John the Baptist Head

Advent 3 – December 11, 2022

What Are We Waiting For?


Olga Hartwell’s Sermon for Emmanuel Church, Newport, Rhode Island, on December 11, 2022

Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Canticle 15 (Magnificat, Luke 46-55), Matthew 11:2-11


Good morning. Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, Oh Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

John the Baptist is in prison. Not for baptizing people, or for riling up unruly crowds with his extraordinary news about the savior who is coming, the one who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. No, John is in prison for telling the king, Herod, that it isn’t lawful for him to have Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife.[1] You can imagine John’s frustration. This? Seriously? I’m going down for this? But there he is, in the dungeon, in chains, in the dark.

Apparently he’s still able to communicate with his disciples, though, because he sends a couple of them to Jesus with a question.

“‘Are you the one who is to come?'” John asks Jesus via his messengers. “‘Or are we to wait for another?'”[2]

Jesus doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he instructs John’s disciples to tell him what’s happening, so that John can draw his own conclusions.

“‘Go and tell John what you 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.'”[3] In other words, tell John that you’re hearing and seeing exactly the sorts of things Isaiah predicted would happen when God comes to save His people.

This is Matthew’s central claim: Jesus is the Messiah, the savior the people of Israel have been waiting for. Matthew doesn’t leave anything to chance on this point. The entire gospel is filled with parallels, references, and direct quotations that reinforce the key proposition that Jesus is the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah: God’s chosen, God’s beloved, sent to save the people from their sins.

How do you think John felt when his disciples returned with the good news?

Great, right?

Or … maybe a little more mixed. Here’s something I wonder. I wonder whether John noticed someone missing from the disciples’ list. They’re telling him everything they’ve seen and heard. The blind! the lame! they say excitedly, talking over each other. The lepers, the deaf, the poor, even the dead! Yes, really, it’s all happening, just like Isaiah said. They’re all getting good news. That’s great, John says. Really great. But I wonder whether John is still waiting. Surely they’ll get to it, he says to himself. It’s just an oversight. A funny kind of oversight, in the circumstances, but …

I wonder whether John is saying to himself, “What about the prisoners?” Because Isaiah was clear that prisoners would get good news, too. God’s servant would “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,” Isaiah said; he would bring “from the prison those who sit in darkness.”[4] I wonder whether John is thinking, “I’m glad for all those other people, really, I am. But … what about me? I’ve been waiting and waiting, stuck here in the dark. Isn’t it about time for me to get out of here so I can get back to work?”

John the Baptist HeadAnd well he might ask. John didn’t get released from prison, far from it. Instead, late one night, as part of a truly twisted party trick, his head was chopped off and delivered to Herodias on a silver platter.[5]

The good news his disciples brought wasn’t good news for John, at least not in any direct personal sense. But when you think about it, the same could be said of the good news Isaiah brought to the people of Israel. How do you think Isaiah’s listeners felt, after decades of exile, hearing how great things would be in the future, now that God had relented and heard the cries of his desperate people? What about the people who had already lost parents, siblings, children? What about the people who had been tortured, their bodies and spirits crushed? What about the people who had grown old in exile, and were too broken and weary to come back? I wonder whether, even as they’re applauding, nodding, exchanging happy glances with their friends, some part of them is saying, “I’m glad for all those other people, really, I am. But I’ve been waiting and waiting, stuck here in Babylon. What about me?”

And some of Isaiah’s listeners might have started to understand what the late rabbi, scholar, and civil rights activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, hears as the prophet’s message: That they themselves, the people of Israel, were God’s suffering servant, the beloved chosen to bring the light to the nations, to bring all the nations to God. The good news, Isaiah tells them, is that they’re right: what they suffered in exile was way more than they deserved. They’ve received “double for all their sins.” But this injustice they’ve endured, this sacrifice they’ve made, is going to be essential to the salvation of all nations. They themselves might not be healed or released from prison. But their deliverance, their redemption, lies in the part they play in a greater healing, a greater release, a greater setting free.[6]

Jews in ExileGood news? Clearly it’s good news for the future of Israel, and for the nations. But … what about Isaiah’s listeners, still enduring exile? How is this good news for them?

