My Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
Are You the One? (for a recording of the worship service and sermon, click here)
Matthew 11: 2 – 11
Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2022
Last week one of you asked me if I were re-using sermons that I had preached in the past? It’s a fair question. Many preachers do reach, as we say, “into the barrel,” especially when we are retired.
I tried that a time or two, but it never really worked for me. I may repeat an illustration, like the story I shared last week, of that surprising Ash Wednesday experience.
But for me a sermon is like fishing. I want the fish to be fresh catch. At it’s best, it’s still wriggling on the line, the colors incandescent, so alive that after you share you catch, you can lay it gently back in the water and release it to live on. Biblical texts are like that. You catch them — really, they catch you — but you can’t put them in the freezer or mount them on the wall.
Why this long introduction, which might seem, to change the metaphor, like “inside baseball”? Because for today’s lesson, again featuring John the Baptist, there is more than one possible and faithful interpretation.
For example, I was chatting about this passage with our friend, Tim, who was with us here last Sunday. As you just heard, John sends a very plaintive question to Jesus, “Are you the One to come or are we to wait for another?”
Tim said he loved this story and John’s question. “Why?,” I asked. “I was raised,” he explained, “in a fundmentalist church where doubt was condemned as a sin.” And Tim had doubts, as I think many, if not most of us, do at times.
But as he had been told that doubt was a terrible sin. Tim heard John’s expression of apparent doubt as comforting. “If John the Baptist can struggle with doubt, maybe I can too?” John’s very doubt, for Tim and I’m sure many others, is a word of grace.
I want to honor this interpretation of today’s Scripture. It’s a very good, very Advent, question that John asks. “Are you the One or are we to wait for another?”
In Advent we stand “between darkness and dawn,” to steal the title of a song by Nick Lowe. We proclaim the coming of our Lord and Savior, but terrible things still happen, even at this time of the year. We say, “The light shines in the darkness,” and it does, but the darkness is real. When the world’s darkness is deep, we too may ask, “Jesus, are you really the One?”
So that is one way, an excellent way, to hear this passage. And it is probably one that I have preached in the past.
But when I cast my line this year, now, I’m hearing it in a different way . . . maybe because I am in sunny San Miguel and not dark Seattle. I don’t know. But I do know what I try to do in my sermons and why I’ve never been able to re-use a sermon is that I want to hear God’s word for this time, for this day, for myself and for you. The preacher’s job is to listen to Scripture and ask, “Is there a word from the Lord?” So here’s what I’ve got, today’s fresh catch.
John sends his people with his question. Note: Jesus doesn’t throw John under the bus, doesn’t condemn him for doubt. Of John, Jesus says, “Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John.” Still, he adds, “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Which is to say that John, is the culmination of the long line of the biblical prophets, and as such, is of the former age, the age of the Law. But a new age, an age of Grace, is in Jesus, and now under way.
Listen to Jesus’ answer to John’s question. “Go and tell John what you see and what you hear: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
Notice that everything to which Jesus points in his ministry is good stuff, good news. People are being saved, healed, forgiven and set free. Joy is bursting out all over just as the prophet Isaiah predicted when he said, “Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” Remember the song by “Three Dog Night”? “Singin’ now, Joy to the world, Joy to all the boys and girls, Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me.”
Then Jesus adds curious little postscript, “And blessed are those who take no offense at me.” What in the world does that mean?
We can, as C. S. Lewis famously wrote, be “Surprised by Joy.” But not only that, we can be disturbed by joy, by grace. Not everyone welcomes joy or grace and new life.
Don’t take my word for it . . . ask the elder brother who came home from the fields to find a joyous feast and party of welcome for his prolifigate younger brother. Remember what he said to old dad, “You’ve never given me a party like this!” Ouch! Ever said anything like that or felt that kind of resentment? I know I have.
Or consider Jonah. After the whale barfed him up on the beach, Jonah finally, if grudgingly, got on with what God had asked him to do. Which was to preach a message of repentance to the hated Ninevites. And, wonder of wonders, all the Ninevites up and repented, from the King to the cattle. Everyone repented. Was Jonah happy? Nooooo. No way. He was fit to be tied. He didn’t want the Ninevites getting saved. He wanted them to get scorched.
Joy can be disturbing. “How can you be joyful in a world of such suffering and evil?” some ask. And grace can be offensive — especially if it happens to those we think are undeserving, the wrong people. Think of all the stories of acrimony and bitterness that follow on a death and estate settlement. Someone has gotten something they don’t deserve and sure won’t use wisely! “It’s just not fair, not right!” I’m thinking something like this is what’s up with John.
He did after all thunder, “The ax is at the root of the trees, every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut off and thrown in the fire.” John was looking for a little old fashioned fire and brimstone, for judgment to rain down. His version of the Messiah’s coming was the bumper-sticker (pardon the language) that says, “Jesus is coming and he’s really pissed.”
As Jesus’ ministry has unfolded, he has welcomed and given grace to people that neither John, nor I, think deserving or appropriate.
