You have to feel for John the Baptist. He burst upon the scene with such promise and excitement.

The crowds loved John’s message and flocked to hear his words. Matthew says at the beginning of his Gospel that, when John the Baptist began preaching out in the wilderness,

the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5,6)

John had a powerful and compelling message. He proclaimed that God’s anointed Judge was coming:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:11,12)

John’s promise has great appeal. We would all love a God who comes to clean up the mess of this world. Everyone wants a Hollywood ending; the bad guys get thrown in jail; the good guys ride off triumphant into the sunset.

But, by the time we get to Matthew 11, the good guys are not winning at all. It seems that the godless forces of corruption and oppression hold all the power. John the Baptist is in prison. The one who John thought was going to bring God’s judgment is wandering the countryside teaching about love and performing an occasional miracle. Nothing has improved. The oppressive powers have not been overthrown; the poor remain poor; most of the sick and suffering are still sick and suffering. It certainly does not seem that righteousness, justice and peace have been restored.

Confused and filled with doubt, John sends his anguished question to Jesus:

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Jesus replies,

Go and tell John what you hear and see.

John’s problem is a problem of perception. He is unable to see accurately; he is trapped in the prison of his expectations. The Messiah was supposed to look a certain way. He was supposed to follow a prescribed agenda. Jesus has not lived up to John’s vision of what the Messiah should be.

When we are in prison, it is difficult to see accurately; it is hard to perceive what God is doing. In prison, we lose touch with ourselves. We become disconnected from an awareness of the Divine Presence at the heart of all life.

The prophet Isaiah said,

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. (Is. 61:1)

Or, in the words which Jesus uses in the message he sent to John the Baptist,

the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

That which has bound you, will be released. You will be set free:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35:1)

The Good News is that this has happened. Paul said, it is

For freedom Christ has set us free. (Gals. 5:1)

This is why Jesus made the strange statement,

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)

John the Baptist was the greatest prophet because he pointed directly to the presence of God in Jesus. But John was still bound in the prison of law-keeping and behaviour-focused morality. He did not have time to absorb the radical claim of the Gospel that in Christ we are no longer “under the law.” (Galatians 5:19)

What prison am I in? What prison keeps me from seeing this glorious vision of liberty in Christ? Is it the prison of dogma, rigid morality, or ritual traditions? Am I locked in the prison of my expectations? Am I bound by past pain that I have not been able to lay down? Am I trapped in resentment, bitterness, or just dissatisfaction with the circumstances of my life?

All the prisons that make us insensitive to the glory of God’s presence, are prisons of false identity. Without our pain, our unforgiveness and our resentment, we won’t know who we are. We worry that if we sit more lightly to our traditions and ritual practices, we may lose touch with our sense of ourselves.

The sad truth is, most of us do not really want to be free. We do not really want to go out and “leap like a deer.” Freedom is frightening. Freedom brings responsibility, risk, even a little uncertainty. Sometimes we prefer the comforting familiarity of our accustomed pain to the breath of God’s Spirit setting us free from the prisons of our own making.

We need to hear God’s instruction to the prophet:

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. (Isaiah 35:4)

Beneath the sadness, beneath the turmoil and confusion, “Here is your God.” You are not the pain and suffering that you bear. You are not the failures, betrayals and regrets of your life. You are the one in whom God speaks an eternal word of hope. That word says, “Here is your God.” Here at the centre of your being is the God who created you. Here at the still point of the turning universe is the unchanging, unchangeable, and permanent reality of love. This cannot be shaken. This will not change. It is possible to surrender all the surface details and circumstances of life, because at the heart there is faithfulness, truth and beauty.

There is no prison that can defeat the reality of the God who is Emmanuel, “God with us”. There is no failure that can overcome the truth of “Here is your God.” We need only to “hear and 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.” This is the reality of Christ in our lives. This is the hope that has been born in our hearts by his coming.

Long before John the Baptist, the angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem and declared, “Do not be afraid; for see…” That’s all we have to do, it’s all we can do, just “see”. See that “Here is your God.” See that there are no prisons from which the presence of God will not set us free. See that we are not bound by the past. See that all the brokenness and the fallenness of life are merely paths to deeper wisdom, peace and strength.

Advent invites us to open our eyes and see reality. It is “for freedom Christ has set us free.” And that is the truth of who we are.

(orig: Dec 2001 Rev: Dec 2019)