Demons have suitcases too. - Peter Kreeft (?)
Two questions are raised and not answered in our text today. John seems to be asking “Who are you,” Jesus seems to ask the crowd: “Who is John?”
Actually, both questions are a little more subtle. “Are you the one to come or shall we wait for another,” is John’s question. “What where you hoping to find in the wilderness,” was Jesus’ question.
Let us ask Jesus’ question first: “What were you looking for in the wilderness?” John Pilch writes: “ . . . travel in antiquity was considered deviant behavior unless one had a specific reason like pilgrimage or coming out to hear a prophet.” (The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A, John J. Pilch, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press. 1995. pp. 4-6.) They had done something extraordinary, these listeners of Jesus. They had, against common convention, gone on a journey into the nowheres at the edge of Israel, the Jordan River, the very boundary between wandering in the wilderness for generations and the “home” that is the promised land. They had, in spiritual terms, gone to the edge of the world and bathed in the boundary waters that mark that edge. That is quite a journey.
Yet, John’s baptism at those very boundary waters, in a way, recommitted them to what was already in place. Israel entered through the Jordan waters into the land of promise. Were those who returned from the Jordan returning into new promises or old ones? He had not been a new Joshua, this John, if that is what they had hoped for, for now he was imprisoned. Jesus compares him to the return of Elijah from Malachi 4:4-6. (Matt 11:14) If so, then what would be the result?
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.”
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
If John was Elijah, then John was the return to the law of Moses and its faithful transmission from one generation to the next. Would a journey of many miles that ends in the same place satisfy the longing of the restless traveler? Would they really be satisfied with Elijah or were they secretly longing for Joshua? That which we are most afraid might be the right answer to our spiritual yearnings often is what greets us at the end of our journey of running away from that answer.
But those who go seeking tend to run after that which might give them relief from the yearning in their spirit. In the process they will happily go after one thing after another. Play them a happy song they will not dance because it does not seem right, play them a dirge they will question where this is a time to mourn. (Matt 11:17) Give them a holy man in the dessert and they will run to the ends of the earth to find him but come home thinking he might just be mad.(Matt 11:18) Let the Messiah come to them unexpected and unbidden and let him draw near to them in spite of their being tax collectors and sinners and they will wonder about his sense of propriety. (Matt 11:19)
This kind of running about is the Dark Night of the Senses. It is the demand that the world of the spirit somehow “pay off” for the seeker. These type of journeys are really about the seeker. They are about the rest or fulfillment they think they are seeking and not about the Lord who holds this rest. These type of journeys end in endless restlessness or demoralized giving-up. It is the act of spiritually crossing Jordan in the wrong direction, out of the Holy Land and into the land of wandering.
Hearts are not at rest until they rest in God. (Augustine) Jesus invites the crowd to enter that rest. (Matt 11:28) How does one do this? The Apology uses this verse to say this:
For Christ says, Matt. 11:28: Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Here there are two members. The labor and the burden signify the contrition, anxiety, and terrors of sin and of death. To come to Christ is to believe that sins are remitted for Christ's sake; when we believe, our hearts are quickened by the Holy Ghost 45] through the Word of Christ. Here, therefore, there are these two chief parts, contrition and faith. (Ap. VIIA)
There is no rest until one finds remission of sin for the yearning and longing that are themselves a sign of being conscious of one’s sin. That forgiveness ends the frantic search.
John is the greatest of those seeking the new and finding the old. (Matt 11:11) He has caught on to the matter of needing to repent. Yet, in the Gospel of Matthew we must note that the forgiveness of sin is tied to the cup. (Matt 26:28) John’s baptism is only for repentance.
Is John satisfied with his journey? His question: “Are you the one who is to come,” suggests that, maybe, he is not. Will Jesus’s answer, cobbled together out of Isaiah passages (26:19; 29:18; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1-2) be enough for him? (Matt 11:5-6) It is a somewhat unsatisfying answer. Is Jesus the messiah that the Psalms of Solomon (1st cent BC) talked about? The military mighty one? John will certainly not by his own reason or strength come to believe in his lord or come to him just from the words of Isaiah. (SC) But, the Small Catechism continues, the Holy Spirit calls through the Gospel and that Gospel is about the forgiveness of sin. (Ap II.5)
The pilgrimages of the disciples of John where blessed but merely part of the old. The real pilgrimage needs to be a journey in place, a journey of readiness. Emmanuel comes unbidden and unannounced to the home and heart of every believer in the Holy Spirit who goes where it will when time is propitious to do so. If anything, the words of Jesus in the context of today’s reading, are a call to not be drawn off by the tunes played by the children in marketplaces in the hope of easier answers than the one before us: Repent, the kingdom is near; believe the good News.