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Sermon – December 12, 2010: No Offense

Sermon for Sunday, December 12, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

No Offense

Isaiah 35: 1-10; James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2 – 11

There’s another royal wedding in the offing. Princess Di’s son, heir apparent to the

throne, is getting married. Royalty, and especially British royalty, I suppose because we’re

an English-speaking nation, always has some of the same place in American minds as other

celebrities. People feel they know them, in an odd way.

I’m reminded of something said to me almost thirty years ago. Princess Grace of

Monaco had been killed in a car accident. It was all over the news. A widow I visited

greeted me by saying, “Did you hear about Princess Grace? I feel terrible about it…not that

I knew her that well or anything.” Not that she knew her that well? What the woman was

trying to explain was a sense of loss with regard to someone she really didn’t know at all,

but knew as a personality, as a celebrity. This woman, like millions of others who read

magazines and paid attention to the lives of the rich and famous, had invested, through the

years, a little curiosity and hope and happiness and sense of relief and continued interest in

this person whose fame made her familiar, and felt a sense of loss at her death.

There are a couple of stories influencing the response to Prince William’s

engagement. One is the story of “Sleeping Beauty.” A young woman dreams of living

happily ever after and that is guaranteed by the arrival of a handsome prince. The other

story with which we follow the story of William’s wedding is that of his own mother, whose

fairy-tale wedding, with all its pageantry and pomp, turned out to be setting the stage for

betrayal and a variety of soap opera played out in the public eye, eventually ending in her

death in a car crash. We react to this next royal wedding with a mix of wonder, good

wishes, and worry–worry that the grace and glamor of great events may give way to

disappointment and discontents.

That double reaction, first excitement and then second thoughts, is part of the gospel

reading this morning. John the Baptist, who heralded the decisive arrival of God’s

appointed Savior, and endorsed Jesus as the One, from his prison cell sends Jesus word

asking the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It’s not because John has gotten himself arrested that he has second thoughts.

Being in trouble, even being martyred, is almost part of the job description for a

spokesperson for God. Release of prisoners is part of the prophetic pronouncement

about the difference that God’s Servant will make in the world, but overturning the decrees

of kings requires a power and presence which John doesn’t see Jesus possessing. It’s not

just that John is still in jail. It’s that Herod still is king, Rome remains overlord, landowners still

control the lives of the peasantry, and the High Priesthood in Jerusalem still is in the hands

of those who paid bribes to get it, in order to gain the office’s wealth and power.

None of us is in jail, but we all live under constraints, and whatever window it is from

which we look upon the world, there’s plenty to regret. The coming of God’s Holy One

seems to have left much of the world unchanged. We may be tempted to share the

sentiment of John the Baptist–if indeed we ever had John’s conviction that God could be

counted upon to do something about the world. Especially in this season, when there is

less light, and the world is no longer warm, nature itself is less hospitable, and life more

rigorous. Whatever gloominess we absorb ourselves from the advent of winter casts a

shadow on our perceptions of the world. Will Christ turn out to be the big event, the agent

of change which John’s prophecies–which the whole weight of centuries of prophecy–

foretold?

Many readers of the Bible have despaired of Jesus making a meaningful difference

in their time. Millions either belong to some sect, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, or

profess a type of Christianity which has collapsed into a hopeful focus on the end of the

world. They aren’t looking for their salvation to the Jesus John baptized, but the

empowered agent of God’s ringing down the curtain on the folly and falseness of a fallen

world.

If it weren’t for this incident about John the Baptist questioning whether or not Jesus

were really the One, we might think this losing faith in Jesus of Nazareth was the result of

centuries of slow progress and disappointing discipleship. Thank God we have it all laid out

before us in the gospel, that we not deceive ourselves about what Christ always has

meant.

By deceiving ourselves, I mean imagining that it was easy for those who were

invited by angels to attend Jesus’ birth, and easy for those who were guided by dreams to

pay homage in Jesus’ home, and easy for those who witnessed the miracles and heard the

teaching and touched the wounds in his hands–easy for them to believe in Jesus. Since all

that happened so long ago, we tell ourselves, it’s harder for us to believe, harder for us to

trust the Jesus we meet in the gospels.

In John the Baptist we have the whole story of hopeful waiting and astonished and

bold recognition and humble confession and disappointment and doubts and questioning

all squeezed into a matter of months. Perhaps the John who feels unworthy at the start of

the gospels is like we were when we first recognized Christ arriving in our lives; perhaps

the John puzzled in his prison cell and wondering if he got it wrong is like the believer we

sometimes have been since.

When Christmas comes rushing up and collides with us in a couple of weeks, we’ll

be, once again, at one of those stories which inform one’s perceptions and reactions all their

lives. It’s a hopeful story, a story of heaven coming to earth and changing the destiny of

persons and of peoples, all for the better. It’s a tale of innocence and love prevailing over

contempt and violence. The child within each of us wonders with the story, and wishes with

the story, and to the extent that we have been given faith, hopes through it.

Faith, though, is hard, in a world of cynicism, manipulation, fear and self-interest.

What is Jesus’ answer to John and to us? Jesus invites us to see what it is that he is doing-

-using the power God provides him to heal people, to attend to the daily needs of the

lowly, to make them whole. That’s all he can offer to skeptical inquiry, and he knows it may

not be enough. Jesus realizes that people who imagined that he would end the ills of the

world all at once, people who hoped he would introduce a new and redeemed reality that

would first eclipse and soon erase all reasons for sorrow and sighing–Jesus realizes those

people may not be able to accept him as God’s Chosen One. We know Jesus knows

this because after he offers his remarks about the lame walking and the blind being able to

see to the messengers of John the Baptist, he adds, “and blessed is he who takes no

offense at me.” Jesus is saying that a person will be well off if he or she can accept that

showing compassion and care and addressing the problems of the individuals put in his

path is sufficient indication that Jesus is the Messiah.

Of course Jesus isn’t seeking to persuade John by offering himself up as an itinerant

doctor. No, the point of Jesus saying “tell John what you see and hear–the lame walk, the

deaf speak, the blind see” is that those are a fulfillment of prophecy. They are part of

Isaiah’s vision for what to expect when God does send someone to redeem Israel.

Jesus proceeds to relate John to himself, to identify John, for those who have faith,

as the harbinger of the Messiah. Jesus still believes in John, in that sense. Jesus also

realizes that John has had preconceptions about the meaning of the Messiah that were

misleading. John’s own hunches about how God was going to address the world’s woes

make him question his belief in Jesus.

That may be what is behind Jesus’ proclamation that no one in the world before him

was as great as John the Baptist, and that everyone in the kingdom of God will be greater

than John. John represents a world which has been superseded. The arrival of Jesus has

begun a reality which is superior to the possibilities present in John’s time.

Which means that the Bethlehem baby, surrounded by signs and wonders,

becomes this adult who spends heaven’s miraculous power on sick individuals instead of

changing the underlying problems of the world. He preaches self-sacrifice and nonviolence

and trust and generosity and love, and he practices those things–but for those to change

the world people have to believe in them, accept them, live by them. For those to change

the world people have to believe that God is going to allow those humble, helpful,

harmless human possibilities really to triumph, when past experience has taught everyone

that they are powerless.

This is the Savior we have. That’s the part of Isaiah’s prophecy Jesus fulfilled first,

and he believed that loving and healing should suffice to show who he was. The advice we

are given in the book of James about putting up with the long, tedious, sometimes

undetectable working-out of God’s achievement in Christ is not be so discouraged as to

become grumblers; not so to lose heart in hoping in Christ the healer that we from

peevishness rejoin the brokenness of the world which is passing away.

 

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