A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
The 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year A. December 15, 2013. (Text: Matthew 11:2-6)
John the Baptist, in Herod’s dungeon, sent messengers to Jesus to ask him: Are you the one? Or should we keep looking? Strange questions, coming from him. But as I said last Sunday, Uncle John was something of an ornery cuss—not interested in flattering anybody. However, John was Jesus’ cousin and had baptized him. He’d seen the dove. He’d heard the Voice. But now he wasn’t sure. He had doubts.
John had always been what folks down South in my young days called “a screamin’ preacher.” He blistered people’s ears. But, in spite of that, he drew big crowds and made converts, too. Lots of people were baptized in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. John had seen Jesus as the One who was about to purify his people with a baptism of fire and, once that drama was over, he’d usher in the age of God’s personal rule.
So John, sitting in Herod’s lock-up, must have thought, “If Jesus IS the Messiah, what am I doing locked up in this dungeon? How come he hasn’t called down fire from heaven to burn up Herod and his soldiers and set me free? How come there hasn’t been an earthquake or a whirlwind or something awesome to show what he can do? —Could it be that I was WRONG about him? He’s not doing anything the way I expected he would. Maybe we should keep looking.”
“Is Jesus The One? Or should we keep looking?” People still ask this question, don’t they? Countless people in America right now are looking for something or someone to help them make sense out of life,
someone to offer a vision for tomorrow that isn’t just “life is hard and then you die,” or “whoever has the most toys wins.”
These people are called “seekers,” and they’re everywhere. Whether they actually use the word or not, I’d say most seekers are looking for salvation. And by salvation I don’t mean just a promise of life after death (although that’s part of it). I mean a “this life” experience of love, serenity, wholeness, and confidence about tomorrow—a sense of safety and of being truly and thoroughly “o.k.” (I don’t know another way to express it in contemporary speech)—that doesn’t vanish as soon as a drug-induced euphoria wears off, or the money is all spent, or all the prizes have been won, or the sensual thrill du jour stops being a turn-on.
Since Christianity is the dominant religion in America, most seekers here started out as at least nominal Christians. But at some point—maybe when they went to college, maybe later—they dropped out.
Did they drop out of Christianity because Jesus hadn’t fulfilled their private expectations, or was there some other reason?
· No doubt, some of them turned away because what they remembered from Sunday school didn’t fit with what they were learning in college and nobody at church seemed interested in trying to answer their awkward, adult questions. “The Bible says it, so you have to believe it,” was not an answer that worked for them.
· Perhaps, for some, the simple, black-and-white, good-versus-evil, binary moral universe expounded by their local pastor couldn’t help them find their way through the gray fog of ambiguities people confront in most real-life situations.
· For others, a mountaintop experience at a Christian conference or prayer meeting wasn’t followed by what they’d expected. Sure, it had felt good, but there was no enduring enlightenment.
· Some had prayed for a miraculous healing, but if no obvious miracle happened—or at least not the sort they wanted—they turned away.
· Others simply could not cope with the mystery of suffering—how God could permit terrible things to happen to innocent people, and their solution to the mystery was to decide that there is no God.
For whatever other cause, what some seekers experienced in church didn’t bring them what they wanted. These people at some point asked the John-the-Baptist-question, “Is Jesus the one? Or should I keep looking?” And they decided to keep looking.
It’s interesting that when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus with their master’s question, “Are you The One?” Jesus didn’t reply, “How can you ask that? Of course I’m The One! No doubt about it. And here are the reasons: point one, point two, point three.” He didn’t talk about being the Son of David. He didn’t say, “My mom was a virgin and angels came down from heaven when I was born.” He didn’t even remind John’s disciples that their master had heard the Voice of God speak from heaven at the very moment when he baptized Jesus. Instead, he just told them, “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. And blessed are those who take no offense at me.”
In effect, Jesus told John’s messengers to go back to their imprisoned leader and tell him what they had experienced--seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. The blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf and the dead symbolized sinners and outcasts—and these people were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
Isaiah had said long before that the healing of such people would be the sign of God’s salvation. With Jesus, these pariahs were finding their “outsider” status no barrier to experiencing God’s unconditional love. As had been promised, weak hands and feeble knees were being strengthened, and fearful hearts were finding courage in Jesus’ presence. “Go, tell John what you hear and see... And blessed are those who take no offense at me.”
John had expected the Messiah would do his work with a display of terrifying power, bludgeoning evildoers with an iron rod. Instead, Jesus ministered to people with quiet talk, hospitality, humility, healing touch, and reconciling love. He didn’t push anybody around. He just said “Come, follow me,” and when people followed him, their lives were changed. They didn’t get rich. They weren’t spared suffering. They didn’t stop making mistakes; but they found a center for their souls. They tasted the unfailing, unconditional love of God, and that imparted a profound sense of safety, peace, and confidence to them. Then they were able to give themselves away in selfless love for others.
Here’s a challenge for us: How can WE answer a seeker—maybe someone who has already left the church or is about to leave it (and most of us know such people) —who asks us, “Is Jesus the one? Or should I keep looking?” Before we read them some Bible verses or present Jesus’ official credentials (Son of David, born of a Virgin, etc., etc.), perhaps we should ask, “Do you think you’ve ever personally encountered Jesus?”
For those of us who—like me—have come, through our own personal experiences, to feel deep in our souls that Jesus is indeed “the One we need,” I think the only honest answer we can give the seeker’s question has to be a version of the answer Jesus sent to John the Baptist. We have to say: “Tell me what you hear and see. What do you hear in the conversation and see in the behavior of the people you personally know who love Jesus and try to follow him? Look at them. Listen to them. —Do you notice the fearful ones who’ve become bold? …Or the greedy ‘takers’ who’ve changed into generous ‘givers’? …Do you see the arrogant who have become humble? …The cruel who now are kind? …And those once drowning in despair that now are filled with hope? Look at all the restless, driven souls who’ve found peace, the aimless wanderers now on a path, and the soul-dead who now seem vibrantly alive.
If you know anyone like that – and I bet you do – ask one of them to introduce you to Jesus!” Those who honestly look at the lives of Jesus’ true followers today can’t avoid this perception: Jesus changes people. And the people Jesus changes change the world around them.
You can’t be neutral about Jesus when you finally meet him and it dawns on you what he’s all about.
Then you find that either you are compelled to embrace him as Savior, or you feel driven to do everything you can to discredit him. Nobody in human history has ever elicited such radically opposite responses from people. And why is that? I believe it’s for just one reason: Jesus was and is God incarnate, God in our flesh, God with us …yesterday, today, and forever.
And that, my dear friends, is the Reason for the Season!