sermon based on Matthew
Christians believe that Jesus embodies in word & deed, the Spirit of God’s own being -- the Almighty God, the Eternal One, the Living God… "in the flesh" (as it were), if such a thing were possible. The doctrine of "Incarnation" simply means that in the life of Jesus Christ we see "God… with skin on".
The Jews in Jesus’ day had long been looking for a God-sent Messiah -- and they had very clear definitions of who that promised Savior, that Anointed One, would be -- a son of David, a warrior who would overthrow the Romans and jettison all evil from the land, the Lord of the heavenly host, someone superhuman & divine in all aspects.
By way of contrast, we who are called "Christian" (which means "Christ-like") believe that we see a manifestation of God’s Spirit in the teachings and life-stories of Jesus, "the Christ." The title "Christ" is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, "Messiah" -- the Savior, the "Anointed One", sent by God. For us Christians, Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. (!)
For most people in Jesus’ day, however, recognizing Jesus as God’s "Christ" (the Messiah/ Savior) did not happen! It did not happen in Bethlehem, where he had been born; nor even in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up (we talked about that back on January 28).
I suppose, most folks would have been like us... having to wait and see what kind of life & teachings (and what kind of public actions!) this "Messiah" would bring about, before they would decide whether or not to believe in him. (Which reminds me that faith is always a free choice! We can believe, or… we can disbelieve. That’s on us, not on God.)
After his baptism, Jesus and his small band of disciples began to draw crowds up in Galilee, but they had nowhere near as many followers as did John the Baptist. (!) Jesus did not yet have the public eye -- the daring confrontation with power -- that John’s followers did.
It seems that King Herod did not see in Jesus’ lifestyle the kind of subversive activities that John’s movement was threatening to become. As we spoke about back on Feb. 4, John the Baptist had been arrested by King Herod. What I didn’t mention back then, is that John was taken to the desert fortress Macherus (in what is today the Kingdom of Jordan).
The followers of the Baptist (who were mostly zealot, rabble-rousing types like John) were furiously apocalyptic Jews, who were looking for a militant Messiah to overthrow the Temple power structure and purge Israel of Roman occupation troops.
The closest parallel today (I suppose) would be either the Pales-tinian intifada -- that is, the effort of the native people in Israel to take control over their own civic affairs and drive out the foreign occupiers (in this case they would be the immigrant European, American, & Russian Jews) -- or the Zionist settlers of Israel, who want to purge Palestinians.
You may notice that I refer to John’s followers as "Baptists" in order to distinguish them from the followers of Rabbi Jesus. John’s disciples kept the Baptist’s militant vision alive, even after they began to mix in with other "Jesus following" Christians later.
When John the Baptist was arrested by Herod, Jesus and his disciples were left in relative peace. Jesus was too much of a Lamb of God, not a Lion of Judah, as John had seemed to indicate; Jesus was a prince of peace, not a warrior. Jesus was, in the eyes of the Baptists, too meek and mild to be the long-awaited, long-promised "One who is to come." In other words, Jesus was not their idea of a true Messiah.
Remember how John the Baptist had described the "One who is to Come?" John had compared the Messiah to a woods-man, who was cutting down dead trees for firewood; and to a harvester who was mowing down the field in order to collect the grain, after which he will "burn the chaff with unquenchable fire!" (High expectations!)
John the Baptist himself had pointed to Jesus as the one who was coming after him; one who would be mightier than himself; one whose very sandals he was not worthy to untie! But Jesus displayed no hint of such "might", no such violence, no such judgment against others during his ministry. (!) Was John the Baptist wrong?
Let’s imagine ourselves visiting in the prison where John the Baptist is being held. He has pointed out Jesus as the Messiah, the One who is to come after him. He has said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire! Now, a few of his followers have come to visit the Baptist in prison, and they are not buying it!
What's up, John? Where's the glory which was about to be revealed? We see nothing. Nothing’s happening. No uprising, no conquering, no action!
John, you know I love you like a brother. I'm very sorry we have to have this conversation. But, frankly, we see nothing of the Kingdom of God out there. Herod's Kingdom is still pretty powerful. Just look at you, John, stuck here in jail! The Roman Empire is still in control everywhere.