I suppose one way to experience these things as good news is to believe you’ll get rewarded for your suffering later. In heaven, in an afterlife; or maybe after Christ comes again, in the new heaven and the new earth. You can wait, patiently, for that.

But there is another way, a way that doesn’t involve waiting. This way was open to John the Baptist, in the dungeon; it’s how he could be grateful, praise the Lord with a full heart, even as he returned to the straw pallet in the darkest corner of his cell. This way was open to the people of Israel, hearing Isaiah speak; it’s how they could be comforted, knowing that they had played a part in the salvation of the world. And this way is open to each of us, right now. We don’t have to wait.

Here’s how, according to Jesus, in a formulation that’s characteristically crisp:

“‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”[7]

It’s what Jesus tells the rich young man who asks him what he must do to have eternal life. But it’s not just advice. It’s one of the two great commandments, Jesus tells the Pharisees when they test him, second only to loving the Lord with one’s whole heart, soul, and mind. And there’s nothing new about it. It’s right there, in Leviticus, part of God’s law given to Moses: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”[8]

Here’s a slightly more spelled out formulation from Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Moral training consists in deepening one’s passionate understanding for the rights and needs of others in a manner equal to the passionate understanding of one’s own rights and needs.”[9] We understand our own rights and needs; moral growth consists in bringing that same passionate understanding to the rights and needs of others.

In other words: Love your neighbor as yourself.

If you can manage this, you will delight in your neighbor’s happiness, you will rejoice in her joy, and you will thank God for allowing you to play a part, however small, in her experience of anything good and true.

I’m not suggesting this is easy, but our scriptures tell us it’s essential. I wish I could tell you I’ve mastered it. I haven’t. I’m thankful for our prayer of confession, which gives me a chance to repent of my shortcomings in this area at least once a week.

Also, there are costs to taking the rights and needs of others seriously. We sang with Mary this morning the glorious, joyful verses of the Magnificat, praising the Lord for remembering His promises to Israel. I wonder whether any of you found these words hard to hear, perhaps even harder to sing. I struggle to say that the Lord “fills the hungry with good things,” when I just read that a child dies every fourteen seconds, somewhere in the world, from not having enough to eat.[10] And as to the Lord scattering the proud in their conceit, or casting down the mighty from their thrones … well, I feel like there’s room for a little more of that to happen.

I’m not hungry, and the proud and mighty aren’t tormenting me in particular. But my neighbors, near and far, suffer from these things. So the Magnificat pains me. And that’s a good thing. It should pain me that God made promises, and we haven’t kept them. I don’t need a perfect love of neighbor to realize that’s unacceptable.

If we can nudge our care and attention in the direction of others, the rewards are great. “There is no joy for the self within the self,” Heschel says. But if we can “develop a persistent perception of the non-self, of the anxiety and dignity of fellow beings,” then, Heschel says, “The self may be turned into a friend of the spirit.”[11]

So what are we waiting for?

Be happy for someone else, and celebrate with them. Be sad for someone else, and do something to lighten their load. If you felt a pang on the reading of the Psalm, do something towards keeping God’s promises.

We can all do these things, right now, even as we watch and wait for the One who showed us the way.





The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Fourth Edition.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010 (Kindle edition).

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God In Search of Man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

—. The Prophets. New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2001 (original hardcover edition published by Harper & Row, 1962).

Kristoff, Nicholas. “Time for Gifts of Meaning.” The New York Times, November 26, 2022 (online edition).


[1] Mt. 14:3.

[2] Mt 11:3.

[3] Mt 11:4-5.

[4] Isaiah 42:7.

[5] Mt. 14:6-11.

[6] Heschel, The Prophets, 189-90.

[7] Mt 19:18, 22:39.

[8] Lev. 19:18.

[9] Heschel, God in Search of Man, 398-99.

[10] Kristoff, “Time for Gifts of Meaning.”

[11] Heschel, Search, 399.