I had an unusual experience with the Third Sunday of Advent (Advent 3) passage this morning, though I am sure not novel. I am relatively confident most preachers do not focus on the part of the passage on which we focused, but it meant a lot to my congregants. I thought I would share part of what came out of the experience.
Here is the passage (Matthew 11:2-11):
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what 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:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Fascinating parts of this passage include Jesus’s check-list answer to John’s question (tracking centuries-before prophecy of the Messiah), Jesus’s note that John will “prepare your way” (same), his holding up of John as none “greater,” and the “least in the kingdom of heaven” reference.
Those were likely the focus of many sermons this morning.
Who is John?
“John” referenced in the opening verse is John the Baptist.
He is a relative of Jesus, maybe his cousin.
Where was John? And the Theme.
John, the opening verse tells us, “was in prison.”
I preach in a prison.
That “was in prison” would be something with which my audience could certainly identify.
So, the incarcerated status of a man 2000 years ago who sought and prepared for his savior was the focal point of my sermon this morning.
This mattered a lot to my congregants.
What is an Incarcerated Relative Going to Ask?
The opening verses say “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “ ….. ?”
What? To ask him what?
What do you think is coming next? What is John going to ask Jesus?
After an incarcerated relative heard about the deeds of Jesus — raising the dead, healing the blind, etc. — what is that incarcerated relative going to ask Jesus?
What do you think an incarcerated person — my congregation — would say an incarcerated relative of Jesus would ask Jesus?
What would your cousin ask of you if your cousin were incarcerated?
One would expect the opening verses to say “When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “ …..
“Can you get me out of prison?”
That’s what virtually every incarcerated relative would ask, right?
“Can you get me out of prison?”
But Not John
But that’s not what the Bible reflects John asked.
John asked Jesus, essentially, are you the Messiah or not?
John was so intent on seeking his savior — on the coming of the Messiah, on preparing for that coming — that John did not do what every incarcerated man on the planet would recognize an incarcerated person would immediately think to do first in that situation: ask first for this miracle worker Jesus to get him out of prison.
That is the first question: “Can you get me out of prison?” Ask other questions later.
But John instead seeks the Messiah first.
And Jesus said “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
Our Own Prison
I mentioned that the theme of the plight of an incarcerated person is something with which my congregants — themselves in prison — could identify.
But, it turns out, it is something with which we can all identify.
We all have difficult circumstances of some type. We all have our own prison of some form. We have our hardships, burdens, and our difficult experiences. We may not reveal them to the world, but they are there.
We all have things that imprison our minds and bodies, that distract us from the person we should be, that keep us from being the person we should be, that keep us from the relationship with our savior we should have.
We all have our failings, our let downs, our temptations, our inabilities, our frustrations, our sin.
Help Us Remember and a Prayer
Advent— during the month of December — is a time in which we ought to think about not only the celebration of Jesus’s coming to Earth as a child, his birthday, but we also ought to think about, anticipate, prepare for, and pursue our own relationship with Jesus and his second coming.
May we remember John the Baptist, in this season of Advent, and his ability to focus on the coming of the Messiah and on preparing for and pursuing that coming, despite his circumstances.
May we ask God, in this season of Advent, for our own ability to focus on our relationship with the Messiah and the coming of the Messiah and on our own anticipation, preparing for, and pursuit of that relationship and that coming, whatever our circumstances, whatever our prison.
May that relationship be one of belief and everlasting life for ourselves, and also one of love, justice, and mercy from us for all others.
And may we ask God for this, not just for ourselves, but for our family, for our friends, for our enemies, and for the world.
And for our ability to be a light to that end, in this season and all.
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Sources and Notes
Picture by PublicDomainPictures from pixabay
Thank you for your insight related to inmates and Scripture. I too preach to/for and with inmates in Arkansas Prisons. Much comfort and encouragement is offered each week by some 10 men from the “free world” who minister to four prisons in Central Arkansas along with some inmate “missionaries”, some who are serving for life…for Christ as well as their crimes…blessings to you.
Thank you Bob. And thank you and your colleagues for your work in Arkansas. It is good to hear from you and good to learn of your work. Blessings to you.