- Isaiah 35:1-10
- Psalm 146:5-10
- James 5:7-10
- Matthew 11:2-11
You can find all of the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translations, here.
I want to begin with a poem that came out of the fog of my mind when I was reading this week’s gospel lesson. The poem is based on lore that originates in India, and is used by many of the different faiths found there. It was translated to English and turned into a poem by John Godfrey Saxe in the mid-19th century.
“The Blind Men and the Elephant”
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Despite the slightly older language, the poem still serves up a healthy dose of teaching about perception changing based on one’s location. I like that the moral served to us is actually about theological disputes – a reminder that every person’s opinion is shaped by where they stand in relation to the topic.
Last week, John, the cousin of Jesus, was out in the vast open space of the wilderness. He was the fiery and passionate preacher and baptizer, charismatically preparing the way of the Lord. Certain of the one who was coming after him, and what that meant for those who were not ready for it. Today we learn that John is in a new place – prison, in fact.
The gospel of Matthew is a little unclear as to how this has happened. After John baptizes Jesus, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. At some point in those 40 days, or at some point after he emerges from the wilderness, John is arrested and imprisoned – Jesus hears about it after his confrontation with the devil in the wilderness.
Whatever the chronological order of events, John is moved, physically and perhaps emotionally as well. He is displaced from a physical desert full of ministry opportunity and human interaction to a psychological desert: the captivity and confinement of a prison cell.
From prison, John hears of what Jesus is up to and sends a messenger with one question. One which may seem to us to be rather perplexing:
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
I don’t know about you, but the very question makes me think that the once confident and certain John the Baptizer has lost confidence and trust in what was once so certain. And, now, he seems broken and defeated.
His question to Jesus is not one of doubt, I think.
Time in a new place has altered John’s perspective, for sure, but I don’t think this question is about whether or not Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.
From a particular place John was confidently striding through the wilderness, preparing the way for a particular kind of Messiah. From a particular place John was pointing to the way of righteousness through repentance and baptism; speaking of the promised one, and he had a particular idea of what God’s promise was going to look like.
And John was doing what humans are very good at doing – placing our own perspective on the place of another. So, it is disappointing that what he was predicting and longing for didn’t take shape when he expected it to.
It didn’t come to be.
At least not in the way John expected.
Whatever walk of life we are on and whatever perspective we have honed from our particular place, many of us come face to face with this question at particular times.
This question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” is often found at the very centre of our being. Especially in times of need and in times of crisis. And often when our expectations of who God is and what God is supposed to do aren’t met.
The thing of it, for us and for John, is that God did not love the world and send Jesus because of our expectations. God sent Christ into a world full of need.
So, Jesus responds to John’s need and sends an answer to his question. It’s not disappointment that John doubts and appears no longer confident in the promise of the Messiah. Jesus appears to respond in love to the brokenness. Jesus says, go to him and tell him the stories of what I am doing. Go and tell him that what Isaiah spoke is happening: Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. (Matthew 11:5)
We don’t know what John’s response was to this answer. Some may imagine him to be disappointed – it’s still not what many expected the Messiah to do. Some may imagine him to be confused – Jesus’ answer seems a bit of a non-answer. I mean, John had heard about things like this, that’s why he sent a messenger with the question, isn’t it?
And yet, some, like me, imagine that John found comfort in the answer and discovered a new-again perspective that is perhaps made a little wider as he stands in a different place. I like to believe that John discovered joy in the midst the darkness surrounding him and was lifted up in love.
Alongside that question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” at the centre of our faith is an incredible answer that is both gift and promise.
Whatever walk of life we are on;
Whatever perspective we have honed from our particular place;
Whatever fear, disappointment, or struggle is threatening to cage us;
God is never disappointed with us.
And, God answers.
Some may be disappointed by the answer.
Some may be confused by the answer.
Some may discover the promise of a new-again wider perspective that lifts us up in love.
And, whatever we hold to be true, the truth remains.
Oh what a joy that is! Amen.
Let us pray,
God of joy, who brought hope into this world, be the hope that dwells between us.
God of joy, who brought love into this world, be the love that dwells between us.
God of joy, who brought peace into this world, be the peace that dwells between us.
God of joy, the rock we stand upon, be the centre, the focus of our lives.
- Mark Davis. “JTB: Faithful Inquirer – December 4, 2016.” Left Behind and Loving It.
- Arland J. Hultgren. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11 – December 15, 2013.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
- Karoline Lewis. “Are You The One?” Dear Working Preacher – December 4, 2016. Working Preacher.
- David Lose. “Disappointed with God at Christmastime.” Dear Working Preacher – December 8, 2013. Working Preacher.
- John Godfrey Saxe. “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” A poem, courtesy of wordfocus.com
- Debie Thomas. “Are You the One?” For Sunday, December 11th, 2016. Journey with Jesus: a weekly webzine.
- Ben Witherington. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11 – December 12, 2010.” Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
This week’s image is entitled: “St John the Baptist in the Prison,” painted between 1565 and 1570 by Juan Fernández Navarrete. You can find out more about the artwork here, and about the artist here. The image is public domain and has been altered for the purpose of this blog post.