Advent 3A: Watch Your Step
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 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, I, I pretty well liked it. It was fine. OK. Not bad.” 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.
Shift to Matthew 11. John the Baptist is in prison. In prison. Let those two little words sink in. He’s in prison. A not so nice place to be. In prison. The very man who had attracted a flurry of attention in recent years because of his no-holds-barred announcements of a new world order that was just around the corner; this one, this man, this fiery preacher who shook up everything and everyone with his blazing rhetoric about kingdom come; this John, this man, this preacher is in prison. In prison.
And he’s got a question. He’s in prison where you have nothing but time to think and so John’s has come up with a question. But the person to whom he wants to pose that question isn’t there and hasn’t visited him lately, either. So John dispatches a cadre of his friends to go to Galilee, track down his cousin Jesus, and confront him with the question which was tormenting John there in prison.
“Are you the one, or should we be expecting someone else one of these here days?” This is a question borne of let-down. John’s in prison. In prison, which is the last place he ever thought he’d end up. Worse yet, the reason he is in prison is precisely because he had gotten into a snoot-full of trouble by announcing that his cousin Jesus was the lamb of God, the Messiah, the Christ, the One whose sandals John himself was not even fit to carry or lace up. John was in prison because he’d told the world that his baptism by water was nothing compared to the baptism by fire that Jesus would soon unleash.
That’s what landed John in prison. But as the days and weeks passed, it became increasingly clear that Jesus was not going to do anything to spring John from his cell. No political revolution was on the horizon which could lead to John’s release and pardon by the new emperor named Jesus. Plus, Jesus was not baptizing anybody, not even with water much less by fire. In fact, though John had heard many reports and rumblings about what Jesus was doing way out in the sticks of Galilee, the simple fact of the matter was that Jesus was out in the sticks, quietly performing a ministry which no one would describe as fiery.
John had been the preview of coming attractions. He was like those titillating movie previews you see before the main feature–those trailers that make the film you’re looking forward to appear to be spectacular and gripping and just generally everything you’re hoping it will be. John had presented and packaged Jesus a certain way, but Jesus was flat out not living up to John’s advance billing. In his darker moments, John thinks he landed in prison for nothing. He just maybe had pegged the wrong man. He’s in prison, and he’s got a question. “Jesus, are you the One or what? Is anybody else–anybody better–waiting in the wings? If so, bring him on before it’s too late!”
Do you think Jesus winced when heard that question as delivered by John’s disciples? It is a cutting question, a piercing inquiry. It had to hurt a little. All Jesus can do in answering this painful query is to tell John’s disciples to tell John what they had seen and heard: some true miracles were being done here and there and genuinely good news was getting preached to the poor. It was an interesting answer in several ways.
First, isn’t it fascinating to realize that if John was going to believe Jesus was the Messiah, he would have to do so the exact same way we do: by believing what other people report about Jesus and his ministry! John himself was not able to hear Jesus’ words directly nor could he witness a single miracle in person. John would just have to believe the testimony of the disciples, which is all we have to go on, too. We have to believe that what the disciples claim they saw and heard is the truth.
A second curiosity is that apparently Jesus is telling John what he already knows. We were told in verse 2 that in prison John had already heard what Jesus was doing. Actually, that’s not quite what verse 2 says. Did you notice how clever Matthew was? He 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. John has heard about Jesus’ activity and yet he himself is not at all certain that this is what the Christ should be doing. So John asks his painful question only to receive an answer from Jesus which repeats what John has already heard.
But the third interesting thing about Jesus’ answer is the last line he tacks on: “Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me.” In a way that little tag line is Jesus’ gentle way of kicking John in the pants! Even so, Jesus is being kind and compassionate with John. Jesus did not say, “Blessed is the one who never, ever has the slightest doubt about me!” Had he said something like that Jesus would have slammed John as well as anyone else who has ever harbored a doubt in the quiet recesses of his or her heart. But Jesus didn’t chide John for having a hard time figuring everything out. Jesus did not deny that his ministry was rather surprisingly quiet even as it was happening in rather out-of-the-way locales.
Jesus was the Christ, as Matthew told us in verse 2. He was doing God’s work, the most important part of which was preaching good news to the poor. The power of God’s Spirit was upon Jesus, even if that Spirit was not manifesting itself in the fiery ways John had maybe envisioned. It was all true. But believing that required accepting the peculiar shape Jesus’ ministry was taking. John had drilled a round hole to make way for Jesus’ ministry, but the actual ministry looked like a square peg.
The NIV translates Jesus’ words in verse 6 as blessing the one “who does not fall away on account of me.” Actually, the original word in the Greek is skandalizo, which means to be scandalized by Jesus. Even more originally, in Jesus’ day a “scandal” was literally something you could trip over and so cause you to fall flat on your face. So if you left a box in the middle of a dark hallway and someone took a header over it, the Greeks would say that the box was a skandalon, a scandal, something that can trip people up.
