Believing through others' eyes
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the Third Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December 13, 1998
Isaiah 35:1-6A, 10
Have you seen the new movie? Have you been to the mall this week? Were you watching the game? No? You don't know what you're missing.
When people get someplace before you do, they can make you feel isolated, ignorant, and out of touch. You might as well be sequestered in prison. Or disabled with blindness. It's frustrating trying to live on someone else's experience. Even more so when you just can't go - for whatever reason - and see it yourself.
John the Baptist was missing out on the story of the millennium. Herod had locked him in prison and Jesus was preaching, healing, and turning heads. John kept hearing about it, but he couldn't see it, so he asked his disciples to bring Jesus a very direct question: "Are you the One who is to come?"
Hidden inside that question lay a far deeper longing. For generation after generation ancient Israel had been awaiting One who would come. Jesus tantalized his followers into believing that in him the ancient promises were being fulfilled. John heard about it, but he wanted to see it. He detested having a second-hand experience of Jesus' daily ministry. So he sent a delegation to get a formal reply.
Jesus sent this answer to John: the blind see, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead come to life, and the poor hear the Gospel. What more do you want?
Hidden inside that answer lay a far deeper response. Jesus was alluding to the passage from Isaiah which launches next Sunday's scriptures (Isaiah 35:1-6, 10), a heart-lifting prophecy of freedom, release, and prosperity. When Jesus sent this reply to John, he wasn't just opening up his dossier. He cited a passage John must have known from memory, a passage which promised a day when just such miracles would happen. In essence, Jesus was not saying, "I'm doing wonderful things," but "The wonderful things promised so long ago are now being performed through the power of God." He proclaimed that the timeless God was remembering the ancient covenant that very day.
When the messengers left, Jesus talked to the crowds about John the Baptist. He quoted scripture again, this time from Malachi (3:1). "I send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way." In doing so, Jesus identified John as that messenger, but he also implied that he himself spoke the voice of God.
The third Sunday of Advent - like the second - traditionally focuses on John the Baptist. John, the messenger for the voice of God, speaks to us each year at this point of this season. But John is like a tour guide; you don't sign up for the tour because you want to see a guide. You listen to the guide in order to see the sites. John's role is to announce Jesus; this passage appears to be about the prophet, but it really concerns the savior. When we look at John with advent eyes, we see only Jesus. If John asks a question, Jesus is the answer. If John is the messenger, Jesus is the message.
The Gospel for next Sunday (Matthew 11:2-11) appears in Matthew right after Jesus has given his address on discipleship. It opens two chapters of the Gospel which examine who does and does not accept Jesus. This section of the Gospel includes controversies about the sabbath and arguments with scribes and pharisees before it concludes with an episode in which even Jesus' family seems distant. The sum of these stories sorts out the characters in the Gospels - those who are disciples and those who are not. John's question then is most startling. John above all should know the identity of Jesus, but Jesus must work to calm the doubts even of this exceptional prophet.
Although John foreshadows Jesus, he also embodies insecure discipleship. People with religious experience may ask us, "Have you seen?" "Have you been there?" "Were you watching?" Their confidence may make us feel - like John - in prison, or out of touch.
We all come to know Jesus through the experience of others. Jesus implies that's how faith works. When John asked him, "Are you the one?" Jesus did not reply, "Look at what I've done for you." He replied, "Look at what God has done for others." Darkened by doubt, isolated in prison, fearful of abandonment, we do not always experience Jesus in freedom, community, and courage. We may experience him through the faith of others.
Father Paul Turner is pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish, Kansas City.