“A highway shall be in the wilderness,” says Isaiah. “It shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” Isaiah likely drew inspiration from the most famous highway of his day, the Persian Royal Road. Around the year 500, King Darius I rebuilt and repaired existing roads, and extended and connected them into a highway that ran for 1,667 miles from Sardis on the Aegean Sea to Susa near the Persian Gulf. Five and a half centuries later, John the Baptist makes a highway for God. Like Darius he draws on existing structure, the faith of his ancestors, and extends it and connects it to his present day. The Third Sunday of Advent is always dedicated to the witness of John the Baptist. But on this day that we acknowledge his witness, we get John in prison and asking Jesus, “Are you the one?”
Can we make sense of such a witness? Certainly John’s question, or ones like it, are questions we ask ourselves, eventually. Has my career really mattered? Has my marriage meant anything in the grand scheme of things? Have I done a good job raising my children? I suppose that at the simplest level, it could be good news to us that the greatest non-Jesus person who ever lived has felt existential angst, just as we do. I won’t deny that. John’s existential question comes from, well, John. This is the guy who said last week that God was coming to burn the chaff and chop down anyone who didn’t get with the program. This is the guy who dressed like Elijah, who Jesus says is Elijah. Elijah, who confronted kings and queens and lived to tell about it; who defeated 450 prophets of Baal in a bull roasting contest; who got a private earthquake, wind, and fire show from God just because he was bummed out and God wanted to cheer him up; who called down fire from heaven on his enemies (and didn’t catch any grief from God); who never died but rode a chariot of fire up a tornado to God’s side. He has certain expectations, you see.
The coming of the King was supposed to be a big deal. In the New Testament era, the Greek word parousia and the Latin word advent—which Christians use to say Jesus is coming (it’s the word the Second Reading today uses)—those words officially referred to Caesar coming to town. Prepare the highway! Here comes the Emperor, the head of Rome’s invincible legions, the supreme policy maker, the chief justice of the courts, the high priest of the gods of Rome, the manifestation of God on Earth. While advent could also be used for anyone—advent could just mean Bill is coming by after work—it had connotations of the world’s biggest Christmas Parade, and Santa is Pope, General, Dictator, and God all rolled into one. It is reasonable to guess that John the Baptist had in mind that God’s coming would look something like this, only with God in the top position.
So, when John asks, “Are you the one for whom I paved the royal highway?” Jesus goes to a highway text: Isaiah 35, God’s plan for the idiot-proof Royal Road. But Jesus focuses on a different part of the text. He zeroes in on sight for the blind, the lame made to walk, the lepers cleansed, hearing for the deaf, resurrection of the dead, good news to the poor. All of those things that were part of God’s highway plan are happening. In a sense, Jesus tells John, “Yes, everything you prophesied is being fulfilled. It looks nothing like what you expected (though, it is precisely what I said it would be). Thanks for blazing the trail! Seriously: you’ve done what God called you to do; will you have me as your Messiah?”
I’ll wager that this is John’s witness to us today: the audacious question—Are you the one?—that leads to Jesus’ reply—Will you have me? That’s the confrontation that leads to confession. John’s question gets us there. John asks, “Are you the one?” Jesus replies, “You tell me. Will you have me as your Messiah?” And all that’s left is confession, or denial.
This struck me unexpectedly and in a roundabout way on Wednesday. I was on my way to a meeting at the Chapel of the Resurrection at VU. So, I had parked in LaPorte and walked there. Outside the chapel, someone had scratched in the snow the word Revolt. I was flooded with memories of my college days. Not because college is full of rebels without a cause (though you can find them—some of them are even in the student body), but because college, at least for me, was the sort of place where you could ask those big, dangerous questions that challenge the world around you, questions that, as they get answered, make you want to scratch Revolt on things. John the Baptist’s question is that big, dangerous question. “Are you the one for whom we have waited?” It’s a fair question. On the one hand, John seems to know Jesus. When Jesus comes to be baptized, John wants to swap places with him and Jesus has to talk him out of it. On the other hand, if this is the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, this does not match what John has been taught to expect.
Could Jesus really be the one? It would mean John is going to have to let the truth challenge him. We could all do with some of that this Advent. Americans and the media they consume suffer from what’s called “confirmation bias.” While some news media really is partisan (or just fake), most media is biased in that it seeks what it already knows. Journalists have a narrative in mind and seek out story angles that fit the existing narrative. Individuals consume media that confirms what they already believe to be true. We’ve heard it said that we live in bubbles. Last week the MIT Media Lab released some research in which they depicted graphically the bubbles of Twitter users, based on the hashtags people used when posting and data about who “follows” whom. We most definitely find like-minded individuals and have conversations with them about only what we want to believe. We all have a confirmation bias. “Are you the one?” threatens that bias. It could burst the bubble, because Jesus occupies no known bubbles. It is a big, dangerous, life-altering question, and Jesus gives a big, dangerous, life-altering answer: “You tell me. I’m bringing in just about everybody.”
Jesus’ work is restoring people to wholeness and community. The deeds Jesus touts eliminate the physical barriers to full inclusion, and they eliminate the shame attached to those physical barriers. For example, the blind obviously have a difficulty participating in society, but they are also stigmatized for being blind. They’re cut out of the community of faith. Jesus brings them in. Jesus isn’t relaxing God’s requirements. No. It’s more alarmingly radical than that. We’re gonna be reading Matthew’s gospel a lot this year. In Matthew, Jesus’ method is first to preach that unless you’re more righteous than the smartest and most uptight Pharisee, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and then, second, promptly to admit to the Kingdom the nearest tax collectors and prostitutes. They are righteous. They are righteous because Jesus says so. John the Baptist asks, “Are you the one?” Jesus replies, “You tell me. I’m making everybody righteous. Will you have me as your Messiah?”
We do not get John the Baptist’s answer. It is neither in this scene nor recorded elsewhere in Matthew. Answering Jesus’ question, therefore, becomes our responsibility. John has prepared the way. As Darius I connected the highways of Persia, John has connected the highways of our minds. He has brought the traditions of our ancestors into the present and put them before us, and now, he asks Jesus, “Are you the one?” and Jesus asks us, “Will you have me as your Messiah.” Will you have the one who makes you righteous? Will you have the one who is coming—not as Priest, General, Dictator, and Angry God—but is treading the highway John built for that person? Will you have the one who is coming, specifically to see you and to welcome you into the God who heals and forgives and makes all things new? Will you have the one who will be born in poverty, who will be a refugee, who will live on the margins of society, who will let in just about every disgraceful person you can think of, and thereby let in you as well? Big, dangerous, life-altering question. Needs an answer. God is coming.