It was December 1943 and another Advent season had come for the Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer loved Advent. “ The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross” he once wrote. “That is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there.” (1)
These words had new meaning for Bonhoeffer in 1943, as he sat as one of 800 prisoners in Germany’s Tegel military prison, imprisoned in April of that year for his bold resistance to the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer still hoped he might be released, not knowing as we do now he would ultimately be executed for his association with a plot to assassinate Hitler. But that Advent, he took joy in simple gifts that came his way. He corresponded with family. He acted as a pastor to fellow prisoners. He wrote. “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that…the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.” So in his cell was an Advent wreath. He lit two candles in honor of his parents and fiance. He read the Christmas story in the gospel of Luke.
From time to time he must have wondered what might have been different. He could have escaped it all. He could have stayed in America in 1939, safe and sound, as friends had urged him to do. He could have kept his mouth shut, layed low, stayed quiet. But that Advent he sat in jail, reminded anew that “God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. And for them, this is truly good news.”
I wonder if John was able to grasp any good news – anything hopeful – from behind his bars. When last we saw him in the gospel story, he was standing in the middle of the river, his voice booming with a message of “The kingdom of God is near” that echoed in that open space to masses gathered around.
And now, he sits. A small space to pace around in. Dark and dank. A voice that echoes back only to him against the stone. Words confined mostly to his own mind. Occasionally footsteps heard down the hall – someone arriving with a crust of bread, a bowl of water. Otherwise, he’s alone.
He can already sense how things will end for him. There is no real possibility of freedom again, not when you’ve offended a ruler. The kingdom of God is near? I wonder if he struggles to believe it behind Herod’s bars.
It’s a strange choice our lectionary makes for a gospel reading in the middle of Advent – a Sunday of love and joy, just two weeks before Christmastime. It’s a time when so much is full of the light of the season, the noise of anticipation, ringing bells and flashing balls of color and light. And now we have to imagine John behind bars. Is this what we can expect from Advent?
Then again, to recall words from another prison cell, Bonhoeffer wrote: “We simply have to wait and wait. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
John had spent his life looking forward. He had even leapt in his mother’s womb at the promise of it, growing to proclaim it and giving his all to the vision of the future as redeemed by God. He could have escaped. He could have kept quiet and laid low. He didn’t have to speak truth to the powerful Herod. And he must have been asking all those “what ifs” when we encounter him today.
We know this because given the chance, he asks a question that reveals his disillusionment – his questions about what his own life and witness have meant, his wondering whether he had staked his life on the wrong message, the wrong person. One day in the midst of his pacing in his 6ft by 8ft space – waiting, waiting – he hears steps down the hall. Only this time there’s no bread, no bowl. It’s one of his followers, finally, one of his followers allowed to get through to see him. The time is short, the words are chosen carefully, and John sends this follower out with a message – a single question.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This is the question at the heart of our Advent waiting. It might be the question at the heart of the gospel itself.
John asks it in chains. In crisis. I suspect, as far as John can tell, this Messiah he proclaimed and pledged his life to make a way for has changed very little. In the gospel of Matthew, especially, Jesus is a Messiah who is different from the one that had been expected in the political climate of the time. Most expected someone closer to Judas Maccabeas – the leader of the Maccabean revolt that sparked the celebration of Hanukkah among Jews to this day. He was a militaristic leader, and some at the time even called him “Messiah.”
Jesus is different from such populist expectation. But he’s also different from John’s expectation. John had staked his life on a prophecy like what we hear in our reading from Isaiah this morning:
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way… the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people… the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing… everlasting joy shall be on their heads… sorrow and sighing shall flee away…
But this joy is so far from where John finds himself. The Messiah was supposed to make the world new. He was supposed to bring justice to human institutions, so that a tyrant like Herod would not sit in power, and a righteous man like John would not pace in prison. Jesus was supposed to finish the work John started so boldly in the wilderness — to wield the axe, bring the fire, renew the world. But it seems he hasn’t taken an ax to any trees, and has not burned any “chaff” with “unquenchable fire.” He has not led a revolt. And he certainly, John knows, has not caused any prison walls to fall.
“Ask him,” John says to his follower through the bars. “Ask him, just like that, Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Here we sit, open and free with our voices booming out in this space. But don’t we ask the same question?
