Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 15, 2019

Matthew 11:2-11 Commentary

“The War on Christmas.”  We have heard about this a lot in recent years.  Some while back people assailed Starbucks for removing the word “Christmas” from their holiday coffee cups.  Some were upset some years ago that the White House wished a blanket “Happy Holidays” instead of specifically mentioning Christmas.  And some while back the current President assured the country that in his White House, they would be wishing everyone a Merry Christmas without apology.

There is, in short, a fear that if we are not vigilant, we will lose the very Christ of Christmas himself.  This is a time of the year to be certain, to be firm, to stand up for the truth lest our whole celebration be watered down or flat out taken away from us.  Yet in this Third Sunday in Advent reading from Matthew 11, we actually encounter a text that casts something of a doubt-filled pall and a sense of uncertainty over the season after all.

A straightforward, commonsense reading of Matthew 11 would tell us that John the Baptist—unhappily rotting away in prison—has been getting reports about the work of Jesus, reports that struck him as being not nearly as interesting or dramatic as what he had hoped for.  Having flagged Jesus as the Coming One, as the Messiah, John (who has way too much time on his hands now) begins to wonder if he had made one of the biggest mistakes in history.  And so he dispatches a delegation of his own followers to ask Jesus an explosive question borne of doubt: “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?  You know, someone better?”

But for some, this kind of high-level doubt will never do.  And so recently I was assured by a well-meaning person that of course God’s chosen servant of John had no doubts.  That could never be.  No, no, no, John sent his disciples to Jesus to shore up their faith or perhaps to address the questions they may have expressed in John’s presence there in prison.  John the Baptist himself was forever and anon serene in his own certainty.

Plastic saints, in other words, need to remain beatific-looking at all times or they cannot be saints.  John the Baptist has to appear steely-eyed in his faith at all times.  His face can never look any different than how we’d depict it on a stained-glass window.  So in an effort to protect John’s character, we need to come up with another way to approach this and so we’ll throw John’s disciples under the proverbial bus in order to keep John himself cocooned safely inside of all that keeps faith ‘safe and secure from all alarms.’

But that will never do.  Not in Matthew 11.  It is eminently clear that John is the one asking the question and that John is the one to whom Jesus directs his answer.  Something about Jesus’ ministry disappointed John sufficiently as to make him doubt the very identity of Jesus as the Christ of God.  (I actually love the way Matthew frames this: in verse 2 he says “When John heard what Christ was doing . . .”  This is the first time in this gospel that Matthew as narrator refers to Jesus as “Christ” in the course of a story—it’s Matthew’s little hint of saying that Jesus is the Christ despite John’s doubts.  Good one, Matthew!)

But how and why does this count as an Advent text in the Year A Lectionary?  Surely there are other candidates to choose from for an Advent III text.  Who needs a story of doubt as to who Jesus is a scant two weeks before we again celebrate the birth of Jesus precisely on the belief that he is the Messiah?  It’s like trying to get ready for the Fourth of July by spending some time pondering whether the colonists were right to break away from England in the first place.  It’s like getting ready to celebrate your wedding anniversary by spending a week recalling the times when you had your doubts as to whether you should have married this person to begin with (and should you get a divorce after all and then see where that other girl, Linda, might be these days . . .?!).

No, doubts about Jesus don’t fit Advent.  This is a time of the year to be sure.  This is a time of the year to speak in the indicative and imperative moods, not the interrogative.  No one wants to approach the Third Sunday in Advent (by which time the church is all decked out in Christmas decorations) only to have someone say, “Are we right to celebrate this holiday or could we even now just possibly have the wrong Savior?”  (Talk about a war on Christmas!)

Still . . . I like this passage.  I like having it as part of Advent.  I wish we in the church wondered more not so much about whether Jesus is the One but whether or to what extent we succeed in acting like and following the One we hail to be both Lord and Christ.

You see, when Jesus answered John’s doubtful query, he pointed to what he had already been doing.  True, it was not quite the razzle-dazzle John has expected (what with all that fire-and-brimstone and axe to the root of the tree talk John had engaged in) but at the deepest levels of all that is important in life and in the world, Jesus was doing kingdom work.

Maybe preaching hope to poor and marginalized people did not seem like much, especially if anyone had been hoping that what the Messiah would be mostly all about would be speaking truth to power and slamming his fist into the face of Pontius Pilate or Herod.  But who needs hope in this world more than the ignored, the invisible, the “little ones” Jesus will talk about in Matthew 18?  And if not every blind person in Palestine could now see, some could as a sign of what was yet to come.  Not every disease had been cured, but some had and the kingdom that would come would bring more of the same.

