Third Sunday in Advent
December 15, 2013
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman) sits before the parole board in Shawshank prison and they ask him, “Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you’ve served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you’ve been rehabilitated?”
Ten and twenty years prior to this interview, he was asked a similar question at parole hearings and he eagerly answers with “Yes sir, I am,” and his parole is denied. But now as an old man, an institutionalized criminal, he gives up all pretenses.
“Rehabilitated?” Red asks. “Well, now let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means.”
“Well, it means that you’re ready to rejoin society…” the interviewer responds.
“I know what you think it means, sonny. To me it’s just a made up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?”
“Well, are you?”
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret.” says Red. “Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It’s just a word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time.”
After a moment of silence, digesting Red’s remarks, the parole board stamps “Approved” on his form.
Now I’m far from an expert on modern criminology and penology, but it seems to me that the concept of rehabilitation rests on the belief that a criminal is not a criminal at heart, and that there is a spark of good that can be recovered. After 40 years in prison, Red understands that he can’t return to what he was, because what he was is what caused him to commit his crime in the first place.
Today’s Gospel also begins in a prison. John, the forerunner of Christ, is behind bars. But his imprisonment isn’t for his rehabilitation, to make him a contributing member of society once again. John is in prison to silence him from preaching the kingdom of heaven.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, he fleshes out the story of John’s imprisonment. King Herod, who was actually a tetrarch or a regional ruler, was the son of Herod the Great (the Herod referenced at Jesus’ birth). The son, Herod Antipas, followed in his father’s footsteps. Herod the great had taken multiple wives, and begotten many children by them, several of whom he executed for fear of treason. He was also the one who ordered the slaughter of the holy innocents when Jesus was born.
Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, fancied his brother’s wife Herodias (who also happened to be his half-niece), and arranged a divorce in order that he and Herodias could be married. Matthew reports that John preached to Herod that this was unlawful, and Herodias wanted him imprisoned.
John’s preaching of the kingdom of heaven had come into a violent clash with the kingdom of man. John’s imprisonment was not for his rehabilitation, but his fate was Master Hans the executioner. After one particular raucous party, Herod promised Herodias’ daughter Salome anything she wanted. She replied that she wanted the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
This is John’s context when he sends his disciples to Jesus. But after hearing in prison the works of Christ, John sent and said to Him through his disciples, “Are you the Coming One, or shall we wait for a different one?” (vv 2-3).
Are You the Coming One? This is a Messianic title that John gives to Jesus. Although there is not an explicit reference to this title in the Old Testament—like Immanuel—the Hebrew equivalent of this name is found in Isaiah’s and Zechariah’s prophecies, in two different Psalms, in the Song of Solomon, and in 1 Chronicles.
It is a strange question coming from John the Baptist. He is the one who stood at the banks of the Jordan and pointed to Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who witnessed Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven and the dove landing on Him. He was the one who was filled with the Spirit before birth, who leaped in his mother’s womb in the presence of Jesus in His mother’s womb.
After John’s disciples left Him, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the desert to watch? A reed that is shaken by the wind? So what did you go out to behold? A man who is clothed in soft clothes? Behold, those who dress in soft clothes are in the houses of kings. So what did you go out to behold? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and an extraordinary prophet. This is the one about whom it has been written, ‘Behold I am sending My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your path before You.’ Amen, I say to you, There has not been raised up among those born of women one who is greater than John the Baptist; but the least in the reign of the heavens is greater than he” (vv 7-11).
John was like the prophets of old in his ascetic life and his powerful preaching, but he was also an extraordinary prophet in that he beheld the promised Messiah face to face, flesh to flesh. The prophets of old were given brief visions of the Messianic age, but John saw it in real time. And he saw just how ordinary this Messiah was.
John was a preacher of the kingdom of heaven, but Jesus didn’t really seem to be bringing a kingdom with him. Where were the armies flocking to His banner? Jesus only had a rag-tag band of fishermen, a tax collector, a failed revolutionary, and some other pretty unremarkable disciples. Where were the liberators? Where was the glory? How long would John have to wait?
There are two competing schools of thought as to why John sent his disciples to Jesus. The first is that John experienced no doubts of his own, but rather, was sending his disciples to Jesus so that they would stop following John and start following Jesus. The second is that John was despairing in prison and doubted even his own previous preaching.
I tend to think that both of these things happened in John’s cell. John was a preacher of the kingdom of heaven, but even he was surprised to find out what it really looked like. John didn’t despair and lose faith, but what he saw was a sharp distinction from what he believed. Preachers also need the comfort of the Gospel. But to get that comfort, John did what he had been doing from the outset. He pointed to Christ. He prepared the way for his disciples to become disciples of Jesus. And John was comforted. Are You the Coming One, and if so, when will Your kingdom come?
The kingdom of God certainly comes without our prayers, when our heavenly Father gives us the Holy Spirit, so that we believe His Words—even when those words are contrary to our sight. And answering [John’s question], Jesus said to them, “When you have gone, report to John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind are looking up and the lame are walking, lepers are being cleansed and the deaf are hearing, and the dead are being raised and the poor are being evangelized, and blessed is whoever is not scandalized in Me” (vv 4-6).
The comfort for John in prison, and for you, is that the kingdom of heaven comes, even when it doesn’t appear so. In fact, the kingdom of heaven comes particularly hidden under weakness, under plainness, under trials and the cross. And what’s more, the kingdom of heaven is particularly for those who are suffering. It’s for the blind and lame, lepers and the deaf, the dead and the poor. Blessed are you, if you are not scandalized by this kingdom.
The coming of Jesus is the advent of a new creation, not a rehabilitation of the old. After 40 years in prison, Red understood that you can’t rehabilitate evil men. Jesus came, and indeed still comes, to raise up good out of evil, to bring sight to the blind, to set the lame on the path of righteousness, to cleanse evil men of all sin, to open ears to hear His Word. To raise the dead.
This is the Evangel that is preached to the poor. This is the Good News that is delivered to John. This is the Gospel that’s for you. Jesus is the Coming One, the One long promised by prophets, witnessed by John in the flesh. The One whose kingdom comes under His cross, in the forgiveness of sins. The One who rose from death to recapitulate all creation.
The Coming One Comes to Begin a New Creation
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard