“CHECK IT OUT”
Russell Scholta, Presbyterian Minister
December 24, 2016
At this time of year, the media, stores, and general conversation is filled with the phrase “Happy Holidays”. This is a relatively recent change in our culture from the former “Merry Christmas”. In the Christian world, December 25 marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Here was a man who changed the world with a simple message that can be summarized with one word, “LOVE”. Love of God and your neighbors.
Being a person who studies and tries to stay current on geopolitics, I was suddenly struck that I needed a Christmas message that relates to the wars in the Mideast. I found one with a friend, Russell Schulte, who sent me one of his sermons focused on Advent – – – the period in the Christian calendar that sets the tone and anticipation for the birth of Jesus and Christmas. Russ does an excellent job of explaining the season, the man and the purpose of John the Baptist, who came to prepare the way for Jesus. Read it and enjoy a master at his work.
Before I provide the text, I feel a compulsion to comment on the Mideast, dominated by Arab Muslims who follow the religion of Islam. This religion has a number of sects within it and practices differ among the sects. We are at war in the Mideast because a sect of the Arabs, the Wahabi, wants to establish an independent Caliph. A caliph is defined as a successor to the Prophet Mohammed, who died in 632, leaving the election of leadership in the hands of his followers. The caliphate, a society ruled by the caliph, has been in a flux ever since. The Baghdad based Abbasids took power in 749. They ruled for 500 years Until the Mongol armies of Hulagu Khan destroyed the capital in 1258.
Shifting imperial boundaries in what we call the Middle East are not new. The Middle East is a very fertile and oil rich normally prosperous region that connects the continents and turmoil dates back to Alexander the Great in 300 B.C. – – – before the birth of Christ. Today, is now a time to carry Jesus’s message to all and for the world to unite on common causes and work towards peace and prosperity.
I quote an individual, Peter Frankopan, who describes in his book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, after Alexander’s Campaigns, this period of the Mideast at the time of Jesus. It was a time of turmoil.
“The intellectual and theological spaces of the silk Road were crowded, as deities and cults, priests, and local rulers mixed with each other. The stakes were high. This was a time when societies were highly receptive to explanations for everything from the mundane to the supernatural, and when fate offered solutions to a multitude of problems. The struggles between different faiths were highly political. In all these religions – whether they were Indic in origin, like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, or those with roots in Persia such as Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Manichaeism or from further west such as Judaism and Christianity, and in due course, Islam – triumph on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, went hand-in-hand with demonstrating cultural supremacy and divine benediction. The equation was as simple as it was powerful: a society protected and favored by the right God,; those promising false idols and empty promises suffered.”
There were strong incentives for rulers to invest in the right spiritual infrastructure, such as the building of lavish places of worship. This offered a lever over internal control of the people. It allowed leaders to form a mutually strengthening relationship with the priesthood who, across all principal religions, wielded substantial moral authority and political power. This did not mean that rulers were passive. On the contrary, determined rulers could enforce their authority and dominance by introducing new religious practices when they felt it was necessary for the empire.
With that said, it still took the Roman Empire another 325 years for Emperor Constantine in the Council of Nicaea, to declare that Christianity was the official religion of the Empire that was ruled from Rome. Now let us look at was happening in the world of Jesus at the time of Jesus to visualize how this came about.
Matthew 11:1 – 11
Blue Lake Presbyterian Church
December 11, 2016
CHECK IT OUT
Here we are, in the middle of Advent, two weeks from celebrating, once again the birthday of Messiah. In spite of how many times we have gone through this process, it still seems to catch us by something of a surprise, doesn’t it? We start thinking about the season when school begins in the Fall, and before we know it we are thinking about last minute gifts. Last week we were talking about John the Baptist being in the wilderness preparing a way for the Lord; this week we are talking about his being in prison at the end of his life. One week, and we have covered a ministry. One week, and his world has changed dramatically.
Of course it did not change just that quickly. But, it often seems like time passes so fast, does it not. This past week we commemorated 75 years since the Pearl Harbor attack; it seems like yesterday that I was in Honolulu at the 50th anniversary. Thirty years ago Ann and I were transferred back to California, and in the interim kids have gone through college, married, grandchildren have grown to adults, retirements and relocations have occurred, and it all seems like yesterday!
For John, sitting there in Herod’s prison, probably sure that it was the end of his life, it must have felt that it was such a brief time ago that he was out with the crowds and engaged in that preparation for his cousin, Jesus. Surely, the baptism event was as fresh in his mind as ever.
