The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
Advent III (or Advent VI, expanded season)
John the Baptist flip-flopped. Jesus' ministry didn’t exactly get off to the incendiary start and by the time he has landed in Herod's dungeon, the wild and wooly baptizer is wondering if he saw things rightly on Jordan's banks. Jesus sends back John's messengers with the evidence of the Kingdom of God in "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."
In the 16th century, Thomas of Villanova (1486-1555) connected each of Jesus statements to prophecy found in Isaiah. Isaiah wrote, “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unsealed and the lame man will leap like a hart.”
Jesus said, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.”
Isaiah also wrote, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . he has sent me to announce good tidings to the poor.”
Jesus said, “the poor have good news brought to them.”
Finally, Isaiah wrote, “He will be a stone for stumbling over, and a rock of scandal as well, for both houses of Israel.”
Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Isaiah’s prophecies in Isaiah 35, 29, and 61 in Forty Gospel Homilies: PL 76, 1077)
Jesus connects his own ministry to the prophecies about the one who is to come. Jesus offered his miracles as a sign that God was working through him in the way that had been prophesied.
The point for Matthew in putting this story in his Gospel probably had nothing to do with John the Baptist and everything to do with you. For by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, John the Baptist had been dead for decades. It no longer mattered what John knew and when he knew it. What mattered most is you, the reader.
Matthew begs the question, “Is Jesus the One who was to come or are we to wait for another?” We know that Matthew wrote for Jewish readers and so he gives the reader pause to consider whether what they read about Jesus is what the Old Testament told us to expect of the Messiah. But Jew or Gentile, the question for any of us is, “Is Jesus the One or do we go searching for another?”
God may never come into your life exactly as you expect. That’s what happened to John the Baptist. John knew Jesus was the Messiah the day of Jesus’ baptism because of the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit did not control John’s every waking thought and John came to doubt. John had a box labeled “Messiah” and the real Messiah didn’t measure up to John’s expectations.
As I journey toward Sunday, I note that we have the same problem as John. Jesus still doesn’t meet our expectations. John preached straighten up right now because the Messiah is coming to bring the smack down. Then Jesus came and did far less than John anticipated. Our problem is more likely the opposite of John the Baptist’s problem. John expected much more of the Messiah. We often expect little or nothing.
I pray for miracles and then make up excuses for God in advance. After all, God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing answers to prayer on demand. That’s OK as long as what I am really seeking is God’s will, and know that my prayers might not be God’s will. But it’s not OK to make excuses for why God won’t come through if all I am doing is playing it safe, hedging my bets, because I don’t have the faith that God will act on my prayers. I continually remind myself to be open to the real miracles, and when I can keep my heart and mind open, wonderful things can and do happen.
The problem is boxing in God. Jesus’ ministry was so much more than John the Baptist appreciated from his prison cell. Jesus was patiently, lovingly, turning the world upside down one life at a time.
Jesus is so much more than our preconceived notions too. Whatever box you or I have put him in, it’s too small, because Jesus is still transforming the world in unexpected ways. I am wondering how I can help hearers this Sunday to smash the box into which they have placed our Trinitarian God. How might we let go of our too strict notions and our too little hopes of Jesus? This is what I am pondering as I journey toward Sunday.
Frank Logue is a member of the APLM Council, having served previously as its secretary. He is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and blogs on congregational development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org
The image of bulrushes near Banias (Caesarea Philippi) was taken by Frank Logue. These are the reeds shaken by the wind Jesus asked if people went out to see.