Posted on December 14th, 2014
The call of John the Baptist reverberates across the centuries, and still applies to us today: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Today’s Gospel reading has John in prison. Nevertheless, he is the only free man, while his disciples are the true captives.
The disciples of John the Baptist, though walking freely, are bound in a prison of doubt and fear. They had once answered the summons of the Baptist, been washed with a baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins — but they had not heeded their teacher when he pointed them to JESUS as the One who fulfills all righteousness. Thus they remained in a prison worse than the one holding their teacher.
The Baptist’s call also comes to you in your prison. To you, imprisoned by lust, a mind chained to past sorrows, a heart sputtering with rage and grief, enslaved to your own desires, warped by perverse egotism – to you comes the cry: Repent.
Repentance is not contrition (sorrow for sin—or perhaps just that you got caught). John the Baptist says that the one who repents, turns and changes his mind and life. “Bring forth fruits of repentance,” he says. He says it to you: “Bring forth fruits of repentance.”
What would these fruits of repentance look like in your life? It begins with displeasure over your sin, despising how your heart is captive to the things displeasing to God. Yet from there it moves to a departure from sin and a new life striving after righteousness. Our fathers in the faith had a saying, “The highest form of repentance is not doing it again” (via Spangenberg).
In talking about this life of repentance, St. Paul said, “Whoever has stolen, let him steal no more, but work” (Eph. 4.28). St. Peter looks at Jesus on the cross and sees both the payment for our sins and the death of our sins in the death of Jesus: “[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 NKJV)
John the Baptist proclaimed this need for repentance, for a changed life, and this landed him in Herod’s dungeon, for Herod had taken his brother’s wife, and John was bold to say that this was against the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”
But this was not the biggest scandal. John had also pointed his own disciples to Jesus. “Follow Him. He must increase, and I must decrease. This man Jesus is God’s own Son, sent to be the Lamb for sacrifice, to take away the world’s sin.” This offended John’s disciples, for they saw Jesus as a friend of sinners. Their Messiah would be a king, and Jesus did not seem very regal. If Jesus were so great, Herod would be dethroned; and certainly John the Baptist, their teacher, would not remain in prison.
Jesus continues to not meet our expectations. Why does violence remain in the world? Why do the corrupt maintain power, while the weak are abused? Why does sickness infect our bodies, sorrow infect our hearts, brokenness infect our families? Jesus is called Savior, but He doesn’t seem to do a very good job of it.
Like us, John the Baptist’s disciples are riddled with doubt. So John, like other great men, does some of his best work while in prison. Behind bars, John preaches his final sermon, a short one: “Go, take your questions to Jesus.”
Jesus, in response, does many works that fulfill the office of the Messiah from Isaiah 35: the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the paralyzed walk, and lepers are cleansed. These signs point ahead to the coming work of the new creation. When we pray later today in the liturgy, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we are not praying for Him to come to a stable in Bethlehem. We are praying for the end of this broken world and the remaking of creation. “Come, Lord Jesus, and repair all that is broken.”
But the greatest brokenness is found in hearts weighed down with sorrow, minds twisted by the memory of evil words, souls gripped with anxiety and resentment, greed and rebellion. So more joyful still is this: “the poor have the gospel preached to them.” What is this poverty? Not merely lack of money, but the lack of help and comfort. When you lose all hope in institutions and people, when you realize that there is no help to be found in your efforts or ethics, that no doctor or therapist can fix your deepest problems – into this impoverishment steps Jesus, who gives you the greatest good news: “In Me you have a gracious and merciful God; I am making all things new; by My cross you will have healing.”
Jesus then praises John for not being a reed shaken by the wind. Soon our newest brothers and sisters will make promises that many of you have made: will you suffer all rather than abandon your confession of the faith? The road to hell, it is said, is paved with the skulls of priests; and surely Christian history is littered with broken promises, vows abandoned for a momentary romp or to be spared from death. Is it a smaller thing, or a greater one, if you hide your Christianity merely to save yourself from a bit of embarrassment? Someone might call you a bigot or a fool; it is so much easier to sway with the winds of the Zeitgeist as a reed shaken by a slight breeze. Ease up on the commandments, and Herod sets John free.
But John remains steadfast, and Jesus praises him. Yet Jesus does not open the prison for John. He doesn’t need it. John will soon lose his head, but he has already found life, in Jesus.
So Jesus doesn’t open the prison for John. He opens it for you. The seeming prison of your circumstances remains – for now. But while nothing seems to have changed, everything has changed. You have the Gospel, that Jesus is risen from the dead and you shall rise too. So no matter what prisons you seem to be bound up in, the Spirit says to you, yes you: Rejoice! For your Jesus has accomplished everything already.