Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 11, 2022

Matthew 11:2-11 Commentary

Comments, Questions and Observations

We are a far cry from last week’s gospel lectionary text. Then, John was fire and brimstone, calling out the people of God, baptizing and supporting people’s repentance work. Now, months later in the gospel timeline, John is in a prison-cave cell at Herod Antipas’ Machaerus fortress—itself in the wilderness land east of the Jordan River.

Yet even here, John wishes to be prepared for his Saviour. As highlighted in the textual point below, it is very possible that John anticipates that his imprisonment may be addressed by Jesus, the one John himself baptized even though he knew it should be the other way around (see Matt 3.13-17). We know that John knew what Isaiah proclaimed about the Messiah (Matt 3.3), and one of the things that the Messiah is promised to accomplish is to set the prisoners free.

But this is not one of the acts that Jesus tells John’s disciples to name as signs that Jesus is the one John’s been waiting for. The blind seeing and the deaf hearing, the dead raised from the dead and the poor hearing good news, that all checks out. But instead of the captives being set free, Jesus says, “Go and tell John… blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

If freedom from his cell is what John hoped would be part of the Messiah’s immediate work, he will have to decide what to do with his disappointment that the answer from God seems to be “No.”

John is looking for encouragement, and though Jesus does not give the best-case scenario answer, Jesus does send a message with hope embedded in it. Jesus gives John a blessing, or beatitude, instead. Jesus promises that those who are not repelled from him when he does not give them what they are looking for or he does not meet their expectations, these people will be blessed. What I hear in Jesus’ words is the invitation to being unattached—even unattached to our views and expectations of God. This is the sort of wisdom that guides us in the desert time of waiting: learning to trust while simultaneously letting go.

In his commentary, Donald Hagner describes John’s experience as the already-and-not-yet that we Christians know all too well in our desert-wilderness places. We know that there is so much good that God is and has done already, but there are clear, personal, experiences that compound the sense of the not yet kingdom. Hagner aptly calls it the “paradox of existence in an era of fulfillment.”

Dale Bruner is encouraged by the fact that Jesus doesn’t chastise or even comment on the seeming doubt that John expresses with his questions. But nor does Jesus sugarcoat or promise something that he does not plan to provide to John. It all feels very true to our own experiences of pain and suffering and seeking the Lord. We wonder, maybe even doubt if what we were so confident in is actually true. We sometimes have to accept that what God does for someone else, God might not provide for ourselves. It is by lifting our gaze to see all that is true—even if it is not true for us—that we see the whole truth. This is how we do not just form our image or expectations about God based on our own needs, but in what we see of God all around on the long arc towards justice and peace. Like last week, we are reminded that we have to de-centralize ourselves from the story in order to be able to know the whole story.

The second half of our lectionary text takes a lovely turn: here, Jesus expresses a sort of gratitude and admiration for John to the crowd. Are the people aware that the great and fiery John the Baptist is in prison? What meaning do they make of John’s imprisonment? To be sure, as Jesus relays here, John has always been a bit of a spectacle; but his eccentricities were honest and wholehearted, true to John’s role as a prophet.

But to Jesus, John is more than a prophet now imprisoned. Jesus knows that John was also promised by the Scriptures: John is his messenger and John’s way of being and ministering in the world were part of what prepared the way for his own pronouncement of the Kingdom. John, as one of God’s agents of reconciliation, is part of the kingdom work and even if he does not escape his earthly execution, God blesses John as he waits and hopes in faith—even while he wonders and expresses his doubt.

Even if John’s baptizing and preaching repentance ministry on earth is done, it has included some wondrous achievements. God chose to have John baptize Jesus and be part of his coronation to ministry, for crying out loud! And yet, Jesus says, in another paradox of the faith and of being a follower of Christ, even greater kingdom work is to come in you and in me. For the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Elsewhere, Jesus will tell his disciples that they will do greater miracles than he himself has done. Here he tells the crowds that the least of God’s agents of reconciliation and the good news of Jesus Christ is greater than the great John the Baptist!

This is because the kingdom of heaven is one of expansion, where every member is given the Holy Spirit, called to holiness that makes the paths straight. John the Baptist was not the end, not the faithful one to whom none of us can measure up… No, with the Holy Spirit’s baptism and the kingdom that Jesus Christ ushers in, we build upon the likes of John the Baptist—not necessarily measuring ourselves against them, but following in their footsteps, preparing the way for the Lord, learning to be unattached to our predetermined images of God so that God can be infinitely great and majestic and awesome. So that, when we see the way of the Lord that the true faithful one, the author and perfector of our faith, Jesus Christ, sets out for us, we will be able to let go of anything that stands in the way of following him—even if it leads to the desert wilderness places. We can trust that in those desert wilderness places, we will learn more about who our God truly is.

Textual Point

The list of things that Jesus tells John’s disciples to report back to him are all things Jesus has done in the previous chapters. It is also reminiscent of the sorts of promises made about the Messiah in Isaiah. There is one thing that is clearly missing, though, and given John’s context, might have been what he was looking to receive. In Isaiah 61.1, the prisoners are set free. Instead, Jesus says to go tell John “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Illustration Idea

In her 1998 commentary article in The Christian Century on this week’s lectionary texts, Rosalind Brown writes, “My Sierra Club calendar reminds me that ‘nowhere else on earth is geologic time so exposed as in a desert.’ Nowhere else is God’s time so exposed in our lives as in a desert experience: out of control of all that shapes our lives, we are open to God’s timescale, God’s ways. Like John in prison, we discover—willingly or not—how to be patient until the coming of the Lord.” In their own mysterious way, desert places may help us learn how to not be offended at God’s timescale.


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