Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Not What You Expected” Matthew 11:2-12
On a high bluff rising 3,500 feet above the surrounding desert, sixteen miles southeast of where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, stood the hilltop fortress of Machaerus. In the year 40BC, Herod the Great saw the strategic importance of the site. From Machaerus, eastern invaders from Arabia could be easily spotted and signal fires ignited to warn fortifications to the west at Masada, Herodion, and Jerusalem. Herod built a lavish palace and fortified compound atop the bluff. A walled garden, elaborate Roman baths, ornate living quarters, two dining rooms, and carefully tiled mosaic floors were surrounded by massive stone walls with watch towers that soared ninety feet above the ramparts. Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder described the stronghold as the most strongly fortified place in all of Judea, a statement supported by its name. Machaerus means “the sword” or “the edge of the knife.”
John the Baptist came to Machaerus as a prisoner. His prophecy of the coming Messiah and his criticism of the bigamy of the king’s wife had made him powerful enemies. At Machaerus, John was likely held captive in an empty cistern, an enormous underground vault cut from the bedrock and lined with plaster. Dark and windowless, the cistern would have been a miserable place to live in isolation. There John brooded on his thoughts and prophesied to the echoing walls. We know from scripture that the king feared John and the queen hated him. When Oscar Wilde wrote the libretto for the Opera Salome, he imagined the king peering into the dungeon, both fascinated and horrified by the prophet imprisoned within.
By the time John sent word to Jesus in our reading from Matthew’s gospel, the prophet had been imprisoned for two years. It was clear to John that, unless the king were overthrown, he would never walk out of Machaerus alive. Back when Jesus had come to him at the River Jordan, John was convicted that the Messiah had finally come. So certain was he that he refused at first to baptize Jesus, declining the honor on the basis that he was unworthy of the task (Matt. 3). But two years in Machaerus can change a man, begin to break him, and rattle his faith. Where was the fire and brimstone that John had imagined the Messiah would bring? Where was the conquering army that the Messiah would lead? Would the Messiah allow John, who had prepared the way of the Lord, to die in prison?
John the Baptist was not alone in his anticipation of a different kind of Messiah. Some sects of first century Judaism, like the Sadducees, didn’t believe in a Messiah at all. The Essenes at Qumran, on the other hand, believed there would be two Messiahs: one a military leader and the other a sage and teacher of the law. Most who looked for the Messiah agreed that the “coming one” would be a king like David. This warrior king would unite the Israelites, put an end to the foreign occupation, and usher in an era of peace, independence, and prosperity.
Jesus failed to meet the messianic expectations of John the Baptist, the Essenes, and pretty much everyone else. In the response that Jesus shared with John’s messengers, Jesus described the actions that the Prophet Isaiah said would be the sign of the coming Messiah (Isaiah 29, 35, 61). The ears of the deaf would be opened. The blind would see. Newfound mobility would come to the lame. The mute would speak. The brokenhearted would find comfort. And the poor would be blessed with good news. Instead of insisting on his messianic identity, Jesus urged John to simply take a look at what he was doing. In Jesus’s ministry, the long-promised work of the Messiah was already underway in compassionate acts of mercy, forgiveness, and love. “Consider the evidence,” Jesus was saying to John, “And please don’t be offended that I am not what you expected.”
We don’t need to be imprisoned in a mountaintop fortress like John, to feel that we need a Messiah. New Testament scholar Ronald J. Allen teaches that John the Baptist’s query, “Are you the one who is to come?” is the most important question of this Advent season. We all need a savior, but like our ancestors in the faith, our longings and expectations for “the one who is to come” may or may not be met by Jesus.
We want a Messiah who will ride in on a white horse and free us from the enmity and bitter division of our political landscape. We want a Messiah who will take away our grief and put a “don’t worry, be happy” smile upon our faces. We want a Messiah who will smite our enemies, reinforce our world view, and describe a God who is created in our own image. We want a Messiah who will fix our marriage for us, make our children behave, and give us a nice pay raise. We want a Messiah who will save us in the way we want, when we want it to happen, and that had better be sooner than later.
If the Messiah doesn’t give us what we want, we just may take offense. We say, “He’s not the real deal. God wouldn’t work in that way. God wouldn’t love those people. This so-called Messiah isn’t worth our prayers, our devotion, or our Sunday mornings.” The Messiah comes on his own terms, with compassion, healing, forgiveness, and love, but we would rather sit in the dark prison of our disappointed expectations.
We don’t know what happened when John’s disciples made the long journey back from Galilee to Machaerus and shared what Jesus had to say. I suspect that they shared with John not only the words that Jesus had spoken, but also the signs and wonders that they saw unfolding in Jesus’s ministry. They talked about the demon-possessed man in Capernaum who had found his right mind with Jesus’s help. They described the beautiful healed skin of the leper whom Jesus had touched. They shared the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount and the exhortation to love God and neighbor. They shook their heads over the mystery of outsiders being welcomed, sinners forgiven, and fresh starts for hurting lives. There was so much good news, even if it wasn’t the message that John wanted to hear.
I like to think that when John was executed not long afterward, he was at peace. The gospels and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tell us that John was beheaded in the year 32, the year before Jesus would himself run afoul of Herod and Pilate and find himself in prison, facing execution. God had confounded all John’s expectations, but this Jesus, this unorthodox Messiah, was a sign that God’s Kingdom and power were always at work in the midst of this hurting and broken world. This unlikely Messiah and the improbable Kingdom would always grow within the kingdoms of the world, finding fresh expression wherever faithful people would follow the way of Jesus and commit to lives of mercy, compassion, and boundless love. On this Advent Sunday when we light the candle of joy, I like to imagine that Jesus’s assurance brought John quiet joy amid the darkness of Machaerus. I like to imagine that we too can find joy in that assurance, regardless of the trials of our lives and our world.
In the year 66CE, Herod’s kingdom fell when Jewish rebels revolted and seized the fortress of Machaerus. It took the Romans four years to put down the rebellion. In the year 70CE, they destroyed Jerusalem. Then, the Roman legion of Lucilius Bassus was assigned to exterminate the last rebel holdouts at Herodion, Massada, and Machaerus. The Romans arrived at the Edge of the Knife in the year 72CE, set up camp, and began to build an immense earthen ramp to accommodate their siege engines and breach the stronghold’s walls. When they saw the inevitability of their defeat, the rebels surrendered. They were allowed to leave and disappeared into the trans-Jordan wilderness and the mists of history. The Romans destroyed Machaerus, tearing down the impressive towers and stone walls, leaving behind only the dim outlines of its once mighty foundations.
The kingdoms of man rise and fall: Herod, the rebels, the Romans. Yet the Kingdom of God persists whenever we surrender our false expectations and follow the Messiah with mercy, compassion, and boundless love. Blessed are we when we do not take offense.
Ronald J. Allen. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 11, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 15, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
James Boyce. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 16, 2007. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Markus Milligan. “Machaerus–The Palace Fortress of King Herod” in Heritage Daily, Dec. 28, 2020. Accessed online at https://www.heritagedaily.com/2020/12/machaerus-the-palace-fortress-of-king-herod/136596
Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. “Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist” in Bible History Daily, June 28, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/machaerus-beyond-the-beheading-of-john-the-baptist/
Saeb Rawashdeh. “Lost biblical fortress of Machaerus restored after 50 years of excavations” in The Jordan Times, March 14, 2019. Accessed online at http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/lost-biblical-fortress-machaerus-restored-after-50-years-excavations
Pat McCarthy. “Machaerus” in See the Holy Land: Jordan. Accessed online at https://www.seetheholyland.net/machaerus/
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.