The Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
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, those with a skin disease 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.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Several ears ago a quartet of Southern comedians made a big splash with their “Blue Collar Comedy Tour.” Most of us remember with Jeff Foxworthy’s “redneck” jokes, Ron White’s “I had the right but not the ability” story, and Larry the Cable Guy’s “Git’er done.” And then there was Bill Engvall with his, “Here’s your sign.” It is based on the fact that we often miss the obvious thing right in front of us, and then say something unthinkingly silly.
For example, his nine year old son said, “Hey Dad, I want to play you a song of the piano. It’s from Harry Potter.” Engvall said, “Oh, from the movie,” and his son said, “No, from the book.” Here’s your sign.
Another one- Engvall was on a business trip to rural Arkansas, flew there in a small plane, landed at a private airstrip. On the runway the plane hit a deer. That night Engvall called his wife from his hotel and said, “Honey, you aren’t gonna believe this. My airplane hit a deer.” There was along pause, then his wife said, “My God, were you on the ground?” Here’s your sign.
Text: The main image I notice for this week is that we are “on the way.” Not just as when we want to let someone know we are running a little late for an appointment and we text them “otw….” We are walking and living and worshiping God while we are on the way that God has provided. Isaiah calls it the Holy Way, which mainly means it’s not a way of our own choosing or making.
Certainly, Mary did not choose the way of teenage pregnancy; the Israelites did not choose the way of exile; John the Baptist did not choose the way of prison. And as for Jesus, did he or did he not choose the way of the cross? I suppose we’ll take that up again for Lent. And yet, in each of these “ways,” God was present and at work for good. Holy Ways, indeed.
Theology: Again, let me remind you God at work is one of the main theological ideas in these texts. And it is always God’s work that is featured, not ours. James urges us to be patient, waiting and trusting just as the farmer does for the crop springing forth.
When John’s disciples ask Jesus for proof, Jesus points them to what they can see happening. That’ll do-or it won’t. Judge for yourself as to the work and goodness of God.
Context: I think I’d have to say that the situation of the first hearers of these texts was most likely “ripe for a blessing.” Isaiah’s audience is in exile, considering how they will ever make it back through the wilderness ways to their homeland_-or what was left of it. Jesus’ audience could readily identify with John–the threat of punishment and/or prison was always only a moment away. James speaks to a congregation that has grown uneasy with the times (and evidently with one another.)
Connection: Crossing over from that context into the lives of our listeners is not that difficult to do. Our hearts are wide open to hear some good news, though that news may not be exactly as we are expecting. Still, there is cause for hope and joy, don’t ya’ think?
In today’s gospel lesson, John is looking for a sign that Jesus was the Messiah, which is a bit odd-since John himself was the first and primary sign pointing to the Jesus as the promised Savior. That was his role and he knew it, and he had always deflected attention away from himself and onto Jesus, consistently pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed one, the Christ. In today’s gospel lesson, we find John in jail and in doubt. He had been preaching Jesus as the Messiah, but now he was wondering and questioning, looking for a sign.
Even the one whose job it was to direct others to the Messiah sometimes had a hard time believing the Good News was really true. Perhaps John had expectations that the Messiah would be more aggressive, more decisive, more “out there” as a leader, more political and “in your face.” Perhaps, just like everyone else, John thought the Messiah would go upside some Roman heads, kick some heretic butt, clean the infidels and backsliders out of Israel’s household of faith.
The confusion about the meaning of the coming of Christ is not limited to John and his disciples in first century; it is very much with us in the ‘run-up” to Christmas,
2022. Several years ago I was driving to Detroit, MI for some Synod intern event. As I rode down the Interstate, I was station surfing. Suddenly I heard Trans-Siberian Orchestra “What!” | thought, “Why, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and they’re playing Christmas music. Argh!”
And then it got worse. The announcer came on and said, “Hi. If your house is anything like mine these days, the little ones are getting pretty excited about what’s coming. They get so excited, they forget about how to behave, so I have to remind them that Santa’s coming and if they aren’t good, they won’t get anything. Would you like to put some real teeth in that threat? All you have to do is call this number and for a small donation, Santa Claus will call your home and warn your children personally”
“Put some teeth in that threat.” “Did he really say that.” I thought. Yes, he really did. Just as the people in Jesus day were fascinated by him, but not really sure what to make of him, we modern people are fascinated by the birth of Christ. We’re just real unclear about what it means so we plunge into the traditional trappings of trees and presents and dinners and plays, hoping to find the real Jesus, the real Christmas in there somewhere.
Perhaps we can take our lead from Jesus in the Gospel Lesson; after all, he told us where he was active in the world, where we should look to find the Messiah, “…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.” (Matthew 12:5)
In an almost counter-intuitive way, it is likely that we will find the Christ when we stop searching for him for ourselves, and start serving those around us who are in need of God’s love, of Christ’s love. After we do that and begin to forget ourselves and begin to think primarily of the hurts and needs of our neighbors, we will look around one day and suddenly realize that Christ has come to us–and in us and through us–to the world.
This sermon is beginning to take shape in my mind as a “bad news- good news. bad news–good news” kind of message. For the biblical characters, there was some bad news about the hard times they were in (and that were still ahead) But the good news was that help was on the way deserts blooming and crocuses singing and all that.
Our bad news is that we have a few swamps of our own to negotiate; politics are still divisive, Putin is still raging, the stock market’s future is anybody’s guess. But you know what? The good news is that God is still the One who reigns forever and that God is the God of the promise made to Abraham and through him to us all. We “shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Magnify what God is doing around you and let your spirit rejoice!
This Advent, as we get ready to welcome Christ anew, we are given another opportunity to get it right. For although Jesus did not give an easy and clear answer to John, he gives him some concrete hints about what he’s up to: “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.”
These words of Jesus recall the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s lectionary. These words describe what will happen when the Messiah comes. It was not a popular image associated with most of the Jews’ expectation of the Messiah at that time and yet there it is, hidden in plain sight.
In other words, Jesus tells John that the work of God is not bombastic or earth-shattering as John and many of us imagine it to be. John expected that Jesus would come with an ax to cut down the trees that are not bearing fruit, separate the wheat and store it in the barn and burn the chaff. Instead of this, Jesus tells him to break free from his narrow expectation that has figuratively imprisoned him, to see beyond the destructive and angry God that he expected the Messiah to be, and open up to the God who heals, who teaches to transform people, who desires not the death of sinners but that all might repent, who shows love, mercy, and compassion. In short, the gospel invites us to open our eyes and our ears to the handprints of God in the hidden, nontraditional, and unpopular, amid our anguish, disappointments, and doubts.
Then, perhaps, when we begin to see God in these “hidden” places, we can be a sign to the world that what Jesus said is true. We can be Jesus’ answer to John’s question. We can be the blind whose eyes were opened, the lame whose legs can walk again, the lepers who have been cleansed, the deaf whose ears have started hearing. the dead who have been raised, and the poor who have received good news.