“Lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation.” So we prayed in Gaudete’s collect. For there is a darkness that settles upon the heart which only Christ’s visitation can chase away.
John’s disciples knew something of that darkness. They had heard their Master point to Jesus and proclaim Him as the very Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And when they complained to their Master that Jesus was drawing the bigger crowds and gathering ever more people to Himself, they had heard John proclaim: “He must increase but I must decrease.” When their Master stood up to Herod and confronted him publicly with his oh-so-public adultery with his brother’s wife, Herod had tossed John into prison and left him there. And Jesus? When He got wind of what had taken place, just left the area. The disciples of John had darkened hearts indeed. They didn’t understand what was happening or why it was happening. If Jesus were the true Messiah, how could He leave His beloved forerunner rotting in jail? They loved John and they didn’t understand. Not at all.
John, though, hears of what our Lord is up to and an idea comes to him. He sends to Jesus through these men that are clinging to him as a burr to a dog. He sends them to ask: “Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?”
No, John is not in doubt. How could he be? He who was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and who confessed Christ while still in utero? He who knew from his godly parents all about the angel Gabriel and his visit to Mary and what that meant. He who in the muddy waters of Jordan saw the Spirit descend bodily upon Christ like a dove and heard with his own ears the Father’s voice announce: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” No, John’s heart, if it was darkened at all, was darkened by the sadness upon his own disciples’ faces. And I suspect he knew what was coming - I don’t think he ever expected to get out jail alive. These men before him, so loyal to him, so loving of him. What would become of them? How could he make sure that they’d know what they needed to do?
And so he sends them. Marches them off to Jesus so that Jesus, by His gracious visitation, might lighten the darkness of their hearts. And us too. When our hearts weighed down and we can’t understand what’s happening, when we think we can’t take anymore, when another sickness, another death just seems too heavy a load to bear - we need the wisdom of St. John to send us to Jesus to find out if He is the Coming One or not.
And what do the disciples of John, what do we, discover when we come to Jesus. Here’s the summary: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.” This is the message Jesus sends back to John, making John’s own disciples the witnesses of what they had indeed heard and seen with their own eyes.
Do you think for a moment that the darkness was as heavy on them as they went back? That their hearts were as low as when they came? Not a chance. They’d been with Jesus. Visited with Him and He with them. And that makes all the difference. They’d seen Isaiah’s prophesies come to life in living color before their very eyes. They'd seen the dawn from high shine upon those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. They’d seen that He is the Healer of every ill, the very Destruction of Death and that to poor sinners who fear before the judgment of God, He is the very Forgiveness of Sins. This is the good news to the poor that is preached to them. “Fear not! God has not abandoned you to this darkness. He has sent ME as a light to chase it from your heart forever. In ME you have been loved with a love immeasurable, deep, divine. Not the darkness of any sin of yours; not the darkness of your death will prove mightier than the Light I bring, the Light I AM. Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
So they go back to tell John the Good News. And John thus secured their future. When the worst happened, they knew where to go. Matthew records three chapters later that after John’s execution “his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.” (14:12) They had discovered where the Light was whose visitation could drive even that darkness from their heart.
And almost as though He were looking already at John’s death, our Lord speaks to the crowds as the disciples of John go away with lightened hearts. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses (a slam at Herod). What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and MORE than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.”
Prepare your way. For Jesus would walk the same way that John was getting ready to walk. Unjust arrest ending in violent death. Jesus would walk the same way, though John's was the sword and His the cross. John would walk it ahead of Him. Forerunner in life, forerunner in death. But unlike John, Jesus would blast a hole right through death by enduring it. Blessed man that John was, death had a claim on him - same claim on you and me. He was a sinner after all. But death had no claim on Jesus of Nazareth. None. For in Him there was no sin. In Him was only holy obedience and eternal life. Death thought it had swallowed Him down for good, only to find that His death slew death itself! And this is the greatest light that He gives to our darkened hearts. He went into the darkness where John and all of us deserve to go in order to shine His light and bring us out of there and take us home with Him: Victor over death and the grave, and Forgiver and Rescuer of His people.
So, gaudete! Rejoice, you who have been baptized into Him! His death is your death to sin. His life is your triumph over the grave. His body and blood which He feeds into you IS your eternal righteousness. His gracious visitation still is the sunshine that alone can vanquish all the darkness of your hearts. John is not the light, but came to bear witness to the Light. And today John sends us to Jesus so that we might always know where to go when the darkness presses hard.