December 10, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 11:2-6
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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 blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Despite what John the Baptist could see from his prison cell, and what we can see as we look out at a war-torn, plague-weary world, Jesus assures us that the present evil age is, in fact, over. He knows it is over because he inaugurated the age to come himself.
We get two Sundays of John the Baptist every Advent, and last Sunday, in this lectionary year at any rate, was the Sunday in which we focused on John’s call to repentance. He appears in the wilderness saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2) and making a famous speech of warning to those Pharisees and Sadducees who come to be baptized:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:7-12).
This Sunday, eight chapters later in Matthew, we come into a much different part of the story. John baptized the one who was “coming after,” his cousin Jesus, in Matthew 3:13-17. Jesus has been traveling, ministering, preaching, healing, and generally turning everyone’s expectations on their ear. John, on the other hand, is in prison. We will learn in Matthew 14 that John was put in prison for calling out corruption in high places; in a strange and tragic story, he will eventually be beheaded. He may have been fairly clear about his cousin when this whole thing started, but it sounds as though, from his dungeon cell, he isn’t quite so sure now.
Jesus responds in terms that ought to sound familiar to you if you read my devotion yesterday, where I talked about how Jewish eschatology made a division between the “present evil age” and the “age to come.” The division between the two, in the thinking of the time, would not be gradual or quiet. The “day of the Lord” would usher in a sharp transfer from one to the other, heralded by the Messiah. All this hangs in the background of John’s question that he sends to Jesus through his followers: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3). Is the present evil age over, John wants to know, or is it not?
The picture Jesus paints in response in Matthew 11:4-6 sounds quite a lot like yesterday’s vision from Isaiah 35: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. It checks pretty much all the boxes on the checklist of the age to come. Despite what John could see from his prison cell, and what we can see as we look out at a war-torn, plague-weary world, Jesus assures us that the present evil age is, in fact, over. He knows it is over because he inaugurated the age to come himself. And that is a message that should cheer our weary hearts, this Advent and always.
Where do you see the present evil age around you?
Where do you see the age to come?
I never really understood the great 19th-century carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” when I was younger, but as I’ve grown older and especially as I’ve experiencing the wearying years of the pandemic, it has deeply spoken to me. I hope that it will speak to you today. Here is a version that includes my favorite, and seldom-sung, verse:
“O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.”
Lord, cheer and comfort us. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: My Yoke Is Easy (Matthew 11:28-30).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
Click here to view Jennifer’s profile.