— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Third Sunday of Advent; December 15th, 2019 ~~~
Scripture Introduction to Matthew 11:2-11
Last week we were in the desert with John. We heard his harsh words to the religious authorities, to the guys in the robes. John was reminding us and those who came out to him to be baptized in the river Jordan that God’s reign is near and everyone must clear away the wheat from the chaff if we want to see what God is doing. John was trying to prepare his followers and us for the Kingdom of God.
Not too long after John had been preaching in the desert, Jesus also came to be baptized by John in the river. John knew the Messiah when he saw him, and he said to Jesus – I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? Yet, to fulfill all righteousness, Jesus was baptized by John. As Jesus was raised from the water, John heard the voice from heaven saying – This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
John’s heart must have nearly burst with joy and anticipation of what soon would be established and what would soon befall the unrighteous! God, indeed, was near and heads were going to roll! John had taught that the ax was lying at the root of the tree and the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire.
Soon and very soon there was going to be a King
who would come with vengeance and a terrible recompense!
Soon and very soon there was going to be a righteous fire!
Soon and very soon the dead wood would be cleared away!
Months, maybe years, pass from the moment of Jesus’ baptism to the events of the reading for this day. Much has happened to John, the wilderness preacher. He did not stop preaching; how could he! He continued on with even more fervor preaching about the reign of God near and the need for clearing away the underbrush of sinfulness. After all, the Messiah had been in his river, in his wilderness, in his hands; so John preached and preached and preached until his file was pulled by an unrighteous officer of the law and he, John, was cast down.
You see, one within earshot of John was Herod. John was not one to shy away from controversy or from speaking hard truths – even and especially to people in power. As Jesus said of his cousin, John is not a reed shaking in the wind; John is not a man of soft robes living in a royal palace. John the Baptist spoke the truth as he saw it without regard to personal consequences. And John knew that Herod – a Jew by birth – had traveled to Rome and while he was there had seduced his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, and then married her. This, according to the Levitical Law, was an abomination before God. John told the crowds that Herod was violating the teachings of Moses. Herod thought he was above the Law; so, Herod flexed his considerable political muscle and had John arrested.
John of the desert, open air, wilderness, John who had held the head of Jesus as he lowered him into the flowing waters of the Jordan River, this John was now in a dungeon prison at the mercy of the drunken whims of a despot. John the Baptist was in prison for speaking the truth to one with worldly power.
In his commitment to tell the truth no matter the cost, John the Baptist was like a principled journalist committed to his or her work in reporting facts even when the leader or leaders of the government threaten prison or worse. In this commitment to truth John the Baptist was a forerunner of the likes of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist for the Washington Post and the dissident in Saudi Arabia who was murdered and dismembered on October 2nd, 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by agents of the Saudi Arabian government. Jamal Khashoggi, who was at the consulate to get documents so that he could get married, was guilty of the crime of reporting truthfully about the Saudi royal family and it got him killed. He was murdered for the crime of speaking the truth about one with worldly power. (This connection was made clear to me by Ryan Ahlgrim on A Sermon for Every Sunday.)
Authoritarian governments cannot abide by a free press that reports without fear or favor. Authoritarian governments do not want the people hearing the truth and then coming to conclusions based on that truth; rather, authoritarian governments want to define the truth and control the people with lies and distractions. Lives are ruined and lost when despots feel threatened, and such was the case for Jamal and such was the case for John.
John the Baptist, living in an authoritarian society, told the truth and was thrown into prison. And while he was there he began to question the identity of Jesus. Maybe it was the trauma and pain that John, the out-of-doors-man, was experiencing in the darkness and confinement of his cell that caused him to question Jesus’ identity? Maybe it was isolation from the people who hungered for his word that was turning his spirit toward uncertainty? Maybe he was disappointed that the Messiah, if Jesus was the Messiah, was not chopping down the dead wood, burning the chaff in unquenchable fire – Herod to be specific? For whatever reason, John the Baptist had a question for Jesus.
Listen for the Word of God in Matthew 11:2-11.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As 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? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly 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.”
John’s question –
“Are you the one who is to come,
or are we to wait for another?”
