Immanuel, Not Emperor
This advent story of John the Baptist encourages the church to make space for the tension of reality – that in the midst of very real pain, isolation and injustice, Jesus is Lord; however, the Lordship of Jesus defies one’s expectations, whether they are placed in the first-century or today. The status quo has identified empire as a distant, powerful, and systemic domination of the vulnerable but Jesus opts for Lordship, which is characterized by His incarnation and His self-sacrificial presence with humanity in our vulnerability. In the face of the emperor, the Lordship of Jesus is captured by Immanuel, God with us, working toward the transformation of the empire.
The story begins with John in prison. During his prolonged incarceration, it is easy to imagine John wondering, in despair, if the status quo of the empire, systemic injustices constantly victimizing the vulnerable, would ever be over-turned. Since early on, John’s vocation had been clear, to prepare the way of the Lord (Matthew 3:3), but with his ongoing imprisonment, perhaps he began to expect the oppressive status quo to once again reign supreme. After all, where was the Lord to set things right with a winnowing fork and fire (Matthew 3:11-12) and why hadn’t this reality come to fruition in the midst of his imprisonment? Would all John’s work be forgotten or meaningless? Would Jesus ever be the Messiah John thought he was when he baptized him?
John’s questions and doubt give Jesus the opportunity to clarify the true character of the Messiah as Immanuel, not emperor. The writer of Matthew clearly identifies Jesus as the coming presence of God amongst his people using the prophetic texts of Isaiah and Malachi. First, Jesus is redefined using the memory of the people of God. Matthew uses Isaiah’s description of returning from exile to the presence of God in order to point them to the future hope of the new kingdom:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Is. 35:5-6)
The advent newness depicted here by the prophet Isaiah is not disjointed hope; rather, it is a hope grounded in the physical reality and embodiment of the person of Jesus. It is not the hope of the status quo or the emperor, it is the hope of Immanuel. John, like most today, expected Jesus to be a conquering ruler who would take over the system, destroy it, and finally make things right; instead, Matthew is careful to identify Jesus as the true Messiah, sacrificially incarnated as a refugee baby, born within the system, vulnerable, broken and present in order to bring about its redemption. This is the tension of transformative solidarity: pain and suffering had not gone away but the kingdom of God was and is found in Immanuel, God with us.
Carrying on in the same thematic tension, the story shifts from Jesus graciously addressing John’s doubts to Jesus’ perspective of John. Jesus compares the life of John the Baptist to the life of Herod Antipas, the representative of the emperor in our story. Because the symbol for Antipas was a specific reed that grew along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus asks the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?” (v.7). Here, Jesus clearly distinguishes the Kingdom of God from the present status quo and its emperor.
Next, the writer records Jesus identifying John as the inaugurator of this Kingdom using the prophet Malachi. During the time of Malachi, the people of God returned to their land after a period of exile but were left waiting for the return of God’s presence among them. Matthew is clearly making the connection between Malachi (Hebrew for “My Messenger”) and what was happening in their midst. Here, even amongst the pain of the world, Jesus defines John as his inaugurating messenger, thus identifying himself as the return of presence of God, Immanuel.
This is the tension of transformative solidarity: pain and suffering remained but the kingdom of God is found in Immanuel, God with us.
Advent encourages the church to create space for the tension of transformative solidarity: systems of violence, death and suffering still occur even while Jesus is Lord. Somehow both are true. Jean Vanier says, “Weakness recognized, accepted and offered is at the heart of belonging, so it is at the heart of communion with another.” Choosing to live with both feet planted in the reality of that tension, not trying to resolve it with clichés or excuses but being present with the vulnerable in it, is the presence of God ushered in by John and embodied by Jesus, Immanuel, not emperor.