Epistle from Prison

Sermon for Sunday, December 12th, 2010|| Advent 3, Year A||Matthew 11: 2-11

The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

From John, the one they call the Baptizer, called to be a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah– to my disciples, be any such as call themselves so upon my death: Shalom Aleichem!

I write to you as a captive from the hell in which  Herod continues to hold me.  Nearly a year it’s been of this waiting– waiting for the final battle, waiting for the coming of the kingdom, waiting for my freedom, at last.  Brothers and sisters, how weary I grow of waiting! How feeble is the faith for which I once fought so ferociously!  Yet judge me not:  The darkness of doubt gnaws at me every day like an evil beast.  My soul is famished, my spirit parched.

And I am cold.  Always I am so cold.  This putrid little cell with its dank dirt floor and massive stone walls is cold with the kind of deep, sharp cold that penetrates the bone and pierces the spirit like a poison-tipped dagger.  Cold with the kind of cold that feeds on the blackness and malevolence of detestable places like this one.

How faint I am for any word from the outside! Seemingly endless days and only occasional reports of the work being done by the one I was so sure was our Savior–reports of miraculous cures, unheard of healings, and pronouncements of sins forgiven. What kind of Messiah is this then?  Where is his kingdom? What is he waiting for?

Can you even begin to understand my anguish–how my heart aches to know why he has not yet saved me?  Did I not prepare the way and make straight his path?

So you see I have sent a messenger…sent a messenger to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Because I have to know.  I have to know if he is really the one.  And so I wait.

Some days are worse than others. I hold on to the words of the prophets–they are my only strength and my salvation, the stronghold that keeps me safe from despair. In my fear I wonder, “Where is my God?”  Yet always comes the answer in the sure and certain words of Isaiah—Isaiah, echoing insistently, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Oh, how I will laugh and dance on that day—even if it be from my grave!  To see the vengeance of the Lord exacted on that snake, Herod!  To watch the mighty hand of the Messiah take his sword of righteousness to the Romans! To see him with his winnowing-fork in his hand, as he gathers the wheat into the granary and burns the chaff with unquenchable fire!  For this I can wait!  To see God’s justice done!

But what of me? What of me who cried, “Repent!” to all who would hear?  “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”  Was I wrong?

When the corrupt among our own people came to me for baptism, how emboldened I was to speak truth to power, just knowing the Messiah was at hand.  A brood of vipers I called them!   Do you remember the looks on their faces? “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Its like it wasn’t even me— like someone else speaking through me.  But I was born for this—I loved every minute of it!

And that day…oh, I’ll never forget that day:  I was knee deep in the Jordan baptizing one after another from all of Jerusalem and Judea, till the sun was low in the sky and my back felt like it was going to break, and I hadn’t eaten all day and I was so tired I was ready to drop, and then all of a sudden there he was… standing right in front of me.   I swear time stood still.  Everything around us melted away and we were alone, just the two of us, standing there in the Jordan River. Not a sound in the air.  Perfect stillness.

Then,  “I have come, John, for your baptism of repentance.”

Of course I knew immediately who he was.  I knew (oh how sure I was!) that he was the one for whom we’d been waiting so long.

“I need to be baptized by you,” I protested, “and you come to me?”

“Let it be so now;” he said firmly, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  So I consented.

Then just as he burst up from the river shaking the water from his hair and grinning from ear to ear, he looked heavenward as if at something only he could see.  At that very instant the stillness and the silence of the moment was broken.  I felt the wind brush against my cheek, noticed the setting sun bathing everything in a golden glow and I heard (or should I say felt?) a powerful voice speak in the very depths of my soul, and with absolute clarity it said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

How sure I was then…how very sure!  But not now.  Now I wait in this squalid cell.

I suppose it’s my own fault I ended up here.  I should have been more careful. But sometimes…this business of speaking truth to power, I can’t help it.  It hurts more to keep the words in than to suffer the consequences of saying them. That traitor Herod!  It’s sin enough that one of our own people is a pawn for the Romans, but to take his brother’s wife –it was too much–an outrage against our God!  Besides, I was so sure the kingdom of heaven was at hand! Could I have been wrong? Will I die waiting to find out?

What would I do without Isaiah to comfort me? “The Lord is the everlasting God,” says the prophet, “the Creator of the ends of the earth.
 He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 
He gives power to the faint,
 and strengthens the powerless.” 
 Strengthen me, Lord, in my powerlessness… strengthen me, your servant John….

(Later…)

It’s been but three days since last I wrote, yet so transformed am I that I hardly recognize my own words. Josiah and Philip brought news from Jesus—a message of such good news that it cast out all darkness and warmed the coldest reaches of my heart. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he had instructed them, “tell him 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.”

I had to laugh that of all the prophets he could have chosen to quote back to me, Jesus chose Isaiah!  How did he know?  All this time I’ve been measuring him against my own expectations of the Messiah—expectations based so rigidly on Isaiah’s words of vengeance and recompense…of princes brought to naught and earthly rulers made as nothing… of nations chased like chaff and unfruitful trees hacked down with an axe… of the lofty brought low by his justice.  What selective memory I’ve had!   Did not Isaiah also say, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep”?  Did he not promise that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf shall be unplugged, the lame shall leap like like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”?  Oh Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!  Here is our God, indeed!  Here is our Messiah!

Follow him, brothers and sisters.  Follow this Prince of Peace.  Follow him, for he is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed about whom Isaiah spoke and for whom we have waited so very long.  I know this now.

I know, too, that I must decrease so that he may increase, for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.  You see, I am but grass that withers and will fade.  But the Word of our God will stand forever.

And so I will wait. I will wait for the Lord.  But brothers and sisters, I wait with such joy now, and without fear!  For “the ransomed of the LORD shall return…everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

The Kingdom of heaven is at hand, my friends.  Prepare ye the way! Amen.


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