Matthew 11:2-11, Third Sunday of Advent
I don’t know if you noticed it, but that’s a pretty strange exchange of messages between our Lord and John the Baptist.
First of all, John the Baptist requests his disciples to ask our Lord a bizarre question. Thrown into prison for denouncing the sins of Herod Antipas, John the Baptist hears about the miracles of our Lord and sends his disciples to ask: “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” Now why would he ask a question like that?
Remember, this John the Baptist is the same person who, upon seeing Jesus in the crowd by the River Jordan, pointed him out to his own disciples, declaring “Behold the Lamb of God!” In fact, as a result, at least two of his disciples, Andrew and John, left him to follow Jesus instead.
He is also the same John the Baptist who baptized Jesus, and prior to that, kept saying that another one—greater than he—was soon to come, referring to Jesus, of course.
Finally, let’s not forget that this John the Baptist is the cousin of Jesus, the very same one, who, even as a baby in his mother’s womb, upon hearing Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth, leaps in joy, even then already in recognition of the Lord.
And now he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is “the One”? Strange.
That’s not all. The answer of Jesus to his cousin’s question is also strange. He tells the disciples of John to report the miracles and signs that he has been performing. He enumerates them, quoting the prophet Isaiah: The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, etc. And then he adds something quite unexpected and mysterious: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Which, put bluntly, more or less means: “Please don’t get upset.” Now, why would he say such a thing?
To answer our questions about this exchange of strange messages between the cousins, we should pay attention to what Jesus does not say. Here, I think we have a perfect example of the Bible inviting us, as it sometimes does, to focus not only on what it says, but also on what it does not say; a perfect case of the Bible bidding us to pay attention not only to its words, but also to its silence.
What does the Lord not say in his response? In his response to John’s disciples, Jesus enumerates the different signs that are associated with the Messiah: The blind see; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor have the good news preached to them. Actually, there’s something missing.
One of the best-known passages in the book of Isaiah enumerates four of the things that the Messiah will do. It goes: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to  preach the good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and  recovery of sight to the blind, [and 4] to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Numbers within brackets added).
Two out of the four items happen to deal with prisoners: “to proclaim release to captives” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Now, why would our Lord exclude them in his response? Did he simply forget that as the Messiah, he’s also supposed to set prisoners free? That’s a little hard to imagine considering that his cousin—to whom he’s sending the message—is, at that very moment, himself languishing in prison!
Now we begin to understand John the Baptist’s question to Jesus. When he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the One?” he isn’t really asking about the identity of Jesus. He already knows that Jesus is the Messiah; he has known that ever since he was in his mother’s womb. What he means is: “Are you really the One? Because if you are, shouldn’t you be helping me out like setting me free as the Messiah should do to prisoners?”
Now we also begin to understand what our Lord means when he tells John’s disciples: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me!” It’s really almost an apology, I think—a request for John to understand and not to be upset because the Lord isn’t about to set him free from prison.
Imagine you’re John. After all the things you’ve done preparing the way for Jesus, wouldn’t you expect your cousin the Messiah to use his miraculous powers to set you free and to vindicate you? So you send messengers to remind him about your situation. But what response do you get? “Yes, I’m the Messiah, but I’m sorry if I don’t meet all your expectations—like helping you out and setting you free.”
We can only imagine how John the Baptist must have felt upon receiving Jesus’ response. The Gospel is silent on this. But we can be sure that he must have been disappointed, maybe even upset or depressed. Maybe his heart was broken. But we can also be sure that even if his heart was broken, it was not shattered: After the initial disappointment or depression, John must have thought about the Lord’s words—“Do not be offended!”—and decided to obey, trusting that the Lord should always know best.
We don’t hear about John the Baptist again until three chapters later when we’re told—almost casually—that he has been beheaded and that his head has been served on a platter at a party thrown by a drunken Herod Antipas. Next we’re told that upon hearing of John’s death, our Lord withdraws to a secluded place, but is immediately followed by the usual crowd clamoring for help and healing. Our Lord doesn’t even have the luxury to mourn the death of his cousin and prophet, who trusted and obeyed—even without understanding.
Sometimes when we want something, or when we need something, and God doesn’t give it to us, we can’t help but wonder–not without some resentment, “Should I look for another?” I mean, if the Lord isn’t going to use his powers to make my life better, what’s the point?
Today John the Baptist teaches us about our own expectations fo the Lord. Like us, John the Baptist had his expectations of the Lord. They were reasonable expectations especially if you think about everything he had done for the Lord. But as it turns out, even prophets, it seems, don’t always get what they expect from the Lord—and it makes no difference if you happen to be the greatest prophet or the Lord’s first cousin. Even people like them, it seems, have to “let go and let God.”
As they have done, so should we. As we know, things don’t always turn out exactly the way we expect or want them to. In fact, usually they don’t. As we know, our prayers aren’t always answered in the exact same way we want them to be answered. In fact, usually they’re not. What we often end up receiving is so different from what we’ve asked for that sometimes we actually feel our prayers have not been answered at all.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent–also known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice.”Sometimes things don’t make sense in our lives or in the world, but the Baptist teaches us that when things don’t always turn out the way we want them, we need to choose joy. For the Christian, joy isn’t just a feeling, but a choice, and to rejoice is not simply a reaction, but a conscious decision.