Matthew, for example, the author of the very Gospel from which we read today. Matthew was a tax collector. As you know, ‘tax-collector’ is not like saying Matthew worked for the IRS, although some may think that’s bad enough. It’s more like saying he worked for the Nazi’s in occupied France, a traitor, profiting from the mistery of his own people. Jesus calling Matthew to follow him may have been closer, in our world, to Jesus calling a drug addict who stole things from his own family and neighbors to fund his addiction. “You!, Yeah, you, Follow me!”
What about the case these days of ex-felons regaining the right to vote? Though they have served their time and paid their debt to society, should they get to vote? Not everyone is happy about that.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, says that our drug of choice in America these days is whatever makes us feel superior to someone else.
Jesus’ grace is radical. It’s not what John expected. It’s not what we expect.
To build on the theme I’ve been highlighting in several sermons now, John represented Law, what I’ve called “a religion of virtue.” Jesus — grace. By “Law,” I mean not only the requirements of the Law in the Bible, but really every human system by which we justify ourselves and then look down on others who don’t meet those standards.
Law is the if/ then. If you do this, if you achieve that, then you will be acceptable and loved, whether by God, your parents, yourself. If I lose those twenty pounds, then I’ll be okay. If I get into the right college, then I’ll be good. If I am a great success, the best in my field, then I’ll be acceptable, happy.
It’s not that the Law or human achievement are bad. The biblical law is beautiful in its way and in its place, as a teacher and guide. But here’s the catch, the Law, the shoulds and the musts, the oughts and ought nots, can never bring about what it requires. We can’t do it. It doesn’t work as a way of salvation or healing or new life. We always fall short. We always fail. With Paul we find, “the good that I would do, I do not; the evil that I would not, is what I do.”
The fellowship we can have together is not the fellowship of the perfect. Ours is the fellowship of forgiven sinners, which is the kind of fellowship that people often find in 12-Step programs.
We may think of the church as the good people, the better sort. But that is a misunderstanding. The church, said the British novelist, Francis Spufford, “Is the international league of the guilty.” So desperately needing God’s grace and mercy, we may be a place and people of grace and mercy for others.
There are two fundamental forces at work in the world and in our souls, Law and Grace. The life the Law describes is in itself good, but the Law can never bring about what it requires. It only keeps us on a never-ending treadmill of striving, without rest. We cry out, “it’s never enough.” Do you know what I’m talking about?
Only grace, God’s unconditional and one-way love, can heal us, can save us. We find our rest In Christ who died for us, who was raised for us, and who will surely come again for us. Lives are never changed by streams of rebuke or condemnation for our short-comings. They are only changed by love, by grace. I’m trying to learn that, to live it just a bit more.
My friend, Will, teaches at a seminary. Every fall he asks all the new students to write a paper that explains how they got there, how they happen to be preparing for the ministry.
One paper opened with this sentence. “I was the teenager from hell.” “This sounds promising,” thought Will. It continued, “I started drinking in junior high, doing drugs in high school. I was terrible to my parents. Just awful.
“Somehow I managed to graduate from high school, and even more improbably got accepted to some little po-dunk college. I went, but I was drinking and drugging and flunked out by the end of my first term.
“But I started going to AA. The great thing about AA is that before going I thought I was the only idiot in the world, the only person in the world who had treated those who had loved me so badly. But in AA I discovered I had company. We’re all idiots. We’re all crazy in our own special way. What a relief that was.”
“Anyhow, with God’s help I got clean and sober. I began to get my life together. My girlfriend suggested going to this little Methodist church near us. After we’d been going there about six months, when the pastor said to me, ‘I think you’d be good working with the youth.’ I thought, ‘Lady, you are crazy.’ But she was persistent. She seemed to see something in me I didn’t see in myself. Finally, I said, ‘okay.’ To my surprise it actually went pretty well. I did that for a year. And I had also gotten back in school.
“One day I said to my girlfriend, ‘I think God may be calling me to be a pastor.’ She said, ‘I was wondering when you would figure that out.’
“So we decided to make a trip home to see my parents, to tell them. We sat down with my Mom and Dad and I said, ‘You’re probably not going to believe this, but I think God is calling me to be a pastor.’
“My mother began to weep. I said, ‘Gee, I thought you’d be happy.’
“But my Mom said, ‘you don’t know know this, but we had trouble conceiving a child. I’d had several miscarriages before you were born.
“I went to church one Sunday and they was this bible story about this woman named Hannah, who had been unable to conceive a child, and who’d gone to the Temple and promised God that if she had a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord to be a priest. So I did that.
“You did what?” said Sam.
“Well, how was I to know it would work? We were Congregationalists. I thought it was a Baptist thing.”
“That,” Sam concluded his paper, “is how I got here.”
“Go and tell John what you see and what you hear. The blind see, the lame leap, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have good news preached to them, the dead are raised. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.
I am indebted to my friend, Will Willimon, for the story of “the teenager from hell.” And, yes, I have used this illustration before.