Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 11, 2016

2016.12.11 “Signs of the Kingdom” – Matthew 11: 2 – 11

Central United Methodist Church
Signs of the Kingdom
Matthew 11: 2 – 11
The 5th Sunday of Extended Advent
December 11, 2016

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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

Dietrich BonhoefferSeventy-three years ago, in 1943, German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in a prison cell, writing a letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer:

“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).

What is it about imprisonment and prison cells that produces some of our best theological and philosophical writing? Large parts of the New Testament, including several Letters of the Apostle Paul and the Revelation of St. John, were written from prison cells. In our time, one thinks not only of Bonhoeffer, but of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the influence of his powerful Letter from a Birmingham Jail. What is it? Perhaps it is the change in focus: away from the distractions that usually control our lives to the essentials: What is important? As 18th century English lexicographer Samuel Johnson once put it: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Mercifully, though most of us have not experience imprisonment or prison cells, but there are times in our life where we understand the metaphor. This time of year, when we spend much of our time in the dark, can seem like a form of imprisonment. This time of year, when everyone is telling us to be happy, we may feel confined in depression and discouragement; stuck in prisons of boredom or loneliness or life without passion or purpose; we may be captive to 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. No wonder many congregations offer “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” services, for those who feel the opposite of how they are supposed to feel during the holidays.

In today’s Gospel, no less than John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, finds himself in such a “blue” mood. Yes, the same John the Baptist we hear preaching out on the River Jordan last week, with fiery abandon.

It is such fiery abandon that got him imprisoned; criticizing King Herod’s consortium with his brother’s wife. Didn’t we warn you, John, not to preach politics? Now, sitting there in the dark, under threat of his life, John has plenty of time to think, even to brood, like most of us in our darker moments, even during Advent. Understandably, John is confused, doubtful, uncertain. Ever wonder if you are doing the right thing, if you made the right choice, took the right job, married the wrong person, even that your whole life might have been wasted? That’s the way John felt. Advent – a time of darkness and waiting – is a time to gain strength from the stories of people like John and Mary, who served God faithfully despite their doubts and uncertainties.

In ancient prisons, prisoners were not cared for by their keepers, but by friends, family, in John’s case his disciples. In this way, John undoubtedly heard news of Jesus’ ministry: lepers were cleansed, the lame walked, sight was restored to the blind, and the dead were raised. Surely John remembered Isaiah 35, the passage we read earlier about the Messianic Age. Perhaps he was also hopefully waiting for Jesus to fulfill Isaiah 61:1, “to proclaim liberty to captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”

But as the days and weeks passed, it became 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 followers to Jesus, asking 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?”

In Advent, we may feel the same way, and ask the same question. After all these grand and glorious promises we have heard about swords being beaten into plowshares, lions lying down with lambs, and streams in the desert, and all we got instead was a red hat with a promise to “Make America Great Again,” which apparently means living without Obamacare, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. So this Christmas we too may look into the manger and ask, “Is this it? Is this all we get or should we wait for another?”

And what did Jesus answer, in response to John’s urgent question? “Yes sir, John, I’m him, the Messiah promised in the Scriptures, no doubt about it.” No; Jesus 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.

What Jesus did say was this: “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 Barbara Brown Taylor says:

“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 Jesus did was quote these ancient 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: these are the signs of the Kingdom of God.

In many ways, Jesus’ response raises more questions than answers.

Who are the blind and the deaf today? And what are we blind and deaf to? As Father Richard Rohr says, “Most people do not see things as they ARE because they see things as THEY are!”

Who are the lame? Who are those deformed — not necessarily in their bodies — but in their lives and relationships, and – worst of all – in their spirits, such that they (we) do not feel love and compassion for our brothers and sisters, but only hate and resentment?

What lepers are cleansed? Who are the untouchables of today, shunned and scorned, who are those in need not of blame and rejection, but compassion and caring? Immigrants and refugees? Muslims? LGBTQ persons?

Are the poor still hearing good news? From government? From Church? From anybody? Why have we become church for what’s left of the middle class? Given what’s happened to the middle class, is that why we dying? Have we in the church become so incapacitated by our need FOR money, that we are no longer able to reach out and minister to those who have little or no money?

If the country can’t have a female president yet, I am thankful we have more and more outspoken and courageous female pastors. I could name Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver; Rev. Shannon Kershner at Fourth Presbyterian Church here in Chicago; Ginger Gaines-Cirelli of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C.; and the Rev. Amy Butler at the prestigious Riverside Church in New York City, the seventh senior minister and the first female to hold that position. If you think we have money problems, churches like Riverside have the same problem, except in terms of millions rather than thousands. So I appreciated what she had to say following the election, expressing a conclusion with which many of us would agree:

“The day after the election I was sitting in my colleague Michael’s office, wondering aloud what the results of the election meant for our work as the church. He said something I will never forget. He said: “You know, we’ve been working together here for two years, giving everything we have to help this church get healthy. All this time we thought we were working so hard to insure the health of the institution — both this one and the Church with a big “C.” But maybe that’s not what we’ve been working for after all. Maybe this election has created a moment in which we will have to decide whether we really believe what we say we believe as Christians. Maybe this is the moment we’ve been working for our whole lives.” (Amy Butler, “The Moment the Church Has Been Working For,” Baptist New Global, November 29, 2016)

Echoing Jesus, we ask: “What are we seeing? Are we seeing the signs of God’s kingdom? Are the blind receiving sight; the lame walking lepers being cleansed; the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, the poor receiving good news?” “Is Jesus the one to come, or should we look for another? All these are questions still worth asking; especially at Christmastime, as once again we celebrate the birth of a baby born in a stable.

howardthurmanHoward 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, sometimes sung, 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.”

These things are not only the work of Christmas, they are the work of Christians, signs of the Kingdom of God. Even though we may wait in the darkness, feeling helpless and hopeless as in a prison cell – let us be about them, this Advent, this Christmas, and in the year to come. Amen.

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