misheard the calling.  He had thought it was time, he had thought Jesus was the One.  But maybe it wasn’t time.  Maybe he wasn’t the One.  And if it and he weren’t, what does that mean for him, locked away in a prison cell?

I’m always hesitant to play pop psychologist, particularly with someone who’s thousands of years removed from earthly life.  But it wouldn’t surprised me in if our “Matthew 11” John was depressed here , devastated.  At least that’s the vibe I get when when I hear the question he asks Jesus, sends with his colleagues to go ask of him:

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Now the story goes on, of course, right into the next verse; but I want to stop here for a moment.  Stop and sit with that question for a bit.  It’s gut-wrenching, isn’t it?  

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

You almost wonder which answer he fears more, right?  If Jesus is the one who is to come, then what in the world is going on, Jesus, because I was busy telling people for years about your coming and what it’d mean for the world, winnowing forks and all; and yet here I am in prison.  If you’re the one to come, then what am I doing here, and why haven’t things changed?

And if you’re not the one to come, and if we are to wait for another, then dear God, please tell us how long  – how long we are going to have to wait.  Because we’ve been waiting for a thousand years, God, a very long thousand years; and I don’t know that we can wait much longer.

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

You know, if you take that question and whittle it down to its bare bones and put it in modern terms, it is as fundamental a question as one can ask:

Jesus, are you the real deal?  Are you the real deal?

And it’s not an identity question John is asking, I don’t think.  I don’t think John is asking Jesus to show his credentials, whip out his business card.  I don’t think John is playing into what New Testament scholar Marcus Borg sees as one of the two Christian paradigms: what he calls, “belief-centered Christianity,” which emphasizes the importance of holding certain beliefs about Jesus. 

I don’t think John is asking Jesus to substantiate beliefs here. I think John is asking Jesus for something more fundamental – the second of Borg’s Christian paradigms called “way-centered Christianity,” which lifts up the Christian experience as “following Jesus on a path of transformation.”[1]  I think that’s what John is getting at here – not a question of identity, but a question of authenticity:

Jesus, are you the real deal?

You know, it’s always a relief, isn’t it, when someone else asks our question?  I remember growing up, there was this kid named Polly.  She was the smartest kid in class, every year.  Didn’t matter the subject, Polly aced it.  All of us other kids envied her something terrible, but truth be told, we also wanted to be Polly, very much, because A’s seemed to come as easy to her as breathing.

Although there were those blessed instances, rare as they were, when Polly would be stumped like the rest of us.  And honestly, there was no greater comfort than hearing the smartest kid in class ask a clarifying question of our calculus teacher with a quizzical look on her face – because if the one with all the answers does not know the answer, then we do not feel so bad about not knowing it ourselves.

It’s a relief when someone else asks our question.  I think that’s why this “Matthew 11” John and his question find their way into our Advent journey.  I really do.  Because I believe at some fundamental level, a level we may not be fully aware of, I believe John’s question is very much our question.  Especially this time of year.  Even though December is beautiful and lovely and all “Christmas spirity,” it is not beautiful and lovely and “Christmas spirity” for everyone.  This time of year can be a hard time, for many people, for many reasons.  And it’s quite the burden to bear, really: an added burden; when you feel bad for feeling bad, when it seems everyone and everything around you is rejoicing and decking the halls and making merry, and that’s the last thing you’re feeling.  Kind of feels like imprisonment, really.

So it’s not just John who wants an answer to his question – it’s us.  At some elemental level, we’re right there with John, asking the same thing:  Jesus, are you the real deal?

The great British children’s writer and – for our purposes today – theologian Margery Williams, recounts in her well-known book The Velveteen Rabbit about a conversation between the Skin Horse and the Rabbit: “What is Real?” asked the Rabbit, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender. “What is Real?  Does it mean having things buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

The Skin Horse replies, “No, real isn’t how you are made.  It is something that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”

The Rabbit then asks, “Does it happen all at once, or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t really happen all at once,” says the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints. But these things don’t matter, because once you are real you can never be otherwise, except to those who don’t understand.”[2]

I find myself drawn to Williams’ notion that real-ness isn’t some designation decreed or benchmark achieved.  It is lived out.  It is experienced.  It’s seen and heard over time, because ultimately it’s about more than identity.  It’s about authenticity.

And authenticity is something we crave in our day and time, is it not?  We are hungry and thirsty for real things – things that are what they claim to be, things that don’t claim to be or appear to be something else.  We are tired of the fake, the artificial, the counterfeit, the fleeting.  We want authenticity.  We want lasting.  We need real.

And Advent, I would suggest to you, Advent is the ultimate journey of authenticity; it is as real as real gets.  Advent is a journey where we encounter not just Jesus born in our midst, Immanuel, God-With-Us; but perhaps more importantly, the transformation that comes from that.  Borg’s “way-centered Christianity,” following Jesus on a path of transformation – if not yet evident in our lives and the world around us, then at the very least evident in the One who points us to it.

Because that’s how Jesus answers John’s question, doesn’t he?  He doesn’t point at himself – at least not yet.  No, he says: Go and tell John what you hear and see.  He points to the world.  And with language that suggests both a promise of what is to come and testimony to what’s already here, Jesus points to a world where the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 

Echoes from our Isaiah passage:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad
The desert shall rejoice and blossom
Waters shall break forth in the wilderness
Streams in the desert

John asks Jesus, Are you the real deal?  And Jesus answers John by pointing to things happening around him that he may not readily see from inside his prison cell.  Signs of life, vitality, opening, healing, good news.  And Jesus points to these things not to discount John’s struggle or the struggle of a thousand years of waiting.  Jesus doesn’t point to these as if to say everything’s okay, all is well, your troubles are over

No – Jesus points John to see a world transformed and transforming through his waiting, because the waiting is precisely the lens one needs to see and hear God at work. As my good friend and our 2015 Gilchrist Sunday speaker Christopher Edmonston said in a recent Advent sermon, “It is only from the darkness that we ever get to see the light of the manger.”

And that is why there is hope for those imprisoned in this season, held captive by the whims and ways of a broken world.  Because God is hard at work in our midst, my friends; often outside our immediate view and earshot, literally changing the landscape on which we live.  God is hard at work, my friends – and not because we or anyone else say that God is, but because the sights and sounds of God’s “now-and-not-yet” transformation are all around us:

  • In a world where people go hungry, there are efforts everywhere to provide life-giving food.
  • In a world where people experience homelessness, there are churches – like our own – opening their doors on cold nights to provide a place to spend the night.
  • In the midst of terror and fear, there are those working to foster understanding and peace.
  • In a world where racial divides continue to rear their ugly head, there are efforts near and far to foster dialogue, enhance listening, and speak the hard truth in unconditional love.
  • In the midst of brokenness and doubt, there are churches and people of faith who reach out, who hold close, who mourn alongside, who lift up.
  • And in the midst of all that keeps us from feeling the fullness of God’s realness, there is Jesus, calling us to see and hear, showing us the ripple effects of God’s transformative love.

For it is as if Jesus himself answers our question with a song, and amidst our Advent waiting and wailing is singing it to us:

Come broken, come whole
Come wounded in your soul
Come any way that you know

Come doubting, come sure
Come fearful to this door
Come see what love is for

Come running, come walking slow
Come weary on your broken road
Come see Him and shed your heavy load

We ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  And Jesus answers us, Look and listen.  See and hear. I’m the real deal. Your wait is over.  I am almost here.

In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (HarperSanFrancisco, 2016), 15.
[2], visited on 12.4.2016.
[3] “Come Darkness, Come Light” by Mary Chapin Carpenter.