Sermon for December 15, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10/Matthew 11:2-11
Title: “Right or Wrong?”
The enforced solitude of a prison cell gave John the Baptist several encumbered hours to think about many things, foremost of them was the mission that had given his life meaning and purpose, and most importantly, the future of that mission once he was gone.
In these latter days his confidence about the future had been shaken. He was unsettled by doubts focusing on Jesus’ role as the one for whom he was preparing the way. After much soul searching, and concluding that those doubts had to be addressed, John sent his disciples to Jesus with a question, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
The question was by no means original with John. You see, for centuries after the David’s kingdom dissolved owing to the ineptitude of his successors, the Jews eagerly watched for signs that that a deliverer, a Messiah, had arrived to reestablish their anticipated Camelot.
Numerous reports had reached John that Jesus, who he had baptized in the Jordan, was it two months, two years ago, dating is impossible, that Jesus might well be the anticipated one. He concluded that the best way to address the speculation was to go the subject of the speculation himself, Jesus. “Are you the one?”
The Advent theme that Kathy, Michael, and I have been working with this season is dislocation to deliverance. I earlier alluded to the ineptitude of David’s successors. It would take much more time than is available this morning to adequately summarize the upheavals that marked Israel’s history over generations. Suffice it to say that the people suffered greatly. Any lengthy exposure to suffering can be expected to heighten the craving for relief. Israel’s hopes were pinned on a deliverer who would intervene to put things right.
I recently read a book chronicling the experience of two thousand Americans and Europeans who were interred in China by the Japanese during World War II. The author related that when the food supplies began to expire food was became the only topic that people focused upon. Their deliverance from hunger became the one thing that really mattered to them.
In conversations the internees elaborated on meals they had once enjoyed. The author, who himself lived through that experience, remembered fantasized about the hamburgers and chocolate milkshakes he had enjoyed at Howard Johnson’s. It is all he could think about.
Perhaps there have been dislocating circumstances in your own life, an illness, a family or financial issue upon which your mind fastened with that kind of tenacity. The pain and heartache we suffer under those circumstances are so severe that deliverance is all we can think about.
John the Baptist and the Jews at large were similarly focused. When Jesus got serious about doing his thing, and the reports came back to John about all the things that the Lord was doing, deliverance in the form of the new heaven and earth on offer became a preoccupation of his life.
Now, you must understand that Jesus who was making a name for himself in the villages and countryside of Galilee didn’t project the majestic aura that a Messiah was assumed to carry. He was a local with roots in the region. Yet the reputation he was building inspired John and others to dream of new possibilities.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another.” The question was delivered to Jesus by John’s disciples. Now Jesus, as our lesson disclosed, never really answered the question, did he? What did he do instead? “Go 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.” Be assured that if a resume like that one was presented to an ordaining commission of my denomination today I think all requirements for ordination would be immediately scrapped.
Again, Jesus never said that he was the long awaited one, did he? Instead he said to the disciples, “you tell him what you hear and see.” There is something important to note here. Jesus could have told the John’s disciples, “yes, of course, I am the one you Jews have been expecting”, but he didn’t. Jesus put the onus on the disciples, “you tell him what you hear and see.”
We know that the world has profited greatly from the preaching and teaching of Jesus, his words matter, but the personal testimonies of witnesses who have been moved and mobilized by his power have always made a stronger impression.
The Apostle Paul is perhaps the most celebrated of those witnesses. Was there ever a person as committed to living the gospel of Jesus as he was? It is almost impossible to image a church without the Apostle Paul. It is doubtful that there would have been a Reformation without Martin Luther, or the civil rights breakout without Luther’s namesake, Martin Luther King Jr. The words and deeds of Jesus have been kept alive through the passion and inspiration of witnesses.
The words of Jesus impart truth, but the deeds his words inspire embody truth. “You tell him, what YOU hear and see.” St. Francis of Assisi was quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” That statement supports the point I am hoping to make here. It is the actions that Jesus inspired that turned the world upside down, and continue that work today.
The people of Israel yearned for the deliverance that the Messiah most assuredly would bring them, their anticipation building over centuries of waiting. In fact, Jesus turned out to be the one for whom they had been waiting. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the news that Jesus was the Messiah was not delivered back to John in the form of a declarative statement to that fact, but was carried back on the testimony of what his disciples had witnessed seen and heard.
Deliverance was at hand. John’s disciples had personally seen and heard at least some of the evidence that Jesus presented. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed [and so on]”.
Now, there is no time machine that can deliver us back in time that we might examine for ourselves the evidence that Jesus presented to John’s disciples. But is a time machine really necessary when God is acting in real time? No, we have not personally witnessed the mighty acts of Jesus ourselves, nor has anyone else except a rather small group of people in the first century. But that fact hasn’t stopped generations of witnesses from testifying to the wonders Jesus has wrought in day to day experience.
Jesus’ direction to John’s disciples, “Go tell John what you hear and see” has been issued to the church which bears his name. And, friends, we are the Church. We are the contemporary witnesses to Jesus’ mighty acts by virtue of the stories and testimonies we have heard, and by the faith God has inscribed on each of our hearts.