As an Advent text ten days out from celebrating Christmas again in 2019, Matthew 11 can remind the church of what we are really to be all about, and sometimes it is not the things that we in the church try to be all about.  Too often today even the church wants to make a splash, shake up Washington, engage in power politics and headline-grabbing behavior.  We’d just as soon leave NO doubt as to who is who and what is what.

But Jesus leads us another way.  He leads to a cross first and then calls us to sacrificial living in a discipleship that needs to anticipate (and not be shocked by) resistance and even outright persecution.

There is a lot of fear in North American churches these days.  We fear that the rise in agnosticism and atheism and the growing number of mosques and other religious expressions are chasing out and threatening the hegemony of the Christian church (and of this allegedly “Christian nation”).  We want more John the Baptist and a little less Jesus, at least in terms of how we’d like our public ministry described.

But here in mid-Advent, Jesus uses John’s doubts as a teaching moment to remind us of what is truly important, and that is simple faithfulness to the kingdom in which our true citizenship lies.  We may not join John in doubting whether Jesus is the One or not.  But if we believe Jesus is the One, we can properly wonder how well we’re following him and if even the way we are celebrating and promoting Advent and Christmas in the church is reaching out to the poor and the marginalized and the disease-ridden in ways that may be quiet but that are nonetheless the business of grace that we are called to be preoccupied with at all times and in all places.

Note: Our Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.

Textual Notes

Matthew in chapter 11:2 was quite clever.  In that second verse Matthew referred to Jesus not by name but simply as “Christ.”  Within the narrative section of Matthew’s gospel this is only the second place where you find the word “Christ.”  The first came in chapter 2 when the Magi prompt King Herod to ask his Bible experts where “the Christ” was supposed to be born.  But Matthew has not called Jesus the Christ.  Until now.  Now he throws in the very loaded title of Christ, Messiah.  Everything Jesus is doing is happening only because he is the Christ.  By inserting this into the text, Matthew is pre-answering the question John the Baptist is about to raise.  Is Jesus the Christ?  Yes!

Illustration Idea

Have you ever felt really let down by something?  Maybe it was a meal at some well-known restaurant.  You’d looked forward to tasting this particular chef’s cuisine for so long but then when you actually got to try the food, it was strikingly . . . ordinary.  Or perhaps it was some long-anticipated movie: maybe it was the sequel to another film you had really enjoyed and so you had waited for years for the next installment of the series to come out.  You eagerly went to the theater on opening day only to discover the new movie turned out to be . . . really boring.

And so you feel let down, disappointed, deflated.

Well, if this has ever happened to you, then you perhaps also know that it’s finally a little difficult to admit that the food or the film in question really wasn’t all that good.  You maybe hedge a bit , do some hemming and hawing, when someone later asks you how it was. “Was it everything you thought it would be?” to which you reply, “Yeah, it was good. I, uh, I, um, I pretty well liked it.  Sure.  It was fine, OK, not bad—well, not too bad anyways.”

But deep down you know the truth: all your waiting looks to have been in vain.  Somebody in the kitchen or behind the camera let you down, leaving your high-flying expectations in tatters.

John the Baptist was disappointed.  He had “talked Jesus up” and was a kind of divine warm-up act for the star attraction of the salvation show.

Years ago I attended a taping of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in Burbank, California.  Before the taping began, the show’s announcer and second banana, Ed McMahon, came out and talked to the audience.  He cracked jokes and humorously reminded us to laugh at Johnny’s jokes when he came out so that we’d all be nice to the show’s star.  Ed warmed us up, got us ready.  We never saw Johnny himself, of course, until that moment when the band was fully cranked up and Ed said his famous intro “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny,” at which point the curtains parted and out stepped Mr. Carson.

John the Baptist was the warm-up.  He had spent years getting people ready to hear him say, “Heeeeeeere’s Messiah!” but in this case when the curtain parted, the man who stepped forward ended up being camera shy.  He ducked the spotlight.  He muffed his lines.  He fled to out-of-the-way places.  John sensed that the audience was let down, and so was he.

No doubt it took a while before John could even admit this to himself and dispatch some followers to check this out with Jesus himself.  The open question never answered in the New Testament was whether the answer Jesus gave provided John once more with hope.


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