Advent and Asking the Right Question

A Meditation on Isaiah 35.1-10 and Matthew 11.2-10

by Brian Walsh

You can miss Advent by failing to ask the right question.

John sends his disciples to Jesus with one question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It is a good question. It is an important question.
In fact, everything hangs on this question and its answer.

But why would John need to ask such a question?

Just last week in our readings we have met John in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord.
John, the prophet at the margins of society,
John, the crazy man of the wilderness calling for repentance,
John, the offensive revolutionary who calls down the respectable folk of his day with the deepest of insults – “you brood of vipers, you children of the Snake.”
John who speaks of one who will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, one who will clear the threshing floor and throw the chaff into the fire, one who is more powerful than John, whose sandals John is not worthy to carry.

But now John languishes in a prison cell.
Now John is paying the price for his incendiary prophecy.
Now John awaits the judgement of Herod, the “king of the Jews.”

And while in that prison cell word trickles back to him about Jesus.
He hears reports of the radical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount – the poor are hearing good news.
News comes of healings: the lepers are cleansed, the blind receive sight, the lame walk.
He knows that Jesus has chosen twelve disciples, and John can read the symbolism of it all.

But Jesus has been confusing his cousin John.
John’s disciples have already asked Jesus about why he seems to be all about feasting, though John had taught them that now is a time for fasting.
This wasn’t quite the behaviour that they were expecting of the one who would follow John, the one for whom John had prepared the way.

And now, languishing in that prison cell, John hears all about Jesus and he is confused.
So he sends his question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Is this really the Advent of the Kingdom?
Is this it?
Or are you, maybe, another one who is just preparing the way?

And the answer is simple: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And you would think that should settle the matter for John. But I’ve got to think that John already knew about all of this. In fact, it was precisely because he had “heard of what the Messiah was doing” that occasioned his question in the first place.

So there’s got to be something else going on here.

I can imagine John replying,

“Yes, yes, I know about all of that.
I know of your deeds of healing. I have heard of the power of your teaching.
And I can recognize that promises of Isaiah are being fulfilled in you.
Or at least I can recognize that many of the promises are being fulfilled.
I recall well the prophet proclaiming that:
……‘The eyes of the blind will be opened,
……and the ears of the deaf unstopped,
……then the lame shall reap like a deer,
……and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy.’
And I rejoice that all of this is happening wherever you go.

But the prophet also said that,
……‘the wilderness and the dry land will rejoice,’
……and all I can see is that the fertile land of the covenant is constantly overgrazed and over tilled to feed the imperial appetites of Rome;
……and he also said that there would be a highway called the Holy Way that would be the path home for oppressed Israel,
……but we are still exiled in our own land, we are still held captive.

You see, dear cousin, Isaiah doesn’t just say that the wilderness will blossom, nor does he just say that the lame shall walk and the blind see,
he also says that the Holy One will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense, with violent judgement upon our oppressors.
That is the price of salvation,
……that is the justice of the Kingdom!
And that is what I am missing in these reports from Galilee.
I don’t see any vengeance or recompense,
I don’t see any judgement,
I don’t see any chaff being thrown into the fire!
I don’t see you standing up before that puppet king, Herod,
……(standing up to him like I did!)
and proclaiming that you are the true king of the Jews.

Jesus, Herod remains on his throne,
……the poor may be hearing good news, but they are still poor,
……the blind may have sight, but all that they can see is oppression,
……the dead may be risen, but what’s the point of that in this culture of death?
……the empire of God may be proclaimed, but the empire of Rome seems unfazed by that proclamation,
……and, in case you didn’t notice, I am in Herod’s prison,
……likely awaiting execution, not a place in the Kingdom of God,
(and didn’t Isaiah say elsewhere that the prisoners will be set free?)”

You can miss Advent by not asking the right question.
John doesn’t want to miss Advent.
He doesn’t want to be on the outside looking in on the coming Kingdom.
But he also doesn’t want to pin his hopes on something that will only disappoint.

