Tuesday, December 11, 2007

3rd Sunday in Advent, Matthew 11:2-11, December 16(9)

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “ ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Mt 11:2-11, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Do you ever have doubts? Well, I do… I think everybody has doubts of one kind or another. Doubts about family, doubts about our abilities, doubts about the situation of the world, doubts about the economy, and doubts about faith. You pick up a Newsweek or Time magazine and they have an article about Jesus that seems to be so reasonable, yet, it says that most of what you believe about Jesus is made up or wrong. It says that you can’t trust the Bible because it was made up by people with a political agenda. It says that “scholars” agree. It shouldn’t be a surprise, what they says. They look at Jesus through the same old tired eyes every year. Their list of “Biblical Scholars” is hardly mainstream and their “facts” don’t stand up to real historical scrutiny. But I really don’t think they care about the truth. What they really want is to sell magazines. And a provocative story that makes people angry will sell magazines. Lot’s of people will buy the magazine just to see what it says. I’ll bet in fact, that at least one of you was tempted to buy a copy for the pastor. It’s not necessary; I have the internet I can read it for free. (But the truth is I knew exactly what they were going to say before I read it). And still, it’s enough to make you wonder. It’s enough to make you doubt. Doubt is a part of being human. All of us have doubts. Anybody who says they don’t have any doubts at all isn’t being entirely honest.

So what about doubts, especially doubts about our faith? Well, it is OK to have doubts; you might even say that having doubts puts us in pretty great company. What was it that Jesus said about John? Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. That’s pretty high praise! There has not risen anyone greater than John. When we think of John the Baptist we don’t often think of doubt, do we? We saw him last week standing by the Jordan River shouting down the Pharisees and the Sadducees, calling them “You brood of vipers! You hypocrites!” He doesn’t sound much like a guy with many doubts about what he is saying or doing. And people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. He was a popular guy. He had a hopping river ministry going there by the Jordan. It sure doesn’t sound like the work of a guy who would have doubts.

I think, though, if we look at a few things we can see that maybe John, even though he was a great (the greatest!) prophet, may have indeed had some doubts. Just maybe he was plagued by some of the same thoughts we are. Maybe John was human, too.

First, I want you to remember, again, what we talked about last week. What was John preaching out there in the wilderness? “The ax is at the root of the trees!” he said. “Judgment is coming, especially for those who are hypocritical. I have come to baptize you with water, but he is coming to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire!” He was saying that God would come to set things right. Fire burns away the chaff and purifies. John knew who he was. He had no identity crisis about himself. He was the ‘voice in the wilderness’ that Isaiah said was coming. He was confident in his calling. He was confident that God was coming to be King over the whole world. And that meant that everything would be different, nothing would be the same. John knew that God’s kingdom was coming.

Now, remembering John’s confidence, look where we find him this morning, in Herod’s prison. That doesn’t sound much like God is reigning over the world. If Jesus says that John is the greatest prophet, what’s he doing in prison? That doesn’t sound much like God is in control. That sounds like King Herod is in control. It sounds like nothing has really changed with Jesus beginning his ministry. After John was arrested, as he must have sat there in his chains in the dark dampness of Herod’s dungeon, wondering if all that he was waiting for had not yet begun. When he heard about Jesus, and there didn’t seem to be much ‘fire’ going on, he may have asked “what’s up with this?” There alone in that prison, he may have begun to wonder, “Why am I in chains?” Why is the king threatening my life? When will God begin doing what I was suppose to tell them was beginning? Maybe I’m wrong about Jesus, being the one who is bringing the kingdom.”

I can relate to John. I think you can, too. If what John said was true and Jesus brings the reigning of God over everything, then why do people have to suffer? Why don’t some people have the food they need? Why do we have wars that kill thousands? Why is there sickness, cancer in my family? Why can’t my community be the way it used to be? Why does everything have to change? Maybe, we wonder, Jesus doesn’t bring the kingdom of God after all. Maybe the baby in the manger isn’t really the answer to the world’s problems. We may ask, just like John, “Is this really the kingdom of God?”

