The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”
Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) – Luke 7:18-30 (NRSV)
As he waited in prison, John the Baptist’s disciples have been bringing him the news of Jesus. As John listens to their stories, he begins to wonder if Jesus is the Messiah. Unable to go to Jesus himself, John sends his disciples to ask.
Jesus doesn’t give them a direct answer but having just healed many, he describes his ministry using the words of Isaiah 61. It is up to John and his disciples not just to watch but to perceive what they see.
As the disciples take their leave, Jesus continues by addressing our watching. Crowds of people went out to see John, just as crowds of people are coming to see Jesus. Jesus asks the crowds now, “What were you watching for when you went out to the wilderness to see John?”
Was he merely a spectacle? Were they hoping to catch a glimpse of someone rich and famous? Did hearing the confessions of others make them feel better about themselves? Were they simply watching an entertaining distraction from the struggles of daily life?
Or were they looking for something more? Hope? Acceptance? Something that would change the world?
Whatever it was, they all saw what they were looking for.
For some, their watching moved them to action. The ordinary, the overlooked, the despised — they saw something in John that changed them. They waded into the Jordan River to repent and be baptized into the promise of what was to come.
But others remained on the sidelines and merely watched. Surprisingly, it was those most similar to John who watched without seeing. They correctly determined that John was not the Messiah, but the religious leaders were unable to understand what he was saying and what was happening before their very eyes.
John was no passive watcher. He was not looking for the spectacle of Messiah but the very presence of God in the world. John’s waiting had been active and had prepared him to know the Messiah when he saw him. John had read the scriptures, and this is why he sent his disciples to Jesus in the first place.
Therefore, it wasn’t that Jesus didn’t answer when his disciples asked if he was the one they had been waiting for. Jesus knew that John saw what he had been looking for. By quoting the scriptures, Jesus’ response merely empowered John to believe it.
The religious leaders had also prepared for the coming of the Messiah. They, too, knew what to watch for — but they refused to see it.
Despite what the prophets had said, they were watching for the Messiah they expected. A Messiah that would overthrow the Romans and bring back the monarchy — but not a Messiah who healed on the Sabbath, let sinners touch him, and hung out with tax collectors. The religious leaders watched for a Messiah who was like them. Someone who would change things up, but not too much. They were unable and unwilling to change their perspective to watch in a new way so that they might understand what they were seeing.
And this makes me wonder what it is we are watching for? Will we know it when we see it? Or like the religious leaders, will we miss it because it’s not what we expected?
There are many reasons why, despite our hopeful watching, that we miss how God continues to break into the world. Often it’s our pride. Pride of being certain of what we think we know and the pride that keeps us from seeing our faults.
We can also get distracted. Even though we have been waiting to see 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.
Even as we have been waiting for justice [to] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream we can focus on the costs.
Will we see less when the blind receive their sight? What does it mean for us if the poor have the good news bought to them?
We become more concerned about what we might lose when the dead are raised. We’re not sure we want justice if we aren’t the ones receiving mercy. Or we focus on those burning cars rather than the truth that Black and Brown lives are being destroyed.
We become like the religious leaders who watch the unexpected wilderness baptisms and the illegal Sabbath miracles and judge that this is not the way of justice and righteousness. We become blind to what is unfolding around us and the truth that is being voiced. We fail to see Immanuel in our midst.
We forget that Jesus defied society’s norms.
Lepers weren’t to be touched. Tax collectors weren’t appropriate dinner guests. Dead people weren’t supposed to live again. The religious leaders weren’t to be held to a higher standard than the government. This was not the kingdom the Messiah was to usher in. Therefore, Jesus could not be the Messiah they were waiting for.
And so the religious leaders turned away.
But John saw in Jesus the truth of what the prophets had spoken. He watched not with the perspective of one simply looking to receive but as one expecting to see others receive liberation. He watched not as one expecting to see more of the same but to witness God breaking into the world in a new way.
John watched, understood, and believed. He believed even when that truth landed him in prison. Even when that truth cost him his life.
But we’re not John the Baptist. We’re just people who live in the suburbs. The point is not whether our story will be as dramatic as John’s. Rather, it’s that like John, we have read the scriptures and know who Jesus is.
We come to Advent filled with expectation. As we watch the world continue to reveal itself, Jesus still asks us what it we are waiting to see. A spectacle? A distraction from our daily lives? Confirmation that we’re better than others? Or something that will change the world?
Brian Bantum writes, “The Christian life is becoming undone by a new social arrangement, being confronted with a new realization of the world around us, and those beside us.”
During Advent, we remind ourselves once again what it is that we are watching for. We remind one another of our roles in fulfilling the Kingdom that Jesus ushered in — roles that are not passive, looking up to the sky until Jesus returns. No, we are to look at the world around us to see where we need to be Jesus to others.
It could be that we need a new perspective on our societal norms so that we become able to listen to those who do not experience those norms as we have. We may need to go through the wilderness baptism to see the spirit and fire of justice unleashed. And while it may be important to honor the Sabbath, we should not do so at the cost of another human remaining in bondage one day longer.
As we wait, we are also ones who watch. Let us watch with eyes that see and ears that hear so that we might also act, bringing the good news of great joy in the world.
Jesus, we love you as the quiet baby in the manger. There, we can wrap you in swaddling clothes and remain sequestered in the inn. But you did not come to maintain what already was. Instead, you went where good people did not go.
You loved those who society said were unlovable. You took on the humanity of all people — all colors, sizes, genders, and nationalities — that we might see their humanity as well. As we wait for the fullness of your Kingdom, let us not simply wait and see. Instead, as we watch you in the world, may we go and likewise. Amen.
 Brian Bantum. The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World, (152).