A God Who Surprises

At that time,
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 
When the men came to the Lord, they said,
“John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”
At that time Jesus cured many of their diseases, sufferings, and evil spirits;
he also granted sight to many who were blind. 
And Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. 
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

—Luke 7:18B–23

Amongst the Jewish people during the time of Jesus, there was much confusion about the identity of John the Baptist and the identity of the Messiah. Even after witnessing Jesus’s miracles, many still doubted Him. But John the Baptist, who was fully rooted in the Scriptural context of the Messiah, would have been highly attuned to all the signs of the Messiah’s arrival. When Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized, John recognized Him immediately as the One whom the Scriptures foretold, the One who anointed him in his mother’s womb, the One whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see John the Baptist send messengers to ask Jesus if He is the Messiah they have been awaiting. At this point in the Gospel, John had already met and baptized Jesus. Why, then, is John questioning Jesus’s identity?

We don’t know fully what was going on in John’s heart and mind when he sent those messengers, but we do know that by that point he was in prison. Alone, facing the end of his public ministry, he heard news of the miracles Jesus had been performing. Perhaps he found himself wondering if he had correctly understood God’s call, since languishing in prison was not how he had expected things to go. Maybe there was more that God needed him to do. Or perhaps these reports of Jesus were surprising even to him, and he wondered if there was something he was missing, something he didn’t quite understand. He desired to be faithful until the end to the mission God had given him, and so he sought confirmation that he was following the right path.

John knew that God had called him to be a herald of the Messiah and to prepare the way of the Lord, but today’s Gospel reading reveals that while he knew his purpose within God’s plan, he didn’t know the details of how God would unveil that plan in its entirety. This underscores for us what complete trust John had in God. He couldn’t see the big picture, but he remained ever faithful to his own role, trusting that God would handle the rest. Today’s reading gives us a perfect example of faith seeking understanding. When John struggled to fully understand what he had heard, when he found himself wrestling with questions, he went straight to the Source, to Jesus Himself.

As modern Christians, we profess a much greater understanding of who Christ is. But to those who awaited the Messiah, Jesus was surprising. He fulfilled the messianic prophecies, but He did not fit all the people’s expectations. The prophecies of Isaiah foretell a Savior who would bring liberation, healing, and joy, but Isaiah never quite understood that this Messiah would be God Himself, the Word become Flesh, humbled to become for us a little child, sharing in our humanity.

God comes to us in a quiet moment, when we least expect it. He defies all our expectations and surprises us with joy. During this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, let us also prepare for Christ’s coming in our own lives by looking to the example of John the Baptist. If we stay in relationship with Jesus, bringing to Him all that is in our hearts, then we will recognize Him when He comes. And if we are rooted in faith and trust in God, then we just might be able to let God surprise us with something far beyond our expectations.


Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples / PD-US