I learned a lot in my three years of seminary. I was taught ancient languages, theology, pastoral care, and preaching, but no courses in the curriculum were offered on how to express our personal faith. That was left for us to figure out on our own. “Tell your neighbor what YOU have heard and seen.”
Rock solid evidence of the sort the disciples were asked to take back to John is in short supply for those of us who have come along in these latter days. Be that as it may, our faith in Jesus is validated on the same basis as that of John’s disciples, personal experience, what you and I see and hear.
If faith in Jesus Christ makes sense to us at all it is only because we have seen and heard things that support such faith. None of us is here absent having heard or seen things that make faith in the living God a reasonable personal choice.
I may have shared this before but in own case I can trace the beginning of my formation as a candidate for ministry to experiences I had when I was between the ages of eight and ten. Our Sunday school teacher and youth advisor, Ruth Davis, made an indelible impression on me. The faith she demonstrated has been a model for my own, even as my faith has been deepened in subsequent encounters with people of faith and the personal discoveries I have made in living my life.
We gather as a church founded on the stories and life experiences of what those who have gone before us have seen and heard. Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joseph, David, prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the Apostle have carried the story on their shoulders and passed it and passed it to Mrs. Davis and her like who passed on to you and me.
In addition to what has passed down to us, each of us has had experiences of own that shaped and continue to nurture our faith.
Faith of course is not ours free and clear. Faith is subjected to doubt. No believer has been spared. In fact, it is only in our struggles with doubt that faith acquires the adaptability and elasticity to manage the many challenges faith confronts in the world today.
It was a bold move for John to voice his doubts to his disciples. His disciples undoubtedly looked to him for strength and assurance. To expose his doubts could be a sign of weakness. Would his disciples think that he had led them astray? John was willing to risk losing face with his disciples that he might know the truth about Jesus.
And so John sent his disciples to Jesus, The disciples did not get a yes or no answer to take back to John, instead they were challenged to examine the evidence of what Jesus was doing among the people, and then tell their master what they heard and saw.
What the disciples heard and saw of God’s wonders was their special gift to experience and to share. “Tell him what you hear and see.”
The church traces its life and its witness to its founder. When it is fulfilling its mission it challenges people like you and I to consider the ultimate truths that Jesus represents. It exposes the falsehoods in ourselves and in the culture in which we live, while giving us the courage to hope for a day when God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Doubt intrudes itself, this we know full well, but the church is the place where those doubts can be openly addressed and by the grace of God meaningfully dealt with.
The church can have no ambition greater than sharing with the world the Gospel, good news, of Jesus Christ, and that work has not been left to some privileged group of saintly folks, specially equipped to take on that work. The Spirit of the Living God lives within each one of us. We know more about that Spirit than we can say, and that is why Jesus founded the church, to provide a place where you and I can come to engage and encourage each other in living the faith. The church is not a perfect place this we know full well, but there is no better place to watch Jesus at work, and to witness lives being transformed. AMEN
O Savior, Jesus the Christ, with gratitude and thanksgiving we remember witnesses who throughout the centuries have cherished your name and brought it to life. We remember people in our own acquaintanceship whose words and actions have revealed the truth and power of your gospel. So what, O Christ, what do you expect of us? Is it not that that we go forth and do likewise? Grant us, O Lord, spiritual depth and wisdom to fulfill that commission.
Lord, you call us to bring light into the world, but we are often hesitant to speak in your name fearing how our words might be received. Help us to overcome our inhibitions.
O God, we gather in this season of watching and waiting for your will to be revealed to us, even as we are distracted by the pressures to buy things, arrange things, and meet other obligations.
Abide, O God, with those who observe the energy and enthusiasm the season generates from afar, people who lack the financial resources to put a holiday meal on the table or purchase a modest tree. We pray for children who have never experienced the constancy and predictability of a stable home. We pray for all those who will pass this holiday season on the street, waiting in line for a hot meal, or in the haze of drug induced or drunken stupor. We pray for chaplains, counselors, and volunteers who have committed themselves to the wellbeing of those who live on the fringe.
Lord we acknowledge the many ways we have fallen short of fulfilling your will. We regret words we have spoken and deeds we have done that have offended you or our neighbor. We have allowed our egos to dominate, putting self above others. We have been reluctant to forgive even as we ourselves cherish your forgiveness.
Teach us patience, Lord, when in the stress of the moment we lash out, even as you root out the bitterness we harbor for those who have offended us.
O God we pray that these concluding days of Advent may be for us a time of serious reflection on the grace by which you chose to come us in human form. What gift can we return for such giftedness, but to live our lives after the manner of he who came to us, lived among us, and died for us?
O God, who by whose providence we were delivered us to this place and this hour, we thank you for the familiarity of these surroundings, and the friends among whom we worship. You have blessed us greatly.
And now in the name of the one whose birth we await we pray the prayer he taught us….