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DECEMBER 16, 2007: Third Sunday of Advent


Isaiah 35:1-6, 10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Years ago some of my high school students presented me with a banner sporting a large image of Santa Claus against a green background and John's question from today's gospel printed in red letters under the picture. "Are you 'the one who is to come' or should we look for another?"

In his Jerome Biblical Commentary article on this Matthean passage, Benedict Viviano mentions something with which all scholars of the Christian Scriptures agree. "These verses contain a school debate, probably of post-resurrection origin, over the nature of Jesus' mission, held between disciples of John the Baptist and Christians.

Many naively believe all John's disciples instantly switched their allegiance to Jesus after the Baptizer's martyrdom. Such a general shift never happened. Some of John's followers eventually became Jesus' followers, believing him to be the Messiah they were anticipating. But most who thought John was the Messiah continued to do so even after his death. Historians tell us there were still followers of John active in their beliefs centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection. This provides the basis for Viviano's observation. John's disciples and Jesus' disciples debated their mentors' merits long after each had completed his earthly ministry.

Part of the argument John's followers employed revolved around a definition of terms. If Jesus were the Messiah, he certainly wasn't the Messiah the Israelites were anticipating. To call the Galilean carpenter Messiah was tantamount to creating a new definition for the title.

The fact that this pericope containing John's question is included both in Matthew and Luke, but is not found in Mark, tells us that Matthew and Luke copied it from the "Q:" a hypothetical very early Christian document containing sayings of Jesus which circulated among the churches before any of our four gospels were written. Its inclusion in the "Q" demonstrates its importance for even pre-gospel Christians. It also raises an interesting question. Just what Messiah are we "Messians" supposed to imitate? Matthew and Luke agree with the Q author that it's one who makes certain "the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them." No wonder both evangelists add Jesus' comment, "And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."

Jesus conceives his ministry to be a total giving of himself to others. That's why we keep looking for "someone else," someone not as demanding, someone who gives to us instead of insisting we give to others.

Seven hundred years before Jesus' birth, Isaiah believed Yahweh called him to a parallel ministry. "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: 'Be strong, fear not! Here is your God . . . .' The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing."

Throughout the history of faith, God's followers have always been tempted to expect a Santa Claus figure to suddenly step into their lives and give them the "goodies"' which will make their lives a happy, bearable experience.

James doesn't let us forget what both Isaiah and Jesus discovered: we're only truly fulfilled and happy when we're concerned with others' needs and not our own. "You too must be patient," he writes. "Steady your hearts . . . . Do not grumble against one another, my brothers and sisters." Faith-filled fulfillment is a life-time process. What Jesus achieved, we can achieve. If we're convinced of his unique messiaship we can pull it off.

Wish I still had that banner. A few days after I hung it in the high school chapel, someone stole it. Can't figure out why he or she took offense at it.