In order to enter God’s kingdom you need to pass through Jesus. He is the door, the way, the gate that leads to life. So blessed are those who can pass through that door without tripping over the nature of Jesus’ life and ministry. Blessed is anybody who can see Jesus for who he really is despite the fact that Jesus led no major political revolutions, made apparently no impact on the Caesar in his day. Blessed is anybody who can admit that Jesus really did get crossed out by the Romans while at the same time believing he is the resurrected Lord of life even yet today.
All John had to go on was the gospel as reported by others. All John could do was live with the contradictions he felt in his heart and in the actual circumstances of his life. He had introduced God’s Christ to the world, laid the groundwork and prepared the way for Jesus, and yet now he was in prison. He was rotting in prison even as the Jesus he had so highly touted was way out in Timbuktu doing what, to John’s mind anyway, looked like the spiritual equivalent of doing no more than helping little old ladies across the street!
That’s the way John saw things through the bars of his prison cell. John’s faith, if it was going to exist at all, had to embrace and live with the contradictions. It was not merely doubt which John had to overcome but glaring inconsistency. Jesus as much as admits to the oddity of it all but can finally do no more than beg that people not trip over it, not fall on their faces because of it. Faith is as often as not a matter of maintaining your balance while you walk across the bumpy contradictions of life; faith is as often as not the ability to live with a certain measure of creative tension between what you believe in your heart and what you so often see with your eyes.
We are not in prison today. We are not in a situation comparable to John the Baptist’s situation on that long ago day as reported in Matthew 11. We’ve even got twenty centuries’ worth of people having faith in Jesus as God’s Christ to help bolster our own faith. Still, if we are honest, we admit that we, too, live with certain tensions and contradictions. One such wrinkle is on display before our very eyes this first Sunday in Lent. Here, right down there on our communion table, are chunks of bread and shot glasses of wine. Somehow we are supposed to see Jesus in those mundane elements. More than that, we are supposed to see our Savior chopped up and spilled out in those elements. The broken bread and the spilled wine have just one purpose, liturgically: they are to remind us that Jesus died.
He was no Superman impervious to pain and immune to death. This Jesus whom we adore was human. He could be hurt and he was. He could be killed and he was. He died. Period. End of story, according to many people anyway. But not according to us! We believe the preposterous notion that this quixotic carpenter’s son who whiled away his life in the backwaters of the Roman Empire was not merely significant but was the very Son of God. We think that somehow, some way, in and through all the surprising and confusing things he both said and did, Jesus was bringing in the kingdom of God.
We’re not in prison. We’re not John the Baptist whose images and ideas of God’s Christ got altered by the actual Messiah who showed up. But our faith, like John’s faith, still has to live with the contradictions. We still live with a measure of creative tension. Jesus did not rebuke John for his doubt, and that maybe is comforting. Because as C.S. Lewis once said, surely there are times in all of our lives when the whole Christian story seems outrageous! Can it really be that the very Son of God lived, died, and rose again on the surface of this tired old planet Earth!? And if so, can it really be the case that some 2,000 years later people argue about whether or not it ever happened?! If God himself once walked around on this earth, shouldn’t that be blazingly obvious?
How can it be that anyone could miss what Christians claim is the galaxy’s single most important event: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!? To this day if you tell a devout Jew that Jesus is everyone’s true Messiah and King, the Jew will likely ask you, “If Messiah has come, where is his kingdom? Why don’t things look a lot better than they do?” If we’re honest, we admit that we feel the sting of that question in a way similar to how John’s question must have stung Jesus that day.
But then the world always wants to see more. At the end of today’s passage Jesus compares the world to stubborn children who insist that everyone play only their games according to their rules. We’ve all seen such bossy kids on the playground–they alone want to call the shots for whatever game they have dictated everyone play. So also, Jesus says, are the people in this world who want to tell God to play according to their rules, to dance to their tunes, to display power according to their definitions of what constitutes power. But you can’t win with people like that, Jesus says. John lived an austere life, and the world called him nuts. Jesus lived an exuberant life, and the world called him a playboy.
You can’t win with those folks, you can’t let them dictate what your faith should look like. So like John the Baptist, we are called to faith in the gospel. Maybe it doesn’t all add up according to the world’s way of doing spiritual arithmetic. Maybe we ourselves see the apparent contradictions between the Jesus who we believe rules the world and a world which is still so shot-through with pain and difficulty. So all we can do is pray for God to strengthen our faith. Through our encounter with these sacred elements at the Lord’s Table–and through the paradox of a crucified God to which the bread and wine direct us–through this sacrament we try to see with clarity once again the truth of what the disciples saw and heard. Because today, as 2,000 years ago, Jesus is either the stepping stone to life abundant or a clumsy, scandalous stone you trip and fall over.
By grace we have been given the chance to see the truth. By grace God keeps us from tripping over Jesus but instead Jesus becomes our entry into eternal life. Only the Holy Spirit can show you this truth. And if we can see it at all, then this is cause for doxology, for praise, for thanksgiving! Amen.
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