Well, Jesus doesn’t condemn John for his doubts. He doesn’t say, “John can’t you see what’s going on here? Are you so weak in your faith that a little trouble in your life throws you into a panic? No that’s not what he says at all. He tells John, through his messengers, to look at what is happing, to look at what Jesus is doing. “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” He gives John just what John needs to hear. He gives confirmation that Jesus is indeed the coming King; confirmation that Jesus is doing everything according to God’s plan. Even if he isn’t acting like John expected, God’s reign is breaking into the world. Things really are changing, and the changes can be seen by anyone who looks to see what Jesus is doing.

Jesus describes to John, what happens when people in need come in contact with a God who loves them. Things begin to return to the way that God intended wants them to be; when the relationship between God and man is restored. God didn’t create eyes to be blind; he created them to see. He didn’t create legs to be crippled, but to walk and run. He didn’t create skin to be full of sores and ears to be unable to hear; or our bodies to be racked by cancer, or other illnesses. He created them to be whole, and he certainly didn’t create human beings to die. Everywhere Jesus went he left in his tracks the signs of the fact that God had come into the world to set it right again. That’s what the Gospel means when it talks about the coming of the Kingdom of God. “And,” Jesus said to John, “the good news about all that I am doing, is being preached to the poor.” At that very moment, John may have very well felt very poor, there in that dank dark prison, alone with his doubts. But Jesus tells him, “don’t worry John; the kingdom of God has come. I am the one who brings it. I am the Messiah!”

Jesus Christ does bring the kingdom of God, he brought it to John. He brought it to all those that were around him, the poor, the lame, the deaf and the blind. And he brings it to you and me. But, he brings it in a way that we would never expect. He brings by his suffering and death. It just doesn’t seem right. We expect a king to establish his kingdom with power. Instead Jesus establishes his in weakness. We expect a king to rule from a jewel encrusted throne. Jesus rules over his kingdom from the cross. It was there that he showed his great love for us. It was there that he came into contact with us for our greatest need. It was there that he mended our broken relationship with God by paying the penalty for our separation. The separation that causes us doubts. He brings his kingdom with his own blood. He restores us to himself in a way that we don’t expect.

We don’t really expect good things to come from suffering. We especially don’t expect God to establish his good and perfect kingdom through suffering. But that is exactly what he did. And it may even look foolish to us. But this is what God’s kingdom looks like: John the Baptist suffers in prison facing sure death, Christians struggle every day with sin and doubt. At those times God’s kingdom doesn’t look at all like we’d expect. It is time like these that we may doubt weather his kingdom has come at all. Maybe that’s what happened to John. But, here again, John can be an example for us. When he doubted he knew where to turn in faith. He knew who would have the answers for his suffering, and his doubts. He turned to Jesus.

When we doubt we turn to Jesus, too. We do it because he is reigning. We do it because his kingdom has come to us. It comes to us here in this place, through his Word where he assures us of his love for us, and what he has done for us to restore us to the kingdom. He does it here in baptism. Where he takes each of us and makes his very own child an heir of his kingdom. He does it by giving us the food of his kingdom, his very own body and blood shed for the restoration of our relationship to him.

We are members of his kingdom and God does reign over the world. And just like Jesus took the signs of God’s kingdom with him wherever he went, the signs of God’s kingdom go with us, too. We can’t help it, because of his love for us, his love flows from us to other people. It flows to our friends here and it flows to our neighbors and coworkers. The good news is being told all around; the kingdom of God has come. It has come in Jesus Christ.

That is the answer to our doubts. To look to Jesus, just like John did. To see all that he has done, the mending of our relationship, and the love that flows from him in this place. Will all our doubt going to go away? Well, not yet. Because even though the kingdom of God is among us, it is still coming. The King, who came wrapped in swaddling cloths, has promised to come again. To make complete all that he has begun. When he comes again he will bring to completion what he has begun. He will finish what he started and what he is doing here in this place every day. Then there will be no more blindness, no crippled, and no more doubt. No more sickness and death. That is what advent is about. Remembering that Jesus Christ, our Lord and King, came to earth in an unexpected way to establish his kingdom, and that he is coming again. Amen.

The Peace that passes all understanding Keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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