What Did You Go Into the Wilderness to See?
Matthew 11: 2-11
John’s been such a wild, lone, blown-by-the-Spirit type of desert guy that it’s odd to hear him ask this question: Are you the one we’ve been waiting for? Are you the one I’ve been telling everyone about?
Cousin John the Baptist is the first to recognize who Jesus is – while they are both still in utero. Remember how his mother Elizabeth startles when her baby jumps inside her, leaping for joy as Mary approaches, pregnant with Jesus? (Luke 1: 39-45). How odd to hear him uncertain now: Are you the one?
Presumably he’s heard about what’s been going on or he wouldn’t have asked this question in the first place. Presumably he’s heard stories from his followers about what they’ve seen and heard going on while John’s been locked up in prison. When he was out baptizing in the wilderness he proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 3: 2). Now that it’s come even nearer, how is it that he is unsure?
Jesus’ answer to John’s uncertainty and questioning: “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” (Matthew 11: 4-5). Compared with the image of God as a thief breaking into our homes at night, these signs of the kingdom are much more desirable, right? Aren’t these signs just the kinds of changes John was looking for?
I wonder how someone else would have described what they were seeing and hearing – someone other than Jesus, the disciples, and those he healed. What would the description have sounded like if a Roman or a religious authority were describing what Jesus had been up to? Perhaps someone else looking in on these events would have said Sinners are healed, the unclean are touched, and all kind of proper boundaries have been violated. Perhaps they would have described all this as the breakdown of kingdoms and society – and not in the good way Jesus means.
When John’s question comes to him, Jesus also says to those nearby, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” (v.7). He goes on to proclaim John as the greatest prophet there has ever been. There is compassion, patience, and understanding in Jesus’ response. Questions are ok, confusion is par for the course, doubt is part of belief.
But I also think that Jesus’ question for the disciples is a question for John and for us, too: What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? If we are honest, we can see that there are times we have seen and heard the work of God but called it something else. Like the Romans and religious authorities and like John weary in prison, we mistake what we see. Somehow it doesn’t match what we had in mind. We are confused by God’s willful, wiley, wonderful ways of showing up in the world.
What did you think the kingdom would look like? What did you think you would hear as the old rips apart and falls away to give birth to this new creation? Birth is messy, violent, painful, awe-inspiring, amazing, hopeful, and not easily controlled. What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? Remember what first caught your attention, what first spoke to you and called you out. What was that? If you saw that coming to life in a new place, outside of the wilderness, what would it look and sound like? What’s at the core of who and how you know God to be? Now, where do you find that?
The lame walk, the dead are raised…How else could this inbreaking of the kingdom appear and sound, even here at UVA? The jaded (sex and relationships) embody hope and compassion. The fearful (student loans and looking for jobs) are faithful and courageous and generous. The lonely are befriended and given families; they know deep and abiding love. The awkward are graceful. The overworked rest in Sabbath. Striving gives way to recreation. Anxiety is overcome by love.
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? Don’t be confused by the daydreams that floated in during the wait. Be guided by that original vision and by what you see now, what God’s doing right here and now, what you see and hear.
The wait can take it out of you. There are mirages and embellishments, anticipation. Think of a time you waited (for a trip, a relationship, saving up to purchase something). Was there a moment when you had to reconcile what had come to live in your head with what had actually come? When you had to re-ground yourself in the sights and sounds of what was actually happening all around you?
Don’t get carried away in your waiting, in your anticipation. Keep alert and keep paying attention. We’re called not to create and conjure the Prince of Peace but to recognize and welcome him when he arrives, when we see and hear what he’s doing. In the remaining weeks of Advent and when you go home to family and friends and a Christmas you’ve been expecting for a while now, remember what it was you came to see. Remember that wilderness vision and pay attention to how it might look and sound as it is revealed in new places and people.
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? Now, tell us what you hear and see.
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2010