Advent 3, 2010
Tell Him What You See
First off, I am going to apologize for this sermon. This is not the kind of sermon I usually like to give. I like to preach things that will be enlightening and uplifting. And I really like people to walk away from a service with two feelings: one is being challenged and the second is being supported and empowered for that challenge. But with today’s gospel reading, I am having trouble with the supported and empowered part. I think we have plenty to challenge us in today’s readings; that is not the problem. What I see as the problem is that we don’t have a lot to feel uplifted about.
Let’s first look at the story. John the Baptist is in prison. He has been out spreading the message to the people that the messiah, the anointed one, was coming. Because of his message, the authorities of the time have gotten just a little upset with him. And how little was this upset? Enough upset to get John thrown in jail and eventually enough to get him beheaded. That is not much upset at all, right?
So we have John in jail; awaiting who knows what. John sends his followers to see if Jesus really is the messiah. John wants to be reassured that what he had been giving his life to had, in fact, been the proper Rabbi, not just another person claiming messiah status.
Now, Jesus could have been nice and simply answered, “Yes, that would be me!” and sent John’s disciples back. But, of course, Jesus won’t just answer the question and be done with it. No, Jesus refers back to the passage in Isaiah that tells what to expect when the messiah comes: the blind see; the deaf hear; the poor are raised… What Jesus is saying is, “Look around, all the things that have been foretold are occurring. If all these things are happening, then you should assume that the Messiah is here.” So without actually answering the question, Jesus IS answering the question.
If we were to look around today, would we be able to tell that Jesus is the Messiah? If we were to go back and tell John what we see and hear in the world today, my guess is that it would be much different than what Jesus presents. People are starving. People are being tortured. People are indiscriminately blowing each other up. (I guess it wouldn’t be much better even if they were discriminately blowing each other up.) People are walking into schools and killing each other. We may listen to politicians, but we certainly NOT hearing good news. In many ways, hatred seems more present than ever.
This is, in part, the reason that many Jewish people give for not believing that Jesus is the messiah. If the messiah has already come into the world, then how come the world is so messed up? How could something like the Holocaust happen if the Son of God has come to redeem the world? How can oppression and exploitation exist if the Good News has come to the world? How can we claim that Christ is the Messiah when the fruits of the Messiah’s presence are nowhere to be found? And you must admit, that is a pretty hard argument to refute.
When we look at the world, it is difficult not to get depressed. The way things are now, even places of worship need to have armed guards. One group of people is telling another that they are wrong and neither side gives any credence to the point of view of the other. It is pretty depressing. If we proclaim that Christ is alive, where are the blind gaining their sight? Where are the deaf, hearing? Where are the poor having the good news brought to them?
Is the fulfillment of Isaiah being lived out in our malls? In our schools? In our jobs? Within our congregations? Are we, as a country and a world, focusing on the needs of those around us or are we just searching for ways to hide and keep ourselves safe? If John were alive today, would he believe that his life was given for a purpose or would he assume it was given for some kind of pipedream?
In all honesty, I don’t know if things were really all that much better in the time of Jesus. In Biblical times, they had their problems too. There were people who were hungry. There were people who were homeless. There were people who were begging. There were people who were warring. And in actuality, it probably is better now than it was back then. But that does not get us off the hook. We know that the world could be a better place for us all. And it is this world, this better world, that Jesus points us to.
John’s disciples could have gone back to him and said, “That Jesus guy is crazy. On the way back here, we were accosted by five blind beggars. And when we tried to tell them that the Messiah had arrived, they all pointed to their ears and said, ‘Huh?’” Even with Jesus in their midst, I am sure that the problems of society continued.
But I am also sure Jesus was not lying. Miracles were happening. The blind were receiving their sight. The deaf were able to hear. It may not have been happening to everyone, BUT IT WAS HAPPENING! And this is the important thing, just because it was not happening to all didn’t mean that it unimportant! It reminds me of a story I heard. A man was walking down a beach and noticed thousands of baby turtles scurrying to get into the water. But many, if not most, of the turtles were being eaten by the birds that saw the whole thing as nature’s “All You Can Eat” buffet. Now the man also saw a woman picking up baby turtles and she would toss each baby turtle into the water. Well, the man decided to tell the woman how silly this was. He said, “Look at all the baby turtles and so many of them are being eaten. Picking up one here and there and throwing it in the water isn’t going to make any difference. Why bother?” At this question, the woman looked at the little turtle in her hand, and then heaved it into the ocean. She turned and responded to the man, “It made a difference to that one.”
If we turn on the news, it is tough to not get overwhelmed. It is tough not to just look at the situation of the world and turn away in disgust. Really, the whole thing looks like a losing battle. But that would be like the woman saying that since she cannot save all of the turtles, she would not save any of the turtles.
I’m guessing that God may feel very similarly. There was so much happening. The sin in the world was so great. God could have just turned away from our world and have forgotten all about humanity. God could have just abandoned us and left us to our own will. But instead, God sent Jesus.
Now Jesus could have looked at the Middle East of Biblical times and decide that the problem was just too big for one man and decided to do nothing, but he didn’t. He went out. And even though he could not encounter every blind, deaf, or poor person in the world, he healed those whom he did encounter. Just because he could not physically touch all of them didn’t mean that he shouldn’t touch any of them. While Jesus was on earth, he did what he could for those who were near him. He healed those who came to him and brought the good news to those who would listen.
We, as Jesus’ followers, are also called to likewise go out into the world. Even though it may look like the problem is just too big, we are still to go out and be the light of Christ in the world. That is one of the things about the Gospel of Matthew; Jesus is always calling us, not just to faith, but also to action. It is in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus gives the great commission, telling the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” And we too are called to go out into the world and make disciples. And in most cases, that is going to be one person at a time.
This too was the way John had gone out into the world. John went to the people and spoke of the one that was to follow. And this is also what Jesus is referencing in that somewhat confusing last section of the gospel reading. How can Jesus say that no one has arisen greater but yet say that he is the least of those in heaven? Seems kind of confusing.
What Jesus is referring to is that John is the last and the greatest of the “Old” prophets. John is the last prophet before Jesus is risen to glory. John was the greatest of prophets, but like I said last week, he does not have the whole story; John does not know about the resurrection. But it is us, the ones who come after that may be the least in the kingdom of heaven but are greater than he. We have the knowledge and promise of the risen Christ where John did not.
And it is through the risen Christ that God scooped up all of us turtles on the beach and tossed us into the ocean of forgiveness. It is through the risen Christ that we are given new sight. It is through the risen Christ that our have our ears opened to hear the good news. We have what John did not have and could not know; we have the blessing that God spread over the world.
So we are able to go out and to do more than we ever thought was possible. We are able to bring healing to a world that is in pain. Now granted, we may not be able to bring this healing to the whole entire globe, but we can bring it to our family, our places of work, to our congregation, we can even bring it to those we meet in our daily lives. When Christ was on earth, he was just in one spot. But through the power of Christ’s Spirit within us, that power can encircle the world. Just by doing our part, we help create the world that Jesus told the disciples to report to John. But as with the theme of Advent, we are not there yet. We may never get there in our lifetime. But this is the vision Jesus would have us strive for and as we look to that day when we remember Jesus’ birth, we also look to the day when reign of God will be here on earth.
That is our challenge. And I guess we have the uplifting promise of the Spirit. So this isn’t as bad as I suspected. In Advent, we have both, the promise and the expectation. But with Christ, we can live in that tension and still go out to spread God’s love to all we meet.