Yet, as he heard about the ministry of Jesus, there seemed to be something that didn’t quite “ring true” in his mind—at least he obviously had questions about it. What was it? Was his concept of Messiah much like the other Jews of his day? A concept of a mighty warrior, a powerful king? Did he expect Jesus to be a great liberator in the political sense? We don’t know the answer. Was the fact that John was imprisoned without much hope of release giving him pause about Jesus? We have no way of knowing, really.
We are told that John sends his disciples to question Jesus. John was in prison in Machaerus, which was a fortified place about five miles east of the Dead Sea. As you probably know, he was there because he kept hounding Herod about the fact that Herod had stolen his brother’s wife, so John said they were living in sin. Finally, Herod’s wife persuaded him to throw John in prison.
We don’t know exactly where Jesus was at the time, but it is likely that it was at least a two-day journey for John’s disciples to go to him, and the same to return to John. At any rate, John charges them to ask a question.
When I was in school, particularly elementary school, I hated to be called on by the teacher to answer a question. I wasn’t the dumbest kid in the class; let’s just say that educationally I was moderately adequate. It wasn’t my fault, really. For one thing there were several really smart kids in my class—we moved through the grades all together, same bunch every year, so there was no escaping the competition. Besides that, God had given me a huge love for the out-of-doors, so if I got caught gazing out the window this time of year, thinking about being on my snowshoes out in the woods running my trapline, or with my granddad cutting pulpwood, I wasn’t altogether to blame. Now, I was the only kid in class that could answer what dimensions were for a cord of pulpwood, or for cordwood, so my hand shot up whenever that came up. But, most questions of the type the teachers asked about school subjects were often somewhat of a challenge for me.
Our text this morning from Matthew centers on some pretty serious questions. Here’s what we find in 11:2-11:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “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 yor 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.”
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When a question like that is raised, it’s a great idea to have the smartest kid in the class ask it! If the one who has all the answers doesn’t know the answer, then we don’t feel so bad about not knowing it ourselves.
Have we ever asked that question ourselves? Maybe not in so many words, but has there ever been a time when we questioned our faith? Have we ever wondered if what we have heard about Jesus as Lord of our lives is absolute? Yes? Then why might we ignore him in the course of our day? Is he just a good man, a prophet, as many in the world would say. Or is he part of the Triune God, our Redeemer and Lord? These are legitimate questions, and actually reasonable to ask. I think Jesus, himself, would expect us to challenge our faith, because in doing so, we grow and become strengthened in it.
This is a dangerous question, isn’t it. Do you want your hand in the air when it might be assumed that someone with real spiritual depth and solid faith would never ask this? It helps then, that the smartest kid in the class asks the question, “are you the one?”. It kind of takes us off the hook. John, throughout his ministry said he is the one! and made no allowances for anything else. Jesus was the whole point and focus of his ministry. And now, from John, we have this question. Mark Yurs says, “There is comfort in the idea that faith as strong as John’s is capable of doubt as strong as ours.”
How does Jesus answer? Does he shoot the messengers? Does he berate John and put him down as an unbelieving phony, or belittle him in some other way? No, he does what any excellent teacher would do—he makes, who is now the student, to answer the question himself. I don’t think that John’s disciples turned right around and went back to John—it is much more likely, from this account, that they spent at least a few days there, to experience what was going on. Then, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell him what they hear and see. See, the basis for John’s question, as we know, was what John heard Messiah was doing. We don’t know how he heard it, but apparently he had some good intel.
What is it that the disciples hear and see in their own experience? The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Why is this response so crucial in helping John with an answer to his question? The question, remember, IS THIS MESSIAH? This is the most crucial question we can ask, isn’t it! It’s the question John needed to have answered; the only thing he HAD to have answered, because it was the very core of his life’s work. He had to know this: we need to know this! If we don’t, then this celebration in two weeks has very little meaning, and certainly no meaning in the sense that we say we celebrate it.
The response of Jesus is crucial for John and for us in understanding the question, as it has everything to do with Messiah.
John and Jesus both know their scriptures—not New Testament; those are in the process of unfolding. No, what for them were scriptures is what we know as Old Testament. And in what is perhaps the most important book for understanding the concept of Messiah, they both knew and understood Isaiah, and we now know that Matthew was very much indebted to Isaiah for knowing Messiah. Isaiah describes that, in and through the One who is to come, the blind will see, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear, the dead will be raised and the poor will be cared for. This is not a marching general, or a powerful king, or a domineering politician. This is the compassionate, loving, redeeming God entering our world in a manner which transforms all of society.
