Sheepscott Community Church December 12, 2010
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Matthew 11: 2-11
Who Do You Say That I Am?
If you recall, last week’s gospel was about John coming out of the desert, calling those who came out to him at the Jordan River to repent and bear fruits of repentance, that the axe was already laid to the base of the tree, and that every tree that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. His was a powerful message, delivered in a prophetic manner that probably had his listeners shaking in their boots, especially the scribes and pharisees, whom he called a brood of vipers, and they knew he was a prophet of God.
John the Baptist preached the idea of a punishing God of judgment, so you can imagine that he was perplexed when he heard about what Jesus was doing. He had recognized him when he came to him to be baptized, and in fact he said to him that he, Jesus, should be baptizing him, John, not the other way around. But Jesus asked him to acquiesce for the time being so that God’s purposes might be fulfilled.
Subsequently arrested and put in prison for having spoken against Herod’s taking his brother’s wife for his own while his brother was still living, John had plenty of time to think. When he heard what Jesus was doing––the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the the dead raised––he sent his disciples to Jesus with that all important question, Are you the One? That question reflected the perplexity not only of John but of the larger community of Jews who expected a messiah to come with power, political and otherwise. What was he to think of this one who didn’t fit the portrait of what he, John, expected and prophesied? We can see in this case how much John’s own thought and belief colored his expectations. We know in our own lives we often see what we want to see, what will confirm us in our beliefs and enable us to continue going forward in the same direction.
When John’s disciples returned to him, they confirmed what he had heard. Indeed Jesus himself instructed them to tell John what they heard and saw: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” His concluding comment seems directed right at John: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me,” who finds no stumbling block in me, i.e., don’t let your own unfulfilled messianic expectations divert you from the Way of God’s Messiah. Unfortunately scripture doesn’t record any more about what John or his disciples thought of all this. We only hear about his death.
John’s doubts are possibly our doubts. Is this the Christ or not? Jesus’s answer may seem too undefinitive for some, but it was as much of an affirmative as his honoring of our freedom to choose could allow. He evoked the prophet Isaiah in his response to John, which passage you heard Alex read this morning: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” John would have recognized this messianic reference from Isaiah and understood what Jesus was saying, but he would still have to decide whether he could accommodate a messiah who singularly did not fulfill his expectations. John had a better eye for the flames of judgment than for the quiet dawn of good will. To him God was Judge rather than Father, which he was to Jesus.
John’s is a question and burden we all face when considering this singular man of history. Are you the Christ, the one who is to come, or do we look for another who will wield temporal power and be a guarantee of what we think is important and what we want in this life, individually, as a people, as a nation? Jesus as messiah came with healing love, comes with healing love, and not with violence. He was, however, not ready at the time of this morning’s gospel to make that announcement of messiahship. Maybe existentially speaking, he was discovering it as he went along. In any event, the time was not full, and he would not force the issue. There needed to be room for the individual soul to choose freely. Otherwise, of what value would a compelled choice be?
An important new piece of information that Jesus communicated at that time, and which remains a key identifier to his life is about his preaching the good news to the poor. For the poor, the common folk whom he addressed at length in the beatitudes––Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God, and so on––Jesus’s taking their part and incorporating them into the kingdom of God was not just good news, it was the best news. They, the poor, the disenfranchised in whatever manner, mattered to someone. The prophets of old had declared that God was a God of the poor, but the lived reality looked very different, as they suffered and then they suffered some more, on all fronts.
Here was one who spoke their language, who hung out with them, whose family members they knew. He was after all a tradesman, a carpenter, not the son of a powerful and influential man. And look at what he’s doing––Can’t you imagine the excitement of these poor, these common folk?––he’s giving sight to the blind among them and restoring hearing. He’s healing the lame and the lepers. He’s among us, with us, one of us. Can this be what the Messiah looks like? No doubt there were a lot of conversations around supper tables in those days, and Jesus would have been the subject. But isn’t he the son of Joseph the carpenter and isn’t Mary his mother? And aren’t his brothers and sisters our neighbors? They didn’t know what to make of him, not just the bearer but the embodiment of the Good News, viz., he himself was the Good News. It seemed too good to be true.
Jesus acted out the prophetic dream of Isaiah. The prophet’s vision had become a reality. I’m stating that, but obviously it’s up to each of us individually to decide how we will think about what Jesus did, whether indeed he was the fulfillment of messianic prophecy or simply a good man, a very good man, who did enough good things in his lifetime to give everyone pause to consider who he might be.
After touting John’s virtues to the crowd, Jesus then notes that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he, than John. Here Jesus is speaking of the revelation of his ministry as the kingdom come, and his own disciples are those “least” in the kingdom. They are named as greater than John, not in moral character or achievements, but in their privileges. This is an important saying, which indicates that the kingdom, as being revealed in Christ, was already present.
There is a dividing line here, a great act of God, a new creation, that fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah which we heard this morning. There is a blank page which God writes on, and his instrument is Jesus as the Christ. He is the Living Word, spoken by the Spirit and written down by limited human beings. We catch something of who he was and is, but way more eludes us and we have to put on our boots and trek out on our own to find out what is true for us and what is not, guided by the wisdom of the past encoded in the scripture, by the writings and records of human beings and their civilizations, and especially guided by the Spirit of God who will lead us into all truth, with the all-important check of community, so we don’t go off the deep end..
It’s a dark way we walk toward the fullness of truth, and indeed our understanding is darkened by our own expectations, like John the Baptist. As Emily Dickinson wrote,
Tell the Truth, but tell it slant
Success in circuit lies.
Too bright for our infirm delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind,
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
“The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” We with our darkened understanding continue to walk through Advent, the light gradually increasing as we approach Christmas, as is symbolically evident with the three candles this week on the Advent wreath. We in our humanity can only take so much divine truth at a time. Our constitutions aren’t made for big doses. But that doesn’t dispense with our responsibility to seek out and satisfy the deep longing of our souls toward greater and greater truth––and light.
As Frederick Buechner has written of this journey toward Christmas, “This story that faith tells in the fairy tale language of faith is not just that God is, which God knows is a lot to swallow in itself much of the time, but that God comes. Comes here. ‘In great humility.’ There’s nothing much humbler than being born: naked, totally helpless, not much bigger than a loaf of bread, yet girt with righteousness and faithfulness. And to us came. For us came. Is it true––not just the way fairy tales are true but as the truest of all truths? Almighty God, are you true?" Are you for real?
“When you’re standing up to your neck in darkness, how do you say yes to that question? You say yes the only way faith can ever say it if it is honest with itself. You say yes with your fingers crossed. You say it with your heart in your mouth. Maybe that way we can say yes. He visited us. The world has not been quite the same since. It is still a very dark world, in some ways darker than ever before, but the darkness is different because he keeps getting born into it. The threat of holocaust. The threat of poisoning the earth, sea and air. The threat of our own deaths. The broken marriage. The child in pain. The lost chance.” Fears of financial disaster. “Anyone who has ever known him has perhaps known him better in the dark than anywhere else because it is in the dark that he seems to visit most often.”
He is walking with us up out of the dark toward the crib, waiting patiently along the way as we question ourselves and him––again. Are you the One or do we look for another? Amen.