Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 16, 2007

2007.12.16 “Tell Me What You See”

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Tell Me What You See”

December 16th, 2007

 The 3rd Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11: 2 – 11

Pastor David L. Haley

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and 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 is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” – Matthew 11: 2 – 11, NRSV

      Sixty-four years ago, in 1943, German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in his prison cell, writing a letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.  Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for conspiracy in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and, though he didn’t know it then, he would be hung two weeks before Germany surrendered and the war ended.  Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer wrote to Maria:

“My dearest Maria, . . . by the time you receive this letter it will probably be Advent, a time especially dear to me.  A prison cell like this, in which one watches and hopes and performs this or that ultimately insignificant task, and in which one is wholly dependent on the doors being opened from the outside, is far from an inappropriate metaphor for Advent.”  (21 November 1943, Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 118).

        There seems to be something about prison cells and the Christian faith, which not only gives us clues about the subversive nature of Christianity, but also gives us some of our best theological writing.  For example, some of the Apostle Paul’s best work was done from a prison cell.  The book of Revelation was written from a prison cell.  In our time, one thinks not only of Bonhoeffer, but Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

      Fortunately for most of us, jail is not an experience we have shared.  But Bonhoeffer’s point is taken:  there are times when life has this feeling, when we are confined in situations that depress, and discourage us; stuck in prisons of dullness or loneliness or life without passion or purpose; when we are caught in prisons of grief, guilt, self-hatred, anger or resentment.  Sometimes, these are prisons of our own construction; sometimes, they are prisons — as Bonhoeffer noted — whose doors can only be opened from the outside.

      This was literally the situation John the Baptist was in, in today’s Gospel.  You might think this an odd text to plunk down in the church in the middle of Advent, one we might prefer to skip and go on to something more Christmas-like.  But that would be a mistake.  Because in this text the very signs of the Kingdom revealed, the same Kingdom Jesus was born to inaugurate and the Kingdom he taught us to pray for daily: “Thy kingdom come.”  How will we know when it does?  This text is an answer to that question.

      Here’s the situation.  John the Baptist is in Herod’s prison, the result of a little pointed preaching about Herod consorting with his brother’s wife.  You know what’s going to happen: thanks to a little exotic dancing by Salome, John’s going to lose his head.

            So, as Samuel Johnson once observed, “The knowledge that one is to be hung in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.” But John is confused, doubtful, uncertain. Ever wonder if you are doing the right thing, if you made the right choice, took the right job?  That’s the way John felt.  “Am I on the right track?” “After all, a man should not be in jail for doing the right thing, should he?” “If I was wrong about this, could I also be wrong about Jesus?” Advent is a time to gain strength from the stories of people like John the Baptist and Mary, who continued faithfully in spite of doubt and uncertainty, even confusion about who Jesus was.

As the days and weeks passed, it became increasingly clear to John that Jesus was not going to do anything to spring John from his cell or topple Herod from this throne.  Plus, Jesus was not baptizing anybody, not even with water much less by fire.

 

            So John sent his followers to Jesus, who ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

      John would not be the last to feel disappointment.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:

      “People’s expectations of Christ’s second coming grew in proportion to their disappointment with his first.  Even after his death and resurrection, all kinds of ancient hopes lay unfulfilled. Waters did not break forth in the wilderness.  No lions lay down with any lambs.  God’s kingdom did not come, but Titus’s troops did.  In the fall of 70 Anno Domini, after a long and merciless siege, the Romans burned the Temple in Jerusalem to the ground and most of the city with it.  Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?”

        Even today, people still ask this question. The wildly popular “Left Behind” series, which portrays the “Second Coming” of Jesus as the avenging Christ who slays his enemies and finally sets everything right, appeals to people disappointed with the Christ who came the first time.  But if we take his Second Coming as his Resurrection, where he preached and did the same things as he did the first time, we realize, that what we see is what we get.  No matter how many times he comes, he’s going to be the same kind of Messiah.

Perhaps we should still look into the manger, crinkle up our noses, and say, “Is this it? Is this the one that we’re making all the fuss about? Is this all we get or should we wait for another?”

And what did Jesus say? “Yes sir-ee-John, I’m it, the Messiah promised in the ancient Scriptures, no black or white about it.”  No. He didn’t say that, in fact, almost nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus give a direct answer, and the instances where he does do so are suspect as placed in his mouth by his followers. 

        Perhaps the reason why is that then, as now, they had such wrong ideas of who the Messiah was supposed to be. As the English author George MacDonald once put it in a poem:

“They were expecting a warrior king,

to slay their foes and hang them high,

Thou camst a little baby thing,

that made a woman cry.“

        So what did Jesus say?  He said, “Go and 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 is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

          In other words, he is, through his words and works of mercy, inaugurating the topsy-turvy kingdom as foretold in Isaiah, where the blind shall see and the deaf shall hear, where the lame shall leap and the mute shall sing.”  These are the signs of the Kingdom of God.

      As Barbara Brown Taylor asks:

      “Wouldn’t it have been more striking if Jesus had said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the terror is over, the evil are defeated, the occupation is ended, and the oppressors are sent home”?  Wouldn’t the world have been a better place if Jesus had said, “the homeless are housed, the poor receive a living wage, the scales of justice are restored and the wealth spread evenly around”? ­(Barbara Brown Taylor, Duke University Chapel, December 12, 2004)

      But he didn’t.  What he said was quote the metaphorical words of Isaiah: “Wherever 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, the kingdom of God is present.

      And conversely, whenever the kingdom is preached and practiced, this is what you can expect to 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.”

      In many ways, more questions are raised than answered. Does the Church still reflect the Kingdom presence, or have we trivialized the Gospel, practicing sentimentality, but not substance? As one said, “What Jesus preached was the Kingdom; what he got was the Church.” And then, do our lives as Christians reflect God’s kingdom presence, or have we turned it into a Gospel “all about me”?

Who are the blind today? Who is blind to what is obvious?  As Helen Keller once said, herself blind, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

      Who are the lame? Who are those people crippled — not necessarily in their bodies — but in their life and relationships, and worst of all, in spirit?

      What lepers are cleansed? Who are the untouchables today, shunned and scorned by society, in need not of blame and rejection, but compassion and caring?

      Who are the deaf? What truth do the deaf refuse to hear?  Are we among them?  Say what?

      Who are the dead today? Where and how are the dead being raised?

      Are the wretched of the earth still hearing that God is on their side? Does Jesus — does the Church — does the United Methodist Church — does Central United Methodist Church — still bring good news to the poor?

      All these are questions worth asking again, as once again at Christmastime, we celebrate the birth of a baby born in a stable.

Howard Thurman, (19001981) was an author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader, a poet and a mystic. Ebony magazine once called Thurman one of the 50 most important figures in African American history, and Life magazine rated him among the 12 best preachers in the nation.  Among his many contributions was a little poem, which you sometimes see in a song.  It’s called, “The Work of Christmas.”  Here is what it says:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers,

To make music in the heart.”

—     The Mood of Christmas, 23

      These are the signs of the kingdom. Wherever they are found, in times ancient or modern, the kingdom of God has come.  “Tell me what you see.”  Amen.

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