Lectionary Commentary on December 11, 2022

Matthew 11:2-11

by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon

On the Third Sunday of Advent, the reading from Matthew invites us again to encounter John the Baptist. However, something is different about John in our reading this week from the last week. In Matthew 3, John is rather described as fiery, bold, and confident. He stood in the wilderness, urging people to repent, for “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He saw the Pharisees and Sadducees also coming for the baptism and did not hold back his criticism, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (3:7) He also seemed sure that Jesus, his cousin, was the Chosen One who would inaugurate the kingdom of God. When Jesus came before him at the Jordan, he wanted to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

However, John, whom we encounter in Matthew 11, seems rather beat down, exhausted, and uncertain. It is because he was locked up in prison for publicly denouncing King Herod, who took Herodias, his sister-in-law, as his wife. (14:4) As he hears from his disciples what Jesus is doing, John seems uncertain whether Jesus is really the Messiah that he proclaimed before. When he urged people to repent and baptized them, John told the crowd that the Messiah would baptize them not with water but with fire and the Holy Spirit. Messiah would hold a winnowing fork in his hand, and he would judge the people by separating the wheat from the chaff. (3:12) Certainly, the Messiah John prophesied is the One who would set aside the faithful ones while condemning the unfaithful, unreported, and unprepared. However, was Jesus really fulfilling his expectations?

In NIB, M. Eugene Boring points out that the story we find in Matthew 11 represents “the beginning of doubt rather than the dawn of faith” (266). John sends his disciples to Jesus and asks him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John does not sound so sure at this point, maybe feeling disappointed that Jesus’s ministry was not quite what he thought it would be. Did he expect Jesus to come and liberate his people from the oppression of the Roman government by any means necessary? Maybe he thought that Jesus would immediately judge people between good and evil, rewarding the former and punishing the latter. However, Jesus’ response to John’s disciples is this. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (11:4)

Toward the beginning of my ministry, I used to meet with my colleague in ministry weekly. We met for a cup of coffee and shared our complaints about what we thought was wrong with our churches. Everything our congregations were doing wrong. How American consumerism and militarism were destroying the Christian spirituality. How sports games were snatching our children away from Sunday school and youth group. Maybe I thought that when I started my ministry, I would start to see my declining church turn around miraculously, impressed by my preaching. Why not? After all, I was studying in the doctoral program at a prestigious university, majoring in preaching! I even wrote on my clergy profile, “Please send me to a struggling church.” (How arrogant I was!) As I look back, I wonder the bishop saw and thought, “You got it, man.” What a disappointment it was when I quickly learned that ministry was not all glorious, successful, and growing in number.

Some NT scholars believe that John the Baptist was possibly associated with the Qumran community, at least temporarily, which emphasized purity in preparing for the coming kingdom of God and banned any outside clothing and food. Upon learning what Jesus was doing, John might be disappointed, especially because he was still locked up in jail. When the law often condemned the illness as the punishment of God, driving them away from their families and society, Jesus restored them not just physically but also socially. He allowed them to be reunited with their families and friends. Jesus healed them so that they could also follow Christ and witness what they saw and heard. However, this Messiah in Jesus not only comes across as strange and different from John’s expectation, he would later join him in the capital punishment by being crucified on the cross rather than overturning the oppressive government and powers.

In actively waiting for the coming of Messiah, the Advent season also invites us to let go of our own expectations of who the Savior should be like and what he should do for us. As I look back on the beginning of my ministry, I now give thanks to God for sending me to the church so that I could learn what it means to work with the laity, be open to being loved, and grow in compassion for those who struggle and are hurt. I recently connected with a parishioner from the church and spoke with her over the phone. When I met her, she was 80 years old. We often collided with each other regarding what church is and what church is supposed to do. She often said, “Bob, I want you to know that I disagree with you. But I love you.” She did not just say those words, “I love you.” She often made homemade soup for my wife and me. She is 92 years old now. “I cannot drive to Chelmsford to see you. But I do want to see you and your boys. I always think about you and wish you stayed here with us longer.”

While I was chasing after a rather worldly success out of my ministry and was frustrated over what I considered failures, God certainly brought me low so that I could witness where I could find the Messiah, who was among the poor, sick, brokenhearted, uncertain, and unchurched. John asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As we anxiously wait to meet Jesus, who comes as a meek baby, entrusting himself to be nurtured and loved by his human parents, welcomed by the lowly shepherds, stinky animals, and even foreigners from the East, we also ought to ask ourselves, “Is he really the Messiah to save us from ourselves and from our sins and brokenness? Or should we wait for another one who fits our own ideas and expectations of the Messiah?

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