John the Baptist’s example shows us that faithful commitment to Christ means trusting and serving God even when you’re uncertain how things will turn out.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Third Sunday of Advent, year A
Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You need to take John the Baptist seriously.
Yes, I’m talking about the guy who lived in the wild, wore animal skins and foraged for food. I’m talking about the guy who went around shouting about winnowing forks, impending wrath, and baptism by fire. You need to take him seriously.
Too often John is portrayed as some kind of social aberration, a madman who behaved the way he did because he was unhinged. But John was a prophet, a sage, a truth-speaker. He was one of many people in his day who understood that an ascetic life in the wilderness could foster deep spiritual wisdom.
He was widely known and well respected. He wasn’t crazy. He was disciplined; he was zealous. He was committed to his mission, and his mission was to point to Jesus Christ.
John gave everything for that mission. He staked his career, his reputation, even his life, on the truth of Jesus Christ. At the point in Matthew’s Gospel that we read this morning, John has been imprisoned by King Herod, who will eventually execute him. John’s ministry was ending as Jesus’ ministry was beginning.
That means that John, the great forerunner of Christ, did not get to experience Jesus’ ministry for himself. He did not hear Jesus’ teachings, witness Jesus’ healings. He was not there when Jesus died on a cross, or when Jesus conquered death.
Although he didn’t see these things himself, John continually insisted that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He believed that Jesus was Emmanuel, God come to earth.
Yet despite this profound trust in who Jesus was, John was still afraid. He was afraid that he’d led people in the wrong direction, pointed to the wrong person. While he was in prison, John had heard stories about what Jesus was up to, and they didn’t always make sense to him. They didn’t always fit his expectations. John had given everything for Jesus, but he was still uncertain.
So he sent a desperate message asking Jesus, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” Facing the end of his life, John wondered whether or not he’d gotten it right. He just wanted to be sure.
Jesus responded that he was bringing healing and liberation for all people, especially those who struggle the most.
The way Jesus described his ministry echoes ancient words from the prophet Isaiah. We heard those words this morning. Isaiah’s vision paints a picture of the new life that is possible through the Messiah.
It is a transformation so complete that it’s like the harsh Judean desert turning into a lush oasis. Plants can grow, animals can thrive. The very landscape itself becomes an expression of joy! People who are weak in body find strength. Those who suffer in spirit find healing. There are no barriers to keep people from flourishing. And this notoriously dangerous wilderness is now made safe for everyone. Anyone can find their way through. No one gets lost. No one gets hurt. This is how Isaiah imagines the miraculous restoration God brings: it is total social and ecological renewal.
It may be difficult for you here this morning, in the land of 10,000 lakes (currently 10,000 frozen lakes), to grasp just how incredible this vision of a blooming desert would have sounded in its original context.
But you know exactly what it’s like to hear a vision of peace and harmony for the world and think, “No way. That’s impossible.”
A community in which no one is afraid and everyone is safe. That seems impossible.
A time when suffering minds and bodies are healed seems impossible.
A place where all people are welcomed seems impossible.
A landscape in which all species of plants and animals can thrive seems impossible.
When we look around our world, we don’t see an oasis. We still see the metaphorical desert.
We see gun violence and hate crimes that are devastatingly common, millions of people who lack access to adequate healthcare, institutions entrenched in racism and prejudice, habitat loss and climate change that are decimating biodiversity.
Will God in Christ really transform all this?
If you have asked this question, then know that you are not alone. Long ago, someone asked this same question from a prison cell: “Are you the one who will save us, or not, Jesus? Because, right now, to me, it seems impossible.”
If this is your prayer, then know that you pray alongside John, that courageous prophet who gave everything he had for the sake of the Gospel, even though he couldn’t see the ending of everything he’d worked for. In the midst of his uncertainty, in the midst of his fear, he believed that God could still – somehow – bring restoration through Christ. He held on to the vision of a desert in bloom, even though he hadn’t yet experienced it.
You can hold on to that vision, too. That vision was given to you for a time such as this.
A time when you trust God but you’re still not sure how things will work out.
A time when you are committed to the work of the Gospel, but you’re overwhelmed by all the hurt in the world.
A time when you look back on a life of faithfulness but still experience doubt.
This is why you need to take John the Baptist seriously: Because his example shows that faithful commitment to Christ does not mean you’re not afraid: it means you trust God in the midst of your fear. You rely on God’s promises even before you have seen them be fully realized. You don’t have to have all the answers before you join God’s mission. You offer your life in service to the Gospel, as John did, and you keep pointing to Christ.
Because your skills, your voice, and your witness are needed. You are a part of the restoration that God is working in the world. The God you trust has also entrusted you to be the hands and feet of Christ.
And when you’re afraid and change seems impossible, you can come back to this good news: you’re putting your trust in a God who makes the impossible possible,
a God who makes a way where there is no way, like water in the desert;
a God who brings good news to the poor;
a God who comforts the suffering;
a God who lifts up the lowly, who provides for the hungry, who brings the dead to life.
You’re trusting a God who keeps promises, even when they’re beyond your lifetime. God can see the end of the journey, even when you can’t. And God goes with you every step of the way, even through the desert.