So, where's the majesty, John? Where’s the glory? (?) We're supposed to be ruling something, John! Would you just look around... Things sure aren't working out the way ya’ preached it.
You know I have the utmost respect for you, John. But if all flesh is gonna see the salvation of the Lord... we're still looking! And it ain't happening. (!) There's a credibility issue going on here. All, John. A.L.L. If all will be able to see it, then our enemies should be able to see it coming, too, don’t you think? -- and let you go. (You do know what the word all means, don’t ya’ John?)
And, John, there’s something else. We know you meant well, but this thing with Jesus just hasn't worked out. I mean, telling everyone that Jesus was taking over for you!? You're still the main man, John. You're the top dog, but you've backed off. If he's the man, what does that make you, John, chopped liver?
I mean no disrespect, John, but how can a kingdom be built by a carpenter? What kind of kingdom are we going to get with fishermen, & tax collectors, & a bunch of loose women; people with no experience! ?
We've been waiting for a kingdom John. You know: with a king! Not a "follow-me" crusade.
Read your Bible, John. Jesus is not the one. How's he ever gonna get on the Throne of David?
Look at you, John. You're in King Herod's prison, for God's sake! Jesus parties all the time, bread and wine, sweet perfume; and you're in here. It's just not right! This is pitiful, John. It's a mess! We're embarrassed. Our whole movement's credibility is on the line, John. It's damage control time!
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You know, those Baptists have a point, don’t you think? There is something wrong with a salvation that we can't see. I mean, what good is a savior who cannot save? If Messiah has come, why is there still suffering? Why has the earth not been healed?
Why are people still thrown into prisons and children left to hunger? Why are there still bombs falling & terrorists threatening? Why do 17 high school students and coaches get shot to death in Parkland, Florida; and 49 gay & lesbian young people get murdered in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando; and 54 innocent country music concert-goers get gunned down in Las Vegas? Why is there so much bitterness between people, between races, between nations?
Years ago, when I was a campus minister at Cal State Long Beach, I worked with Hillel & Chabad & a couple of local Rabbis. I asked them why they (like Jews in general) didn't accept Jesus as the Messiah.
"Because I don't see the reign of peace that Messiah will establish on earth," was the answer. "How can you expect anyone to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, when history is so full of wars and massacres, concentration camps, and inhumanity. (?)
"How can you Christians believe that the Day of the Lord, the Jubilee, has come, when you see people are still indebted, and so many people are held in prison, & so many powerful people are planning wars, and are overcome by greed. (?) This world of continued suffering is not what the prophets were preparing us for. Our Messiah, clearly, hasn’t come; and yours has, obviously, failed."
Those are hard words. A harsh critique of nominal Christianity.
Our imaginary conversation with John in prison raises the same question. How can good and evil co-exist in God's Realm if "God’s Kingdom" has come? Good, by definition, is not evil; it's the absence of evil. The one excludes the other. I mean, I've gone to school. (I gradu-ated from Alpena High School with honors.) I know basic algebra. This formula does not work; it’s too ambiguous. Either God’s Savior has come, or not. Either we can point to changes for the good, or we can’t! Isn’t that the crux of the Baptist’s complaint?
John does something in today's passage that impresses me. His disciples have come to him for answers, but John realizes that he doesn't have an answer. We ministers (and pastors) don't have to have all the answers to all the questions all the time. But we can point people to Jesus, who is the answer.
If we're honest, we can't hold it against John for his doubts, nor can we hold it against John's followers for their being frustrated... for their misunderstanding. I think that John does the right thing in sending them off to Jesus: "Ask him if he is the Messiah, or shall we look for another?"
As his disciples walked on their way to meet Jesus, they talked some more. "Are you the One?" That's a stupid question to ask Jesus. What's he gonna say? "Yes, I am the Messiah!" Who would believe him? "No, I'm not!" What would we do then? It's a stupid thing to ask Jesus: "Are you the One who is to Come?" But I'll do it. I’ll do it because I love John, and it’s his Question, after all -- his Vision of the Messiah.
