A friend of mine recently pointed out something fascinating about the time John the Baptist sends messengers to quiz Jesus, asking: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
(Don’t get distracted by the apparent scandal that John seems to be harbouring doubts. That’s not that fascination, or even scandalous — believers in both Testaments often harbour doubts. But instead of denying or obsessing over it, they take it to God.)
The truly fascinating thing here emerges once you realise that Jesus is in the middle of doing a bunch of things that evoke the stories of Elijah and Elisha — a healing connected with a Gentile soldier, a widow’s son restored to life, that sort of thing.
Now assuming that this isn’t about furnishing an all-purpose proof ‘that Jesus is God’ or something, John’s puzzling question begins to make sense: John is interested in what it means for Jesus to be acting like Elijah (or his historical successor, Elisha).
And within the framework of expectations John was probably working with — about Elijah’s true end-time successor, the herald who would pave the way for God’s own arrival — you can understand why he’d want to know what it means!
Everything else had seemed to point to John being the end-time herald, announcing the imminent arrival of God. And as the encounter unfolds that’s exactly how Jesus does identify John.
But only after he’s done a number on John’s expectations. Jesus doesn’t hand out an immediate reassurance along the lines of: ‘It’s OK. I am the one who is to come’. Rather, he says: ‘Look at what I’m doing. Like the Servant Isaiah spoke about (that perplexing figure who represents Israel), I’m restoring sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, humanity to lepers, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead; I’m bringing glad tidings to the poor’.
Ultimately, it is only as the Servant — not just as a human being, but as this human being, destined to suffer and by suffering redeem many — that Jesus answers to John’s expectations about the arrival of God.