If Jesus were to come as the leader that was expected, it would be a very temporary victory. Sure, we remember the Caesars and Herods and Kruschevs of the world, but what really long-term difference have they made? They certainly have not transformed anything or anyone in a way that could not have been done by someone else. In fact, the last entry speaks to the systematic concern for the injustice and oppression suffered at the hands of such leaders.
But God sent his Son as the Messiah that is described in one way or another throughout Biblical history: one who transforms the world through the transformation of people. We don’t grasp the answer to John’s question through some intellectual dialogue, or by making a good guess. Tom Wright, in his book Simply Christian, says, “The gospel—the ‘good news’ of what the creator God has done in Jesus—is first and foremost news about something that has happened. And the first and most appropriate response to that news is to believe it.” That, of course, is exactly what Jesus is telling John, and us. And Wright says further, “That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.”
That’s the core of what Jesus asked John’s disciples to report back to him. Our text tells us that, as they went away, Jesus talked to the crowd about John. I could be wrong, but I have to think he spoke in a very loving and grateful manner, as the crowd may have been thinking “Ol’ John, what’s happened to him? Has he become a doubter? Is he a little confused in his old age? (Actually, he wasn’t very old—just 6 months older than Jesus.) What’s the problem with him?
But Jesus defends and enhances the image of John. “What did you go out to the desert to see?” Some namby-pamby in plush clothes enjoying fine dining? We don’t think so. He was a wild man, dined on locusts and wild honey, wore animal skins for clothing; he ranted about repentance and making the path of the Lord straight. Jesus was talking to a group of people that had actually gone out to see John’s preaching, so they knew what he was like. Jesus wasn’t telling them anything new.
The main reason they went to find him was because they expected him to be a prophet, and it is here that Jesus puts his stamp of approval: “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,”. . . And then he refers to the prophet Malachi and says “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Interestingly, this comment also has roots in Exodus 23:20, where God says, “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”
Yes, he was more than a prophet. John obviously had a great vision well before the ministry of Jesus ever began, and John’s ministry, whether or not we know many of the specifics other than the baptism of Jesus, certainly had a great deal to do with preparing the way for the powerful ministry of Jesus himself. And that was not to be forgotten nor diminished in value.
Then, in our text, occurs one of the strange paradoxes of the Biblical narrative. “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.”
Now, if you can tell me what that means, let me know, so you can take your turn up here next week. William R. Herzog II says this;
One way to understand this quagmire is to take verses 9-11 as a way of saying that ‘just when you think you have measured the magnitude of this advent of heaven’s reign, you discover that you have not begun to capture the dimensions and magnitude of this advent.’ As the reign of heaven comes into focus, John suddenly diminishes in importance; yet, even though he is least, he still belongs. Something about the advent of the reign of heaven simply cannot be measured or comprehended. Perhaps that is why we return to the mystery every year.”
Yes, we do return to the mystery every year. We prepare, once again, for this celebration of the mystery of the coming of Messiah. When we look at this story in Matthew we tend to forget something: we look at Jesus, we look at John and we look at John’s disciples. But, we tend to forget the Crowds. And therein, after all, is where we fit. We belong in this story, from beginning to end. How, you rightly ask?
In these ways;
- First, we are there, listening to Jesus as he teaches. We read in 11:1 that when he had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. As we read the Bible, and hear the Word, and study it, we listen to him.
- Secondly, we see and hear what he has done. Look at hospitals, educational institutions, care centers, homeless shelters, etc., etc., that have been done and are being operated in his name. We see mission activities going on throughout the world in his name.
- Third, some of the best minds, both men and women, that I have known have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. Sure, some bright people don’t believe; but many do—some of the sharpest people I know.
- We raise the question: Are you the one? Should we look for another? We have to answer that question for ourselves as we look at the evidence of what God has done for us in Christ. “Who am I?” asks Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as do we? and he answers “In John the Baptist, we find an answer: to be a disciple is no longer to look at oneself, but rather to look at Christ. In pointing to him alone, the disciple’s own identity finally becomes clear: “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
- Finally, we are in this story, because Jesus, himself, says that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater that John the Baptist. That is, we have a mission, a ministry of our own to ensure that the marks of the Messiah’s work mentioned in this text, are also the marks of our commitment as his disciples.
This advent season, we look to Jesus Christ, Messiah. In him, and only there do we find the answer to John’s question—and ours: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”. It is Jesus, Messiah.