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Comfort in Prison (Third Sunday in Advent)

[Matthew 11:2-6] Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Comfort in Prison

John the Baptist proclaimed One greater than himself – One whose sandals John was not worthy to untie – the coming Christ - the One coming whose winnowing fork was in His hand – who was ready to gather the wheat and burn the chaff – the One whose axe was ready at the root of the trees to cast them into the fire. John proclaimed this one to be Jesus of Nazareth.

But now John the Baptist is in prison. Jailed for his preaching. In prison, John has four empty walls to keep him company day and night. In prison, John has time to think and to think and to think – to stay stuck in his own head.

And in prison, John begins to doubt. The one who proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ now begins to doubt the One he proclaimed – “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John the Baptist is on the brink of a tragic fall, the loss of his faith in Jesus. A fall which is only avoided by reaching out through others. More time in his own head sorting things out would not have helped. He seeks help through real flesh and blood people. In his case, through his own disciples whom he sends to ask Jesus.

You are not in jail, but you might be in a prison. You all at times will get stuck in many prisons – and I do too. You get stuck in the prison of your own head – rolling a problem or a doubt around in your head without end.

Doing it yourself makes the prison. Isolation. Illness in body or a troubled mind that you suffer silently. Doing it on your own makes a prison out of it. An unanswered question that you keep trying to answer yourself, instead of asking. A sin of body or thought that has you in a snare, and you don’t seek help. Something big - or something small, but you’ve allowed it to consume you.

When you let yourself become the sole bearer of your trouble – when you isolate yourself in your problem – or when one problem is allowed to consume your whole field of vision – a prison is formed. Unchecked, doubts form and grow. A man who once believed the faith firmly can become one who doesn’t know for sure anymore.

John the Baptist heard in prison about the deeds of Jesus, but these deeds were perhaps not what John had expected from the Christ. The images of burning chaff and chopping down trees didn’t seem to be coming to fruition. Perhaps in hoping for a more visibly triumphant Christ – maybe even the kind of Christ who could free him from prison – John forgot about the many other things he had once proclaimed about Christ.

John had also once proclaimed Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” – the One slain to forgive sins. Certainly, John had preached “comfort, comfort” to the people of Israel, “that their warfare was ended; that their iniquity was pardoned”, as Isaiah prophesied he would [Isaiah 40:1-2].

Brothers and sisters, when you become consumed by that problem that consumes you, whatever it may be, you begin to look only for a Christ who has come to solve that problem. If your problem is cancer or a sore back, you want only a Christ who cures cancer or sore backs. You lose sight of the broadness of your faith. You lose sight of the many deeds that the Christ has come to do for you.

When John the Baptist asked through his messengers, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”, Jesus answered, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Tell John that “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news – the Gospel - preached to them.”

These deeds fulfill the many promises made about the Christ, as promised especially in Isaiah (Isaiah 26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1-2). The one promised deed of the Christ that Jesus does not mention is the one for which John is waiting most – “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” [Isaiah 61:1]

What are the many deeds of the Christ that He has come to do for you? By His death on the cross He has atoned for all sin – He has forgiven, pardoned all sin. By His shed blood, He has washed away guilt and uncleanness before God to make the sinner clean in God’s eyes. By suffering God’s wrath in the place of the guilty, Jesus has delivered the guilty from it. Forgiveness of sins. Freedom from guilt. Peace with God for the sinner. Do we sometimes lose sight of all this that Jesus has come for?

By rising bodily from death on Easter morning, Jesus has freed you from the prison of death and the grave – and has secured an eternal health of both body and mind to come - a coming freedom for which we wait in faith.

In the life to come, we will see God face to face and know many things that for now will remain questions. Jesus has not promised a resolution to each problem now, but has given us the Holy Spirit for us to wait in faith and trust for what is to come. To endure in the faith, you must not remain in your own head, but at times must reach out to others – to your fellow Christians and to your pastor, and to others.

Jesus has come for many things. The problem which consumes me today is not necessarily the one He plans to heal today. Nevertheless, John the Baptist was eventually freed from his prison, and you will be from yours. A deed of the Christ is that He sets the prisoners free.

Freedom for John, however, didn’t happen through an unlocked door but through his martyrdom and beheading, unto his great glory and eternal life. In the same way, much of our freedom will wait for the life to come.

Whatever the prison, you have the comfort now of future freedom. As we wait, we lift our eyes and expand our view to the whole of the deeds of Christ – to all that He does and promises. His deeds – His death and resurrection – do prevail for the prisoners, for those who continue to hope and trust in Him through the mutual support of fellow Christians. No one who continues to hope in the Lord in this way will be disappointed. Amen.

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