You can miss Advent by not asking the right question.
And it seems to me that we too need to ask John’s question.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

You see, Isaiah’s prophecy encompasses an ecological renewal in which the arid infertility of the desert is replaced by the lushness of a gardened world,
where thirsty ground becomes springs of water,
where parched dry land rejoices in rich vegetation.
But we see an escalating desertification of the planet because of global warming.
We see rich agricultural land so abused by multinational agribusiness that the only way to maintain fertility is through ever increasing inputs of petroleum based fertilizers, bio-engineered seed stock, and chemically manufactured pesticides and herbicides.
In the face of this Messianic vision of a restored creation we face species extinction, dead zones in all of our oceans and the continued assault of industrial pollution on the very ecology of the planet.

Isaiah’s prophecy may anticipate a time when the tongues of the speechless will be loosed, a time when the silent criers will be held in love, but the suppression of the voice of the poor, the silencing of protest, the repression of an alternative vision, continues unabated around the world, in the police actions of my city of Toronto, and, as far as I can see, for the next four years in the Mayor’s office at Toronto’s City Hall.

This was a vision of justice, and as far as John could see, and as far as most of us can see, this is a vision yet to be realized. Justice remains far from us.
The powerful retain their power,
the powerless have more stripped from them,
the decisions are still made from above and imposed on those who are below.

This was a vision of renewed joy, of gladness, of rejoicing, but it still feels as if “joy has reached its eventide; the gladness of the earth is banished.” (Is 24.11)

And so, with John, we want to know, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

That question, it seems to me, needs to resonate within us every Advent.
Indeed, without that question, without that longing, without that doubt,
……we will miss Advent.

And Jesus replies, “Go tell John, go tell folks celebrating a little Wine Before Dinner in the Trinity College Chapel, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And still we might ask, ‘where, Lord? Where is all of this happening?”

And I think that the reply would be,
wherever my church is living as my church,
wherever the gospel is radically lived out and proclaimed,
wherever the voiceless are heard,
wherever a warm bed is offered to a homeless brother,
wherever safety is given to a woman fleeing abuse,
wherever people are living and practicing sustainable agriculture,
wherever the faithful refuse to be complicit in oppression,
wherever the church is an agent for justice,
wherever the fearful are encouraged,
wherever forgiveness overcomes hurt and enmity,
wherever there is homecoming,
wherever sorrow is turned to joy,
there is my kingdom.

And blessed is anyone who does not take offense at me.
Blessed.
Another beatitude.
Blessed is anyone who does not take offense at me.
Blessed is anyone who will not so bind me by their own agenda,
……their own ideologically driven notion of the kingdom,
……their own arrogantly biased dismissal of my word,
……their own self-protective and enclosed theology.

Blessed is anyone with the courage and integrity to ask the right question.
Blessed is anyone with the wisdom and humility to receive a true answer.
Blessed is anyone who can still embrace Advent,
……even when hope and history won’t rhyme,
……even when the words of Jesus stick in our throats,
……even when we are sick of the sorrow, sick of the pain,
……sick of hearing again and again,
……that there’s going to be peace on earth.
Blessed is anyone who does not take offense at me.

Come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

3 Responses to “Advent and Asking the Right Question”

  1. Jake

    I often think of people like John and the disciples being confused about Jesus. Lately I’ve realized that I have missed the boat just as much if not more. I think we under estimate the value of a question like the one you have posed. It keeps us sharp. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. A Penitential Line « Empire Remixed

    […] And yet, this week, it feels as though I’ve failed to receive that gift. I’ve had my hands too full with other things, with busy-work and with errands. Many things that I have filled myself with, and in so doing, failed to be truly present. Yet I want to be more intentional. I want to ask better questions. […]

    Reply
  3. Mich

    Amen indeed.

    Reply

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