Text: Matthew 11:2-10
You may have seen a silly meme floating around Social Media this month, in which there’s a shot of a stern-looking John the Baptist as portrayed in one of the 1970’s-era Jesus movies, captioned with the words, “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” in a rather angry red font. Like that meme, the Third Sunday in Advent can be something of a study in contrasts. On the one hand, this is Gaudate or “Rejoicing” Sunday, taken from today’s Introit and last week’s Epistle, based on Philippians 4: “Rejoice ye in the Lord, and again I say, rejoice!” It is one of our “rose” Sundays when the violet of penitence is mixed a bit with the white of celebration, as emphasized in our rose vestments, rose candle, Damascus Rose incense, and the roses on the altar. It’s a small reprieve from the starkness of our “little Lent” just past the halfway point of Advent.
On the other hand, our Gospel and hymns bring to mind that most quintessential and archetypical Advent character, John the Baptist, who is not known for celebration and joy. In the verses following our Gospel reading, Our Lord says that John is the “Elijah who is to come” as promised in the Old Testament. And like the Prophet Elijah, St. John the Baptist spoke harsh truth to the religious and political leaders of his day. Yes, he did indeed call them a “brood of vipers” at one point. And like the powers in Elijah’s day, Herod, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees considered John a “troubler of Israel,” not seeing that their sin and corruption was what had truly brought about all the trouble.
But there is indeed more to St. John the Baptist than this. He’s not only the wild-eyed fire-and-brimstone preacher who wore weird clothes and dunked folks in the River Jordan. St. Luke tells us that the first time he was in the presence of Jesus, when both he and Our Lord were still in their mothers’ wombs, John leaped for joy, causing St. Elizabeth to realize the special role of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the “Mother of the Lord.” Later on, when Jesus’ ministry was growing, both he and John were baptizing in the same area, and John’s disciples were getting a bit jealous, John tells them that he is merely the “friend of the bridegroom,” the best man, as it were. He says “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29-30).
You see, for John, preparing for the Lord’s coming and being the one who would prepare the way of the Lord was indeed the fulfilment of his joy. Repentance, or turning from Sin, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil to the God through the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the path to true and everlasting joy.
Our Gospel passage picks up later in John’s life, when he was in prison for his preaching, awaiting the inevitable sentence of death. Please turn in your bibles to Matthew 11, beginning at Verse 2. This can also be found on Page 94 in your Prayer Book.
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Most of my life, when reading this passage, I had just assumed that St. John was having doubts while in prison. Things hadn’t gone particularly well for him, and I figured he had just been wondering if he really had heard from God, if he really was a prophet. After all, don’t we see Elijah and other Old Testament prophets having moments of despair when they’re on the run and persecuted? Don’t we see the apostles scattering and hiding when Jesus gets arrested? Maybe this was just John’s low point. Maybe he, like all of us, was struggling with a moment of doubt. But remember how John recognized Jesus while they were both still embryos! St. John had seen the Holy Ghost descend on Jesus during his baptism, and he had heard the Father speaking his approval. John is the one who said of Jesus “Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world!” The Church Fathers tell us that it is hard to believe that John didn’t know who Jesus was. It’s hard to believe that John had forgotten about the fulfilment of his joy.
But what about John’s disciples? There’s a sense in which it’s a little odd that John still has disciples at all. He knew and had told them that his role was to decrease while Jesus increased. As Jesus says later in the Gospel and as we prayed in the Collect, John’s role was to be the messenger who prepared the way before the coming of the Lord Jesus. John’s entire ministry was about exalting Christ. But that doesn’t mean his disciples fully understood his mission. How does John solve this problem? He sends the disciples to Jesus, so that they may also rejoice in the bridegroom’s voice.
We see something similar happening in Acts 19. St. Paul was preaching the Gospel in Ephesus, where he found a dozen disciples who had never even heard of the Holy Spirit. It turns out they were disciples of John who had been baptized by him but hadn’t heard the whole Gospel. St. Paul tells them “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus” (Acts 19:4). The twelve men were then baptized into Christ, received the Holy Spirit, and began to prophecy, just like John!
In our Collect, we’re reminded that we priests, pastors, deacons, and even bishops, are similarly tasked to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Just like it wasn’t enough to be a disciple of John, it’s also not enough to be an Anglican or Baptist or Catholic or whatever. First and foremost we must all be followers of Christ. And just like St. John sent his disciples to meet Jesus, and St. Paul sent the Ephesians to encounter Christ in the Gospel and in the Sacrament of Baptism, so are all Christians tasked to preach the Gospel to each other, and we ministers are especially to do so through Word and Sacrament, that we might all continually meet Jesus. As great as our tradition is, as beautiful as our hymns, vestments, and heritage are, the joy we get from them is to point us to the greater joy we get from knowing and following our Lord Jesus.
And speaking of Jesus, let’s look at his answer to John’s disciples. Verse 4 in our Gospel:
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t tell them what happened when John baptized him. He didn’t give them theological treatises. He didn’t even tell them a parable. He pointed to his miracles, to his works. The miracles and messianic works weren’t what made Jesus the Messiah, but they were the proof or fruit of his messiahship. The things that he did are the things that the Scriptures said the Messiah would do. We read, for example, the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5).
Similarly, our good works don’t make us Christians, but they are the fruit of being a Christian. Article XII in the 39 Articles of Religion, one of the chief formularies of the Anglican Tradition says that good works are the result of healthy, living faith in the same way that apples are the result of a healthy, living apple tree. And even though our good works are still tainted by our fallen flesh, because we belong to Christ, they are pleasing and acceptable to the Father for the sake of his Son. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would cause the tongue of the mute to sing for joy. The miracles and works of our Lord were indeed for his glory, but they were also for the benefit of his people. Our good works are the same; they glorify Jesus and benefit our neighbor. The Lord doesn’t need us to bring him glory; he already has it. But our neighbor needs those good works. Our neighbor needs the joy that comes from Christians acting like Christ to make the world a better place.
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I sent my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you’”
John was a prophet, and he looked the part. Everything about John screamed “prophet.” There was no ambiguity about John. And he was always clear about his role: preparing the way for Jesus. This is what brought him joy. Our Collect says that we who are ministers of the Gospel have the same calling: we are to prepare the way for Jesus’ second coming. And in our tradition, we often wear funny clothes so that it would be obvious what we’re here to do. Like John, we must decrease, and Jesus must increase. In the verse following our Gospel, Jesus said that though there had been no one born who was greater than John the Baptist, the least in the kingdom of heaven is even greater. Because John died before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, there is a sense where John was the last of the Old Testament saints. He had the joy of the Messiah’s coming, but he didn’t live to see the inauguration of the New Covenant in our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. He didn’t live to see the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. But these are all things that you have as baptized Christians. John was the friend of the Bridegroom. You, beloved, are the Bride. As complete as John’s joy was, how much greater joy ought you and I to have? “Rejoice ye in the Lord, and again I say, rejoice… the Lord is at hand.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.