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.
John the Baptist (JB) seemed so certain. “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” He witnessed the voice from heaven when he baptized Jesus: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”, and he saw the dove descend. But now, JB is uncertain. He has moved from certainty to doubt. And doubt often leads to hopelessness and despair.
What has changed? For one thing, his circumstances have changed. We initially met JB in the wilderness by the Jordan River. People had travelled long distances to see him and hear him proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven, telling the crowds to repent and prepare for the arrival of the One; speaking truth to power as only a prophet can. The wilderness was a place where the prophetic voice was unbound and prophets were safe. But JB isn’t in the wilderness now. He is in prison, put there by the State (Herod) for speaking against the State.
And there is no sign of the kingdom of heaven. The Empire, which does not like talk of change and moves to silence the voices calling for change, is still in power. Where is the kingdom? Where is the coming One that was promised? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so certain. Was I wrong?
I have to give JB credit. He doesn’t let his doubts have the final word. He investigates and seeks confirmation of the vision of God’s reign. Sending a delegation to Jesus, JB seeks the answer. “Are you the one who is to come? Or should we look for someone else.”
Jesus doesn’t give a ‘yes or no’ answer. Jesus simply says, “Look and Listen.” And Jesus then points to evidence of the kingdom’s presence in the world—blind see, deaf hear, lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the poor hear good news. This is the kingdom. This is Jesus’ work. Look. See. Listen. Hear.
In these days when the kingdom of Hell and the reign of death seem to have reasserted themselves into our national lives, I can relate to John the Baptist. There are days in the past several months when I have had my doubts—doubts about God, doubts about the future, doubts about whether the church is relevant anymore and doubts that the kingdom of heaven is near. And the kingdom of heaven seems far, far away…farther than it has felt in a long time. The news is full of confirmation that the Empire is still in power: Russia influences US elections; climate change deniers are in charge of the EPA; an oil executive will likely run the State Department, the stock market surges into record territory, benefiting the 1%; white supremacists advise the President-elect and hate has permission to go public. And the voices of dissent and the voices of change are intimidated and threatened. This feels like prison. It feels like the kingdom of heaven is being pushed back. This is the time that doubts rise to the surface. Were we wrong to believe that the kingdom of heaven is near?
Jesus would have us also look and listen. See and hear. There is evidence–small as a seed buried–but evidence just the same that God is still with us, and God is still at work. I see God in the US Army Corp of Engineer’s decision to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and protect the waters of the Missouri River. I see God in the ways that people are coming together to resist evil and promote justice and righteousness. I see God in an unexpected federal court hearing that could force CHA to replace the 525 units of public housing eliminated from Lathrop Homes. I see God in our Alderman’s commitment to replace at least 40 of those units in Logan Square. I hear God in the chants of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Las Posadas march for affordable housing. Look. Listen. See. Hear.
And after I see and hear, I am strengthened to return with renewed commitment to live and act in alignment with God’s presence. My doubts may remain and the future may be uncertain. Just look at JB’s future. He remained in prison and then was beheaded. He was silenced, but the message went on. “The kingdom of heaven is near.”
In the face of the present evil days, the message goes on through God’s faithful church. The day IS coming. And we continue to prophetically speak with renewed certainty that the future bends toward justice and that some day, we will overcome.