The disciples of John the Baptist: sermon on the second Sunday of Advent

“Blessed is he that shall not be scandalised in me.”

Did St John the Baptist’s faith in Christ grow uncertain as he languished in the prison of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee? No. St John the Baptist had been sanctified in his mother’s womb. While still an unborn child, he had “leapt for joy” when Jesus drew near. When, as a man, he finally looked upon Him, the Holy Spirit inspired the Baptist to speak those words which the Church repeats daily: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” When he baptised Christ, it was granted to St John to see the heavens opened and the Spirit descend upon our Lord in the form of a dove. Until the very end of his life, he remained “a burning and shining lamp”.

Why then does St John, from his prison cell, send two of his disciples to ask the Lord, “Art thou he that is to come, or look we for another?” It is surely not for his benefit, but for theirs. From chapter three of St John’s gospel, we seem to learn that there was some tension between the disciples of the Baptist and the disciples of our Lord; or at least, that John’s disciples were not sure what to think of this Rabbi who had just come from Nazareth and who was already proving more popular than their own teacher (Jn 3:26). The Baptist, in the presence of his own disciples, had borne explicit witness to Christ; but now, knowing perhaps that he would soon die, he wanted the faith of his disciples to be strengthened by spending time in the presence of the Lord Himself. 

Christ, therefore, understanding His cousin’s intention, allows the two messengers to perceive what in theology we call the “signs of credibility” — outward events which people can recognise by their natural powers and which bear witness to some supernatural truth. The two such signs which are the most striking are miracles and the fulfilment of prophecies. Only God can work a miracle, and only God can announce future events with certitude, and so when people see miracles and see that prophecies have been fulfilled, they have all the signs they need in order to know that God is authenticating a message. 

Christ therefore works miracles for the two disciples, and mentions two prophecies from Isaiah. Isaiah had prophesied that when God came to save His people, the lame would walk, the blind would see and the deaf would hear (Is 35:5–6). Our Lord works these miracles, and even adds others which the prophet had not mentioned, perhaps to show that God always does more for us than we had hoped. He mentions Isaiah’s prophecy that the humble would be evangelised (Is 61:1); something which John’s disciples also see happening as they watch. Thus, both of the “signs of credibility” — miracles and prophecies — are set before them. They have all they need to recognise Jesus of Nazareth as their long-awaited Messiah.

St John the Baptist himself had not needed signs in order to believe. To him we may apply the words of the Introit: “The Lord will make the glory of his voice to be heard in the gladness of your heart”. That is, John heard the voice of God bearing witness in his heart, without needing to see external miracles, and he was glad; he even leapt for joy”, as his mother St Elizabeth declares. By God’s grace, human beings can accept the preaching of the gospel, even without miracles or prophecies, and that is the most perfect way to accept it: but in His mercy, God makes it easier for them to accept the gospel by surrounding it with external signs of credibility.

Then, as the two disciples return to their master, our Lord begins to speak to the crowd about His cousin, John the Baptist. He does two things. First of all, He praises him. He does not praise him while the two disciples are still present, so as to avoid even the appearance of flattery. But once they have gone, in case anyone in the crowd supposes that it is John himself who needed to be reassured about the identity of the Messiah, our Lord lets them see the firmness of John’s faith, using what we might call a “contrary similitude”. Of all men in the world, and though he was often to be seen on the side of a river, John was least like a reed, bending in the wind this way and that; that is, John did not change his beliefs in accordance with public opinion. And lest anyone should imagine that the Baptist’s imprisonment might have worn away his constancy, Christ draws their attention to his cousin’s wonderful detachment from the pleasures of the senses. The crowd must have smiled, or laughed, when He asked them whether they had gone out into the desert to see a man dressed in soft robes, given that John wore a rough garment of camel’s hair — “Behold,” He says, “they that are in soft garments are in the houses of kings” — not, by implication, in prison.

Secondly, and as a result, our Lord seems to continue the theme of the “signs of credibility”. Elsewhere, in a conversation with some of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, He mentioned the testimony which He had received from St John when the Baptist was still at liberty. “You sent to John,” Christ told the Jews on that occasion, “and he gave testimony to the truth. Not that I receive testimony from man: but I say these things, that you may be saved” (Jn 5:33–34). It is therefore important for the preaching of the gospel and the salvation of souls that the honour of John the Baptist be vindicated. If John appeared to be uncertain about the identity of the Messiah, that would cause others also to hesitate. This is another reason why our Lord, without humiliating the two messengers by making it obvious that they are the ones who needed their faith to be strengthened, nevertheless allows the crowd to see that John is not the man to waver in his confession of faith under the stress of persecution.

On all sides, then, our Lord’s preaching appears to be surrounded by signs that will make faith easy. He works miracles; He fulfils prophecies; He is attested to be the Messiah by a man of renowned and heroic virtue, John the Baptist. Why then does He say to the two messengers, in His final words to them, “Blessed is he that shall not be scandalised in me”? Why would anyone be scandalised by a Messiah who works miracles, or preaches to the lowly? It is not the miracles that will be an occasion of scandal, except for those people who are worst disposed, and who will accuse Him of doing them by an evil spirit. Rather, our Lord is surely looking ahead to the time when, by His Father’s will, He will cease to perform miracles, and enter into His Passion. For although Isaiah had also prophesied that the Saviour would come as a suffering Servant who would offer His life for the sins of the people, this part of his prophecy, alien as it is to the aspirations of human nature, appears to have been neglected or misunderstood by our Lord’s contemporaries. When therefore they saw Him crucified before their eyes, apparently unable to respond to the taunt of the chief priests, “He saved others; himself he cannot save”, then their faith would be tested. Where now were the signs of credibility? They were still there, since the prophecies of the Passion in the Old Testament were being fulfilled, and yet even if His disciples had remembered these prophecies, they would have found it hard to attend to them, when the distressing events which they foretold happened in reality.

For although God gives to the human race sufficient signs to believe, He does not overwhelm men’s minds with proofs of revelation. And this too is for our good: if He made revelation too obvious, there would be too little place for love. But since God, in His courtesy to the human race, does not overwhelm us with signs, we must exercise our love towards Him in order to persevere in faith, somewhat as St Joseph, out of love for his spouse, preserved his faith in her purity, even though he did not understand the mystery by which she was with child, until the angel had spoken to him. May this Advent then be a time of waiting for the Lord in faith and love, for He is indeed “the one that is to come”.