Today’s gospel poses a problem for us that is not easy to resolve.
How is it that Saint John the Baptist can be unsure whether Jesus is the Messiah, the “One Who is to Come”? Was it not John the Baptist who saw the heavens parted and the Spirit of God come down upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan River? Was it not John the Baptist who pointed Jesus out as the “Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world”? Did not John the Baptist say when his disciples were leaving him to join Jesus, “I must decrease and He must increase”?
At one point, it seemed clear to John that Jesus was the one whom he and all of Israel had been waiting for. Why was he so unsure all of a sudden? What has changed that he now seems to doubt who Jesus is?
While there is no way for us to know for sure, many who study the Bible speculate that John, like many religious people of his day, was expecting a different kind of Messiah than Jesus. Many were looking forward to a Messiah who would conquer all of Israel’s enemies and establish the nation as the most powerful on earth. In particular, it seems that John the Baptist was expecting that the One to come after him would exact punishment on all sinners and evil doers. As we hear in last week’s gospel, he warns the Pharisees about “the wrath to come”. He prophesies that “Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
It could be that John, from his prison cell, heard that, instead of punishing sinners, Jesus was welcoming them and dining with them. It could be that instead of living a severe life of penitence in the desert as he did, John saw Jesus moving about the people, going to wedding banquets and enjoying himself. Jesus was altogether not what John was expecting and so he wondered whether he was to wait for someone else.
In His usual way, Jesus does not answer John directly. He does not give him a “yes or no” answer. Like a good teacher, Jesus is not giving John the answer but challenging him to come up with the answer himself. Therefore, He quotes from the prophet Isaiah that the blind are regaining their sight, the deaf are hearing and the lame are walking. In effect, He is telling John that He has come not to condemn the world but to save it. Like the rest of the people, John now has to make a decision. Can he believe in a Messiah who offers forgiveness to sinners and treats them mercifully? Or is he so attached to his ideas of what a Messiah should be that he cannot accept Jesus?
Like John the Baptist, all of us have an idea of who God is and how He should act. For many of us, God is a loving Father. To others of us He is a just judge. Many of us expect God to be merciful and act tenderly toward sinners. Others of us wonder why He does not act more quickly to punish those who disobey His law.
No matter how we may view God, the fact is that both sides are correct. God is a loving Father and He is also a just judge. God is both merciful and just. He expect us to obey Him but is gentle when we ask for forgiveness. Like John the Baptist, we all have to accept a God who is greater than we can ever imagine, a God who is not willing to fit into the tight categories we have drawn up for Him.
Therefore, if we think of God as a Loving Father, it could be that we need to pay more attention to His laws and the rules of His Church. If we think of God as a just judge, it could be that we have to open our hearts to His tender mercy and His willingness to forgive us. Either way, the fact is that God is working in our lives and in our world. If we hold on too tightly to our rigid ideas of who God is and are not willing to change, we will miss out on it.
There is another dimension to this as well that is important for us to understand. If we are to find God it is not going to be in the places where we feel most comfortable. Rather we will have to reach out to people we normally would not associate with and neighborhoods we would normally not travel to. When He walked the earth, Jesus was found among the blind, the poor, the lame and other of society’s outcasts. Today, He can be found among prisoners, drug users, illegal aliens and others who are at the bottom of the social ladder. Unless we are willing to go out of our comfort zones and to reach out to those we would otherwise ignore, we will miss out on all the graces that God is offering us.
This Advent season we celebrate a God who does not keep His distance from us, but is within us and all around us. Too often we lose sight of Him because of our rigid ideas and narrow expectations. Today we are being called to broaden our vision and raise our eyes to a God who is always greater than we can hope for or imagine. Though He is the One we have been waiting for, He has too often passed us by because we were looking the wrong way. Like John the Baptist we are being challenged to look for our Heavenly Father in the people, places and situations we would otherwise run from. If through His grace we can find the courage to do so, then His coming among us will not be a nice thought or fanciful wish but a reality in our hearts, in our homes and in our world.