As they walked, they talked about the suffering they had seen…
… John in prison darkness… Good Jews in jail, and most of the people in poverty. (!) But it wasn't just the Baptist's credibility that was in question. God had a credibility problem with all the suffering in this world that we cannot account for. It is shameful! I know it's hard to admit, but sometimes we're ashamed of God (& of the church, too) for all the suffering that’s still in the world after all these Centuries of preaching the Gospel!
Friends, let's be honest. When we face the grisly reality, life is a perpetual mix of good and evil, of freedom and bondage, of healing and sickness, all at the same time! I don't know how violence can co-exist with the Realm of God, or how life continues to thrive in the midst of so much surrounding death. (!) I don't know how sight and blindness can both occur. But I know they do in the real world. (!) And that's the world God loves; the world Jesus has come to save.
I can understand the "apocalyptic hopes" of the Baptist’s followers. The fact is, the more oppressed people feel, the more they hunger for freedom. William Sloan Coffin used to say: "People don’t revolt unless the conditions are revolting." Oppressed people yearn for a day when their oppression is past and the powers that "lord over" them are no more.
Apocalyptic views like John the Baptist’s were a frequent and familiar storyline in Jewish literature ever since the days of Daniel (a book which was written some 165 years before Jesus’ birth). For that matter, the last book in our Bible -- The Book of the Revelation to John -- is a Christianized version of a typical Jewish (Old Testament) Apocalypse.
Like those messengers who had been sent by John to ask Jesus "the Big Question", there are still people among us today who assume that the Messiah should set everything right all at once. They expect a "Lethal Weapon" God, a "Rambo" God, a Schwartzenegger Terminator God, or (if all else fails) an Armageddon God. The Gospel Jesus was just too meek & mild for their taste!
The "apocalyptic" crowd of ancient Israel (as well as those Christ-ians today who continue to think like them) are looking for a "Super-Man" God; but what we’ve got (in Jesus) is a human… a God Incarnate, a God with us... one of us, who sets the pace for us and the direction we are to follow.
Jesus replied to the Baptists’ question: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: [namely] the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to new life, and the poor have good news preached to them. And, by the way, blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
As they went away, Jesus spoke to the crowd about John -- in effect, he preached John's funeral:
"What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? No. What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed is soft robes? No. Just look: those who wear soft robes are in palaces, in power. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes [Good answer]! But I tell you, he is more than a prophet: he's the messenger who was sent ahead to prepare the way. If you are willing to accept it, [I say] he is Elijah, who is to come. Truly I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.
"Still [have you noticed that] from the days of John the Baptist, until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence. The violent take it by force. If you have ears, listen!"
This is the deeper truth beyond the good news of the healings, and the cleansings, and the raising to new life that Jesus accomplished -- the news that God's Realm is not separate from suffering. (!) In fact, the Kingdom of God is often the target of violence! God's Messiah is not an invincible invulnerable Super-Hero, but someone who feels the pain and shares the grief that is found in the very midst of the evils of our world. Who would have expected that!? John the Baptist didn’t; but Jesus did!
And what we learn from the life of Jesus (as he himself points out to John’s disciples) is that God's salvation does not come in majestic form all at once for all time, but it comes in human form & in human time, one step at a time... one decision, one action, at a time.
God's salvation is a process, which the violent still try to take by force -- just as they took John to prison & Jesus to the cross (just as they killed "martyrs" of old for daring to live their faith, and assassinated Bishop Oscar Romero & the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in more recent times.)
Still, the message of the Revelation that John received in his prison cell is that (in the end) the violent will not succeed – the Gospel of God that we received from Jesus, will be the ultimate Victor. That was the point of Daniel’s earlier Apocalypse, too; that was the point of Isaiah's prophecy, of Zechariah's song, and of the Baptist's promise! The only difference in our expectation is that the promised salvation will come about in Jesus' way... One healing, one cleansing, one word at a time… one decision, one person, one community, at a time.
The Kingdom of God is not a nationalistic movement, where "the right people" will eventually get to rule over others… rather, it’s a slow progression of growing righteousness... one changed life after another… until that glorious day when all flesh shall see it together.
May that day come soon!