This week our country commemorated 75 years since the date that shall live in infamy – the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched our involvement in World War II, and shaped the lives of a generation. Three of my grandparents served in the military through the war, including my last surviving grandparent, who enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. I remember them telling me how the news bulletins from that day interrupted their lives, and in some ways set a trajectory for their futures. So in my own remembrance this week, I decided I’d listen to some of the original radio broadcasts as the news came known, when I learned something I had not known before. That Sunday was the start of a new tradition called “Bible Week” on NBC radio, with many tuning in as the Bible was read, so that the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor – the news that precipitated a war – came to many as an interruption to the reading of the Bible.
Which is always happening. We proclaim this message, we light these candles, we stake our lives on it, and then, another beeping news bulletin telling us that the world is not what we hope for it to be. Whether Bonhoeffer in his cell, or John behind his bars, or so many of us in our own Advent waiting, we ask “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for? Hoping for? Working for?”
Notice Jesus doesn’t give a simple yes or no. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells the disciples who bring him John’s question. Tell him that “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. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus says: go back to John and tell him your stories. Tell him what your eyes have seen and your ears have heard. Tell him I am not a pronouncement or a prophecy. I am living, moving. I am the incarnation of the presence of God with you in the midst of every prison cell and question. And the truth of who I am emerges in the lives of ordinary people all around you. But only if you’ll see and hear.
And then as the follower begins to walk away with this answer, he can hear Jesus continuing, turning to those around him and talking about John – how when John believed and proclaimed Messiah, the life and love and salvation born into this world through Christ Jesus was in John himself.”
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Offense runs away. Offense quits. Offense opts out. Offense slumps down in the cell and waits for the inevitable. Offense erects its own wall and hides behind it because reality is harsher than we expected it would be, even in a world to which God sent the Son. Hearts still break. People suffer unjustly. That’s part of a life of faith, too. But don’t take offense. Don’t hide. Don’t run away.
I wonder what I would hear and see if I took this call from Jesus seriously this Advent. What would I come to know of the Messiah that I have not seen or heard before?
This Advent and Christmas season we collect an Offering for Global Missions, which supports missionaries with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship seeking to live out the love of God among the most vulnerable people in the world, and to go and do the very things to which Jesus called the disciples.
Field Personnel like Tina and Jonathan Bailey, who have worked for the last two decades in Bali, where most recently Tina has heard the call to go and proclaim release to the captives, working within a prison in Bali teaching art to inmates, where she met Myoran Sukumaran a few years ago. “Myu,” as he was known, was one of the Bali 9 – a group of Australian men who had been arrested in a failed drug smuggling attempt and given a capital sentence in Indonesia. In the last years before the sentence was carried out, Tina was their art teacher and minister, worshipping with them, teaching them, and as a minister even serving communion to Myu and his family in some of their last moments together.
Tina says she never would have chosen that work, but that she knew she was right where she needed to be – that she was called to follow Jesus toward the places from which others turn away – and so her work in the prison continues to this day.
“The work is not always easy,” she says. “Sometimes it can break your heart. But it is the love that enables me to get through those hard times. And a lot of love is needed. So, I will continue to love when its hard. Because I know that Christ is known through love.”
As Tina shared her story recently at the annual meeting of CBF, she stood in front of a painting. It was a likeness of Jesus, painted by Myu. Tina described how on Myu’s last day, she was caring for his final paintings, which were still wet to the touch. As Myu died, the guards reported that he was singing. I expect it’s because he knew that through his very life, the Messiah would continue to be known.
And so John sits, 6ft by 8ft, wondering how it all might have been different if he’d just laid low, been quiet. There are many places in the Gospels where we want just a little more – just an extension of the plot to know what happened next. John’s prison is definitely one of those places. How did he respond to Jesus’s answer? Did it encourage him? Did it inspire hope? Did it foster love? We don’t know. But maybe our uncertainty is an invitation to us to finish the story in our lives.
So we imagine him, occasionally getting up to pace about, or etch something into the wall. Footsteps occasionally come – bread, water – and then one day, the footsteps are followed by the voice of his disciple. The one he had sent out has returned now with the answer to his question.
“John,” this disciple says, “Jesus told me to tell you that 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at him… Oh… and as I was leaving he said one more thing. He said to thank you for preparing the way.”
How did John respond? How will we?
(1) Bonhoeffer quotes and anecdotes drawn from Timothy George, “Bonhoeffer at Advent”