I keep being told these days to wait. In sermons, blog posts, earnest Advent Facebook updates, the message has been, more often than not, “wait.” Waiting is good. Waiting trains us in patience, one of the most important virtues we can cultivate. Advent, however, isn’t the time for it. As our gospel for this Sunday reminds us—the wait is over, the kingdom has come.
The passage opens with John in prison, a place made for the worst kind of waiting. He wants to know from Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is critical for John because he is about to die and he knows it. Should he die still praying for the Kingdom for which he has been preparing? Or can he uncork the bootlegged Champaign in celebration of its arrival?
From our standpoint we might hope that Jesus gave a clearer answer, especially to a man stuck in prison. The answer he gives, nonetheless, is one that would have been understood loud and clear by John while at the same time not tipping off the political authorities. If Jesus just came out and said, “I’m the Messiah,” he might as well have said, “I’m starting a revolution.” Instead he gives an answer rooted not in claims and expectations, but in what is actually happening. This statement of what is happening echoes the prophecies of Isaiah that John would have known well:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6)
This song tells the story of the return from exile. It is about the coming of God’s holy city, Zion, to its fullness. John would have recognized the passage not only as a statement of lots of good things happening in the world, but as a mark of the advent of God’s kingdom, not coming, but arrived. John could die happy with the full expectation that he would soon be at the banquet feast of the resurrection.
In our reading Jesus then goes on to reflect on John’s power and mission, one that far exceeded Herod who had imprisoned him (that reed shaking in the wind). But while singing John’s praises our gospel ends with a bit of a head scratcher: “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 heaven is greater than he.”
Some scholars think Christians added that last bit into the gospel in communities that were in conflict with followers of John the Baptist. That I can’t judge, but I do think there is something significant in the sentence turn. John was one who was preparing the way; he was the greatest of those before the arrival of the kingdom. But once the kingdom of God arrives the world is so radically changed that the force of this new reality lifts even the lowest participant up.
To get our heads around it this metaphor might be helpful: Ptolemy was a great cosmologist. His charts of the planets and stars were fantastic. But once Copernicus’s ideas arrived, even the lowliest Copernican astronomer was greater than Ptolemy. That isn’t to say anything bad about Ptolemy, but to say that once Copernicus showed that the earth went around the sun rather than vice versa, it changed the fullness of reality so significantly that Ptolemy’s great systems no longer mattered. Ptolemy became merely a precursor to Copernicus. In the same way John became merely a precursor to the Kingdom.
I find a great challenge in this because I am certainly one of the “least in the kingdom of heaven” and yet I am being placed on a level of greatness above John the Baptist? The question I have to ask myself then is whether I am really living into this kingdom? Have I recognized the Copernican revolution of Jesus–the reality of the world revealed in a profoundly new way–or am I living after the revolution still oriented to those old, superseded understandings? Do I live where I can see the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the outcasts welcomed, the poor receiving good news? These are questions we must wrestle with as we finally ask, are we waiting for the kingdom or are we welcoming it?