– could be rephrased in any one of these three ways:
“What are we to do when the Apocalypse is late?” or
“How are we to act when the Messiah does not come
with vengeance and a terrible recompense?” or
“Why are there still tyrants in charge
if Jesus is the King of kings?”
These questions have always been relevant for Christians. We believe in Jesus as the incarnation of God in the world; the world, however, still seems broken and full of sin. The wrong still seems oft so strong and it is a large leap of faith to say that God is ruler yet. If the tumbling of despots and the establishment of justice rolling down like waters is the measure of God’s kingdom come then it makes sense to ask just what kind of Messiah are we following because the world is not looking much like heaven?
There was an acknowledgment this past Wednesday night in the Taize service that Christmas even some two thousand years after the first one finds many of us feeling less than joyful. For many people within our communion and without the nights of Christmas are not calm and all is not bright. There is still much that seems far removed from God’s reign of love.
The prayers of the people for the service Wednesday night began with this petition…
Come, Lord Jesus.
When we are weak, afraid, lonely, or sad,
we cannot sing of Christmas joy.
We could have prayed…
Come, Lord Jesus,
When tyrants are still strong and lies are still enthroned.
Come, Lord Jesus,
When the hungry still ache and the oppressed still break.
Come, Lord Jesus,
When envy, strife, and discord will not cease
and the world seems o so far from peace.
The question is – how are we to live following Jesus when his coming has not set the world right? What does it mean for us to say to John the Baptist or to anyone else – “Yes, Jesus is the One to come! Jesus is God’s Messiah! No, we do not need to wait for another!” What does it mean to have faith in Jesus in a world that seems far away from redemption, in a world where quite often it is the wheat being thrown into the fire not the chaff.
I think these are difficult questions, and we can begin to move in the direction of truthful answers when we acknowledge that the evil in the world is real and seems, at least in places, to be thriving. To look at this truth full in the face is to recognize that whatever it means for Jesus to be King of kings or the Messiah it does not mean that he will come with vengeance and recompense to destroy all that separates us from one another and from God. Jesus’ answer to John’s question has nothing about righteous armies and vengeance; rather, Jesus says:
Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the 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.
And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
God through Jesus does not fight fire with fire, evil with violence, sinfulness with weapons of war; rather, our Messiah comes to change the world with love.
As we sung on “Christ the King” Sunday a few weeks ago…
for not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.
(from “Lead On, O King Eternal”)
John the Baptist might have expected that God’s Messiah would command an army and would have led the righteous of the world into a fierce battle against the battalions of evil. Jesus embodied something different. The kingdom of heaven comes not on the wings of avenging angels but with deeds of love and mercy. To have faith in Jesus as the Messiah and to seek to follow him calls us to lives of grace, kindness, and generosity. Jesus has shown us how the kingdom will come… with deeds of love and mercy.
18th century German, Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn told this story…
Once upon a time there was a magic ring that gave its wearer the gifts of grace, kindness, and generosity. When the owner of the ring was on his deathbed, each of his 3 sons came in one at a time and asked for the ring. In reply, the old man promised the ring to each of them. Before he died, he sent for the finest jeweler and paid him to make 2 rings that were identical to the original one. The jeweler did that, and before he died, the man gave each son one of the rings without telling him about the other two.
After a while, the 3 sons discovered that each of them had been given a ring. So they went before a local judge to help them decide who had the magic ring. The judge carefully scrutinized each ring but could not tell them apart. The judge declared, “We shall know who has the magic ring when we observe the direction your life takes.”
Each of the brothers then acted as if he had the magic ring by being kind, honest, thoughtful, and generous.
Mendelssohn concluded, “Religions are like the 3 brothers in the story. The moment their members cease striving for justice and love we will know that their religion is not the one God gave to the world.” (Gulley &Mulholland, IF GOD IS LOVE: REDISCOVERING GRACE IN AN UNGRACIOUS WORLD, p. 139-140; also used by Ryan Ahlgrim on A Sermon for Every Sunday.)
We have been shown the way. The kingdom is here.
We can be a part of the ongoing in-breaking of God’s reign
by our acts of kindness, honesty, thoughtfulness,
generosity, and justice.
Here’s the Messianic faith – all of these acts of
kindness, honesty, thoughtfulness, generosity, and justice
are seeds of eternity.
Jesus was born to show us the way into the kingdom.
Praise be. Amen.