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Third Sunday in Advent: Matthew 11:2-10

John lay bound in prison, put there by Herod Antipas over the matter of Herodias (Luke 3:19-20; Mark 6:17-20; the same Herod who examined Jesus in Luke 23:6-12). Like Micaiah of old, his bold word against the king landed him there (2 Chronicles 18:23-27). But, much to his comfort and ours, the work of the kingdom did not falter or waver, even with the forerunner of God in prison. God uses us for a season to build His Church, but when our hour is past, He will raise up still more faithful workers.

Yet John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus an important question: “Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?” Whatever his motive for asking this question, whether for his own sake or for the sake of his disciples, it is good for a Christian to seek that assurance. Nor is it faithless to do so. Many of the Psalms cry out in the midst of distress, asking why God seems so far off in trouble (Psalm 22 is one such example). But these psalms also call out to God knowing that He will answer. It only becomes faithless when we think that God can no longer help. Christ gives that assurance to John or his disciples, because “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

Jesus directs them toward His own works as evidence of His identity. His miracles are proof that the promised deliverance of the Lord has come. Just as the return from exile surpassed the Exodus in glory (Jeremiah 23:7-8), so will the coming of the Lord in the flesh surpass the return. On the day when the eyes of the blind are opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35). Jesus is the Coming One, and His works prove it beyond all doubt (John 10:38).

Scandal arises, however, when God puts to shame the wisdom of the world. Christ crucified is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23), since it means boasting in the Lord rather than in the self. John’s question should not be understood as being scandalized, because scandal means rejection of the Lord’s message. The Jews were scandalized and therefore rejected the Lord (John 1:11). John’s question is not asked in jest.

As the disciples of John leave, Jesus points an important question to the crowd: who is John? The answer to that question is meant for their benefit, since John would not hear it, lest he might be puffed up with pride. The Lord knows His own and praises His own, but not in flattery (Job 1:8).

The crowd, however, has misunderstood the purpose of John’s ministry. Some simply wanted to spectate, to watch the show. In this mindset, they came up with wrong ideas about John. Jesus therefore gives two examples of this error and refutes them. John is not like a reed swaying in the wind. Reeds, like arundo domax which is common in that part of the world and grows up to 33 feet tall, seem firm but sway and shake in the wind. John never waffled in his confession of Christ (John 1). John is not a man dressed in soft clothing, used to luxury and hedonism. Rather, his very dress of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey show that he sought a heavenly homeland (Hebrews 11:13-16).

John is, on the other hand, a prophet, indeed more than a prophet. If the prophets pointed toward the coming of Christ while still far off, John prepares the way for the Lord coming suddenly. He is the one who walks right before Christ, not one who longed to see the day of Christ. Jesus quotes the words of Malachi 3:1 as proof of this, and in so doing reaffirms the whole purpose of John’s ministry: to point to Jesus. When the messenger prepares the way, the Lord suddenly comes to His temple and purifies the sons of Levi that they may bring offerings in righteousness as in former days. Yet His coming will also bring judgment against all law-breakers. John is Christ’s herald, and the messenger of the kingdom of God.

As a final note, I find it interesting that Jesus points to John as the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. Peter similarly points to Judas as the fulfillment of passages like Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8 in Acts 1:20. While it is all connected with Jesus and His passion, prophecy may in fact point to other people. Thus, while it is true to say that the Bible is all about Jesus, one must clarify what is meant by that statement. Even when a passage points to the apostles (Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18; Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47), to John, to Judas, or to anyone else, they still center on and point toward the long promised Christ, who is the living Word of God.

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Kings 17:17-24

While the promise of resurrection appears throughout the Bible, within the Old Testament there seem to be only three recorded resurrections:  the widow of Zarephath’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24), the Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37), and the man whose body touched the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21).  Old Testament resurrections are therefore confined to the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha.  Given that Jesus declares that John the Baptist is the promised Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:11-13), His own miracles of resurrection prove His indirect claim to be Elisha, the One greater than John and having a double portion of the Spirit.  Prophecy and resurrection are closely connected.

The first of these three readings is the selection for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.  It is the second half of the account which begins in 1 Kings 17:8 and an important part of the wider section of 1 Kings 17-18.  Elijah declares to the wicked king Ahab that there will be no rain “except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).  Through this miraculous drought, Elijah seeks to declare to Ahab that there is not God except the God of Israel.  This is why he will confront Ahab in 1 Kings 18 in a powerful demonstration of the burning altar against the prophets of Baal.  “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God” (1 Kings 18:39)!  Only after this confrontation will the drought come to an end at the word of Elijah in 1 Kings 18:41.

During the time of the drought, the Lord provides for Elijah, first in a miraculous way with the ravens (1 Kings 17:3-6), but then in a more ordinary way with the widow.  This passage is helpful for speaking about what might be called ordinary and extraordinary Providence.  The ravens are a prime example of God’s extraordinary Providence:  He is not bound to our means of providing the things we need in this life.  He may indeed choose to have birds carry bread to His prophet.  But even if we have to bake the bread we eat, it is no less the gift of God, for all things flow from His hand.  He simply chooses, in His ordinary Providence, to use men as the means for providing the things we need.

The Lord commands Elijah to go northward along the coast of the sea to the village called Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9).  Zarephath was deep within Canaanite territory (Obadiah 20).  While it is possible that this widow could be partly an Israelite (as Hiram was the son of an intermarriage in 1 Kings 7:13-14), it is more likely she is a Canaanite, which explains the offense of Jesus’ words to the Jews in Luke 4:25-26.  Being a Canaanite, she is part of the cursed race of Ham (Genesis 9:25) whose continued existence was a mark of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Judges 1:27-36).

Yet even with the ordinary means of Providence, God provides a multiplication miracle as well with the jar of flour and the jug of oil.  Through the Word which Elijah proclaims to her, which the miracle is meant to confirm, the widow and her household, though Canaanites, believe in the Lord.  She has ceased to be a part of the condemned body of Canaan and has now by faith been connected to the body which will be delivered in the day of judgment.  How ironic that Ahab, a son of Abraham, stands under judgment while this woman, a daughter of Canaan, stands before the Lord!

But the woman’s son dies.  She believes it to be a judgment upon her sins (1 Kings 17:18).  While the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), there is every reason to believe that her son dies so that God may show His power through him.  The man born blind (John 9:1-3) and Lazarus (John 11:14-15) serve God’s purposes in their affliction.  God declared to Moses:  “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord” (Exodus 4:11)?  Even in affliction and death, the Lord brings those who belong to Him closer to Himself.

Elijah’s method is somewhat unusual, since he stretches himself over the child three times (1 Kings 17:21-22).  One should perhaps not read too much into this, since the prophets frequently do unusual things.  What is interesting, however, is that Elijah calls upon the Lord in conjunction with this act.  Elisha, on the other hand, having a double portion of the Spirit, does not speak a word at all (2 Kings 4:34-35).  Christ Himself raises with His mere command, and He vindicates His claim as the Prophet through His own resurrection.  We have, therefore, an increasing proof of the truth of the Word of God:  Elijah called upon God who answered faithfully; Elisha proves his office of prophet by raising others even merely by the touch of his bones; and Christ through His own resurrection is “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16).  We do not believe the Scriptures because of Christ’s resurrection.  The resurrection itself is proof that God’s Word cannot be broken.  As the widow herself says:  “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24).