Texts: Matthew 11:2-6; Psalm 146:1-10
The man we know as John the Baptist had a particularly appropriate name. His preaching about the hellfire and brimstone awaiting the unrepentant sinner placed him in good company with many a Baptist preacher. You know the sort I’m talking about. Some of you grew up hearing weekly sermons about the wages of sin and how terrible hell is. My father, who was a walking encyclopedia of squeaky clean, very corny jokes, told the story of one such country preacher. The man was so burdened by the thought that anyone within hearing distance might miss heaven and go to hell that one Sunday he determined to impress upon his congregation just how awful hell actually is. So he offered this description: “Imagine, my friends, cutting down all of the trees in the entire world and piling them together, drenching them with all of the gasoline in the world, lighting them with a match, and then letting the massive pile burn for days. Sounds pretty hot, don’t it? Well, folks, if you jumped from hell right into the middle of this blazing fire, you’d freeze to death.” John the Baptist would probably like that guy. I have to say, though, that I don’t think either John or this preacher would have approved of the Baptists who protested in Raleigh yesterday. Some hellfire and brimstone preachers do so out of love – and some do not.
So we have known him as John the Baptist. Today, however, John is more appropriately known in progressive circles as “John the Baptizer.” In our text from Matthew, he is in prison because his prophetic preaching offends the authorities. He knows his days are numbered. He has preached repentance, calling his listeners to a different kind of life which they can enter through baptism. He’s trying to get them to prepare for the Messiah, the Coming One for whom his people have waited for centuries. Earlier in his ministry, John recognized Jesus as that One. In fact, he baptized Jesus and inaugurated Jesus’ ministry. But since he left the wilderness and landed in jail it seems John has begun to have questions.
We don’t know exactly what caused his doubt, but we can imagine. Perhaps the confinement of a prison cell and impending death prompted John to examine his life. What was it all for? Did I do the right thing? I believed this Jesus was the One we had been expecting. Could I have been wrong? He hasn’t done what I expected. His message is different from mine. I’ve been preaching about fiery judgment and he’s been performing acts of compassion. Did I miss the boat completely? I need a sign. I need to know if this man was sent by God. I need to know for sure before I die if the long-awaited Messiah has finally arrived. The question is so important that John must have longed to ask it himself. But he can’t, so he sends his disciples to inquire on his behalf. “Are you the one who is to come, Jesus, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response is indirect. He doesn’t say yes or no. Instead, he points to his words and deeds and says, “Tell John to judge for himself. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, people with diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news. Tell John to decide if these are the marks of One who comes from God.”
Then Jesus adds an odd line that confuses us. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This is probably an admission on Jesus’ part that he’s not what they expected. That’s why John asked the question in the first place. Jesus did not conform to popular expectations of a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. He knows that. So he declares blessed those who can get past their preconceived notions to see him for what he is. A different kind a Messiah.
Why John couldn’t see that the words and deeds of Jesus were in fact from God is curious. Assuming he studied scripture like every good Jewish boy, you’d think he might have seen connections. Our text from the Psalms could make it easy. The beautiful hymn in Psalm 146 that Nancy read begins the conclusion of the entire psalter, and it does so with praise. After being reminded that we should trust God and not human rulers, God is described as one who executes justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, sets the prisoners free, restores sight to the blind, lifts the lowly, and cares for strangers, widows and orphans. See the parallels between the Psalmists’ description of God’s work and Matthew’s recounting of the ministry of Jesus. God heals. Jesus heals. God cares for the poor. Jesus cares for the poor. Why was it that John didn’t see it? Why did he have doubts about Jesus?
Maybe because he was living in the middle of the events in a day when there was no video or recording device to prove what Jesus did. News spread slowly by word of mouth not via the internet with lightning speed. There was no live, local, late-breaking news John could watch to see for himself that Jesus was indeed healing the sick or feeding the hungry. Perhaps, too, the lore that had had grown up around the expected Messiah blurred what the kingdom of the new Messiah was to look like. Roman rulers held the realm with a tight fist, so only a powerful leader using violent means could be expected to break Rome’s grip. Healing, feeding, raising, preaching…those things were nice, but you can see how John might doubt that what Jesus was doing could make a difference. The God of Abraham couldn’t really be thinking that this soft, compassionate stuff would deliver God’s people from oppression.
In this Advent season in 2010, we could easily be caught thinking like John—if not in our conscious minds, perhaps at a deeper level. Hope, peace, joy, and love. They are wonderful ideals, great goals to strive for, what most Moms and Dads teach, what our churches taught us growing up if we were lucky. But given the violent, self-serving, greedy, manipulative forces at work in our world, do our acts of compassion really matter in the big scheme of things? We come to this season and hear again the story of the baby born in a manger adored by shepherds and wise ones and angels, and it makes us feel good. But what do we really believe about this baby? If we’re honest, do we ask in our hearts, if not out loud, John’s piercing question: Is he the One?
