Third Sunday of Advent – These Are the Signs of the Messiah

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus’ deeds are not just nice things for needy people. These are signs that the prophets told Israel will be his credentials.

Josef Anton Hafner (1709-1756), “John the Baptist in Prison”
Josef Anton Hafner (1709-1756), “John the Baptist in Prison” (photo: Public Domain)

The Gospels on the Second and Third Sundays of Advent traditionally are devoted to St. John the Baptist. But Matthew’s treatment of John’s ministry at the beginning of Jesus’ public life is relatively short — it was last week’s Gospel — so we have to dig deeper into Matthew to find John again. We do, in Chapter 11 (today’s Gospel). John is in prison.

Today’s Gospel simply tells us “When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question …” In fact, Matthew does not tell us why John is imprisoned until Chapter 14, when he also tells us of his execution.

As we heard last week, John preached a baptism of repentance in preparation for the awaited Messiah. Some “acknowledged their sins” while he baptized them. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who came to see what was going on but saw no need for repentance on their parts, were castigated by John as “a brood of vipers.” Not tailoring his call to conversion to please his listeners, John also demanded repentance on the part of Herod Antipas, and that landed him in jail.

Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great. After the latter’s death, his “Kingdom” was parceled out among three sons — Antipas, Archaelus and Philip — who became “tetrarchs” (regional administrators) over pieces of that kingdom.

Antipas divorced his wife to take his sister-in-law, Herodias, who divorced Philip. According to the Law of the Old Testament (Leviticus 20:21), such acts were “impure” and prohibited. John told Antipas that. Antipas didn’t like it. Herodias liked it even less. John landed in jail. “Speaking truth to power” can be dangerous, unless one is woker than thou.

John met and baptized Jesus at the beginning of his public life. Now John is out of circulation and Jesus has begun his public ministry, preaching, teaching and healing. So John wants to verify: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to look for another?” He can’t check out Jesus himself because Fortress Machaerus (the likely place where John was imprisoned) did not grant weekend furloughs. So he sends some of his disciples. After all, as Jesus will tell us, let everything stand “on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16), as the Old Testament prescribed (Deuteronomy 19:15).

Jesus (like his stepfather Joseph) does not say — he does. He tells John’s disciples to consider what they see: “The blind regain their sight, he lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the Good News proclaimed to them.” Jesus is not just providing a running inventory of his miracles. What he says will ring in John’s ears, because it had already been said by Isaiah and in today’s First Reading: “Here is your God. He comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag and the tongue of the mute will sing.” Except what Isaiah said of God’s in the future tense is happening in the present tense with Jesus.

John will recognize that Jesus’ deeds are not just nice things for needy people. He will recognize that these are signs of the Messiah, the signs that the prophets told Israel will be his credentials. He upon whom John saw the Spirit descend at his Baptism is he who is performing the deeds of God.

“Go and tell John …” He’ll get it.

As John’s disciples retire to their teacher who will soon die, Jesus comments on John. Did you go to see a curiosity? A freak? A prophet? Yes, you saw a prophet and — in typical Matthean fashion — Jesus buttresses what he says with a quote from the prophets. When Jesus talks about sending ‘”my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you” Jesus and his listeners both knew he was quoting Malachi 3:1. We read Malachi 3 as the First Reading of Dec. 23, because Jews knew that messenger was the immediate precursor of the Messiah who would usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. So, when Jesus’ listeners heard that passage, they knew what kind of statement Jesus was making about himself and about the Baptist when he applied those words to John.

And yet the simplest Christian has been given far more than John had. And “to whom much is given …” (Luke 12:48).

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by the 18th-century south German decorative artist, Josef Anton Hafner (1709-1756). “John the Baptist in Prison” is a ceiling painting in the nave of the Church of the Sorrowful Mother of God (Kirche zur Schmerzhaften Muttergottes) in Oberzell, near Ravensburg, in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state. He painted it around 1750.

The painting depicts a tattered John behind bars in a tower that looks like it belongs more on a German abbey than a Jewish fortress. That’s probably okay, given that the landscape is less the barren topography around the Dead Sea than the mountainscape around the Bodensee (Lake Constance), near where Oberzell lies. It’s not clear: is John getting ready to send his disciples or are they reporting back on their mission? The first disciple, in the red cloak, and John are busily exchanging words: is it final departure instructions or accounts of the blind who see, the deaf who hear, and the lame who walk? The two behind the first disciple appear excited. The wind in the first disciple’s clothes and the look on the others’ faces suggests the urgency of the mission, not just because of John’s situation but because the Messiah has been awaited for centuries.

Jesus has performed Messianic deeds, but he still doesn’t completely fit Israel’s expectations of the Messiah. Perhaps that question troubled John; we know that it agitated Jesus’ own Apostles, who saw and heard his teaching, right up until he ascended into heaven. The one whom “my messenger” is to prepare the way for in Malachi is described as inaugurating a “day of his coming” that “who can endure?” “Who can stand firm when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver and he will purify the Levites” (Malachi 3:2-3). Perhaps it wasn’t just the “Sons of Thunder,” James and John, who were expecting more celestial fireworks from the Messiah.

Decorative art like Hafner’s can be found frequently in the many churches of southern Germany, in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, and in Austria’s Tirol region. Hafner himself was a prodigious artist of such scenes in his day. Slightly earlier but more distinguished contemporaries of such ceiling artwork in the region were the Asam Brothers.

Jesus gives evidence today of whom he is and what his mission is. John testified to him and to God’s Law — to the dignity of marriage and against its profanation — even at the cost of his own life. What is my response? John, in jail and peril for his life, still is far more concerned with knowing who Jesus is? Do I feel such urgency? What do I need to do this Advent to kindle that fire? Why not ask St. John the Baptist, the patron of repentance, for help?