Last week we read about John’s preaching in the desert preparing the way for the baptism and ministry of Jesus (Matthew 3). The events of Matthew 3 were the culmination of years upon years of hearing advent stories. I imagine that from John’s earliest days he heard stories about the events of leading up to his birth. John, his parents would say, let me tell you stories about your cousin Jesus and you. Do you know that God is working in new ways? Do you know that you are to be an instrument in his working?
So John grows up with stories about advent—the moving of God in history. John baptizes Jesus and it is an overwhelming experience. But now, John is in prison. The Empire has seized him. John is suffering the consequences of his preaching against powerful religious and political institutions. When you are in prison, you have a lot of time to think, and to be afraid, and to doubt.
John wonders about Jesus. John had expectations for how this new kingdom would arrive. The Empire would be overthrown. The messiah would create a new order. John, looking at chains and bars and prison walls, doesn’t see this new kingdom arriving. In fact, he is experiencing just the opposite. He knows the oppression and brutality of the empire. He expected Jesus to take power and get him out of jail. He asks through his disciples sent as messengers : Jesus are you the one, or should we expect someone else?
Jesus seems to understand the confusion in John’s mind. Jesus sends a message back to John, with allusions to Isaiah 35. Jesus says to John’s followers: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.
Jesus message contains both a yes and a no. Yes, Jesus says, I am the one you should be expecting. All that we have heard from our earliest days, the convictions we that have stirred in our hearts are true. But “no,” the script is getting re-written. The messiah is not coming in an Elijah-like, judgement focused, calling down fire from heaven. The mission of Jesus is more one of mercy and healing and freedom.
This is the hallmark of the kingdom of God, and of Jesus’ mission. Mercy is also to be the hallmark of the mission of the followers of Jesus. God is on the move. He is working through his people. Our task is to recognize, and respond to this mercy-focused mission, and then to extend it as well.
It won’t always make sense. Sometimes those around us with scratch their heads. Fire and brimstone are so much more dramatic. Still, in the quiet, and unassuming mission of mercy, there is great potential for transformation and for good.