For those of us who value other faith traditions and interfaith dialogue this may not be an easy question to answer. Many of our Christian sisters and brothers would answer John’s question with a resounding “yes!” Jesus, for them, is not just the One, but the only One, son of God, king of kings and Lord of Lords, no questions asked, amen. But for some of us, the answer is more complicated, more nuanced. We struggle with questions about Jesus’ humanity versus his divinity, with what it says about other faiths if you say Jesus is the exclusive avenue to God, etc. etc.
I can’t answer those questions for you, but I can answer them for myself. I do believe he is the One—for me and my life, however long it lasts. I can’t honestly say that Jesus is the only One or that he is the One for everyone else. I don’t know. Had I been born in India or Turkey or China into a family of faith, he probably wouldn’t be the One for me. But I wasn’t. I was born in this country to Christian parents who pointed my attention to this baby whose birth we await 2000 thousand years after it occurred. For more than half a century I have been looking at this person. I have read what he said and what he did, examined passages from the Hebrew bible like Psalm 146 that tell us what God does and what God wants for the world. I’ve also been touched by the great love I have seen in people who sincerely try to follow him. Given all of the evidence and my private experience of God, I am convinced that Jesus came from God. I don’t pretend to understand how, and at this age I don’t need to. I do think I understand why. Human nature being what it is, we need examples. We need to see with our eyes what God’s compassion looks like in human form.
A story is told about a time when humanity was even more of a mess than it is now. God calls all of the angels together for a great assembly and says to the crowd: “You all can see that people on earth are in chaos. They can’t get along with each other. They are greedy and selfish. It isn’t at all what I had in mind when I created them. So I’ve decided that I need one of you to be my emissary. I need someone to go to earth and show them how to behave. This is a temporary assignment, though a challenging one given their hard-heartedness. But I know their potential and the goodness humans are capable of. Who is willing to go?” No one spoke a word, no hand went up. Other than a nervous cough or two, not a sound came from the heavenly host. “OK,” God says, “No one is ready yet. I want you to go away and think about it and we’ll meet again next week.” The next week, the angels are convened again and God repeats the invitation. If anything, the silence is more deafening than the first time. So finally, with a deep sigh, God looks across the throng of angels and says simply, “I’ve asked for a volunteer and no one has come forward. So if none of you is willing to show humans on earth what my love looks like, I’ll go myself.”
I am touched by this story but I want to be clear. I’m not saying I think Jesus was God. His actions certainly were God-like as if he was a part of God, the great creative force of the universe. But I may go to my grave with questions of my own. What I am sure of is this: the psalmist’s description of what God does and gospels’ description of what Jesus did are the same. For me this means if I want my actions to be part of God’s activity in the world, I can look to Jesus for living evidence of what that looks like. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect other faiths. Jewish faithfulness, Muslim prayerfulness, Buddhist mindfulness, Native American oneness with the earth—they all have something to teach me. But there is so much of what Jesus said and did I haven’t mastered yet that I’ll need the rest of my years just to work on those things. So when John asks the question, “Are you the one?” I look at the psalm and Matthew’s gospel, and my answer is “yes.” For this day, for next week and next year, for my whole life.
If I sound sure, I am—but only about the goal, not how to get there. And it’s OK if you’re not even sure about the goal. If you’re feeling guilty about not being sure, just remember John. He was the one who baptized Jesus and a couple of years later he’s not certain who Jesus really is. It’s comforting that even John needs to be reassured in his faith. And I like that he has the courage to ask the question, “Are you the one?” and wait for his disciples to return with his response. Often we ask the questions, but hurry on without waiting for an answer.
And if we have a goal in mind and need help getting there, we can find teachers everywhere who help to show us the way. You teach me and you teach each other. People who are different from us often teach us more than we’re willing to admit. We have scripture that tells us what God wants and examples of people who did their best at living in a God-like way. None were or are perfect, but imperfection teaches us more than perfection does. If we’re looking for a sign from God in this Advent, we get one in Jesus. But we also find signs in imperfect people, people who praise God by giving themselves wholly to God in worship and work in spite of their questions.
Mary was a pregnant, unmarried teenager who must have been scared to death. Once pregnant, she was hardly considered to be an icon of virtue in her town. When told she was about to give birth to the One for whom her people had been waiting for centuries, she must have shared John’s questions. She must have asked, “Is this child inside me really the Promised One?” Yet somehow she knew that the angel’s visit was a sign from God. Perhaps her youthful naiveté helped her believe that Gabriel’s words were true; that what God wanted for the world included her; that she had a role to play in the deliverance of her people and all people. Like us, all she could offer was her human self. And whether you believe in virgin births or not, whether you have it all figured out or not, Mary’s story is a sign of what it looks like when we believe we can be useful in God’s work of healing the world.
These are challenging days for many of our neighbors, for our country, and for many of us. Economic recovery will take years. Spiritual recovery will take even longer. But it is also a fruitful time to rethink what God desires of us and for us. Today’s trials are an invitation to re-imagine how God wants us to live our lives and offer our ministry. In the process, we can take heart that there are people who serve as signs from God to tell us what is worthy of our effort. Like Mary, when we know that what we do matters, miracles happen. There is joy. We are blessed. Luke tells us that Mary was blessed because she believed what was spoken to her by God would be fulfilled. May her Magnificat, her song of praise, be our own in this Advent season.