(You could begin by reading the scripture passage. Better yet, ask someone to read it to you. The Word of God is meant to be heard.)
This Sunday we light the third candle of the Advent wreath for Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing. Last Sunday, we heard about John the Baptist, the one with the disturbing message about cutting away the dead wood, preparing us for the new abundant life that Jesus brings. Now, stuck in prison, he hears rumours about Jesus and he wonders.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
He asks if Jesus is the one who is to come. He means the promised one, the Messiah. The one who is coming—that is, not here yet. A strange question to ask someone who is already here.
We know Jesus is Risen. We know he will come again.
Already. Not yet.
Jesus tells them to look at the signs:
“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."
These are signs of the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. John the Baptist will understand.
Some of the people go back to tell him. The rest remain. These are the people who once came to see John the Baptist when he was in the wilderness preaching. Jesus asks them,
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?
Did they go out just to see some crazy
guy saying crazy things?
Did they go out just to laugh at him?
What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.
Jesus calls attention to John the Baptist's clothing. The people know he does not wear soft robes. They know very well that he is not a prince in a royal palace. They remember, like we do, that:
John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. (Matthew 3:4a)
The Bible does not often mention clothing. We never hear what Mary wears, for example. It is not a detail often included, so when clothing is mentioned, we have to ask ourselves why. What does God want us to know?
Jesus asks them for a third time,
What then did you go out to see? A prophet?
The people know that John the Baptist is the strange guy in camel's hair with a leather belt. And they know what this means. John the Baptist is a prophet—someone who listens so carefully that he hears God speaking to him and has to tell everyone what he has heard.
But Jesus reminds the people that that is not all they know.
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
In the Bible, we are told about only one other person wearing a leather belt.
It is Elijah, the prophet.
In the Bible, we are told that Elijah will return to prepare the way of the Messiah.
John the Baptist wears a leather belt.
John the Baptist is a prophet.
John the Baptist tells the people to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord.
But John the Baptist is no longer here. Only Jesus stands before them.
When Jesus asks the people three times, "What did you come out to see?" perhaps he is really asking them,
"Why are you still here?"
Jesus is telling them, look, you know who John the Baptist is,
you know who I AM.
Why is this important for us to know today?
We already know that Jesus is the Messiah, the chosen one of God. We also know that, all those many years ago, John the Baptist prepared his way.
We have to remember that this is the season of Advent, the season of preparing. We have to recall that although Jesus has already died and risen to new life never to die again, that risen life has not yet spread to all people, to all creation. The Kingdom of God is not yet full.
So, can we be like John the Baptist?
Can we help prepare the way of the Lord into the world today?
Can we help the Kingdom of God?
John the Baptist was strange. He lived a strange life. But people were fascinated. They were attracted. They went out into the wilderness to see him. And many of them listened and repented and were ready then to receive Jesus.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?"
Our lives seem strange to others. We go to Mass on Sunday. Many people in the world do not. People may find us strange because we go to church, but they may also be attracted and want to know more.
"What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?"
We may find that people are fascinated by our life. They may not understand. They may ask questions that seem rude. Maybe they need to know more.
"What then did you go out to see? A prophet?"
By living our lives in this strange way, we are like John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus. Our lives invite others to listen, to repent, and to receive Jesus.
We help the Kingdom of God become full.
And Jesus says,
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.