12/15/13 Sermon (December 15, 2013) “An Unexpected Messiah”

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:29 AM by David Hawkins

12/15/13 Sermon (December 15, 2013)

“An Unexpected Messiah”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 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 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.”

Sermon: “An Unexpected Messiah”

We are in the third week of advent, the third week of the season in which we are preparing for the coming of the Messiah. As I said two weeks ago, Advent is this strange time in the church year when we are looking both backward and forward: backward to remember the prophesied birth of a Messiah, but also forward to the return of that same Messiah.

Advent is that time of year when we are surrounded by the sights and sounds of a secular world gone crazy with the consumer-driven idea of what Christmas should be like, while the church ponders the deeper meaning of who Christ is, and what he means for the world.

Advent is a somber time of year, because it calls us to consider the whole picture of Christ, not just a baby in a manger. Advent calls us to think about Jesus in all his glory:  Jesus as a prophet, Jesus as a teacher, Jesus as a savior, and ultimately, Jesus as a returning king. Not just a safe Jesus swaddled in a basket. Advent calls us to consider a dangerous Jesus, upsetting political systems, teaching and preaching a radical faith, and a returning judge, demanding a radical response.

Christmas is an easy holiday to get behind, because who doesn’t like a baby? But Advent is a different thing. Advent reminds us that Jesus didn’t stay in the manger.

And neither does our faith. Advent invites us to ask questions, to consider the things we believe about Christ. Who is the Messiah, really? What does he mean to my life? How does his life and death and resurrection affect the way I think about my relationships with other people?

Advent invites us to ponder the words and precepts of our faith. What do we really believe about Jesus, about God?

Now, we know what the words of the church are, we know what we’ve been taught all our lives, we know the right creeds, the right answers to all the right questions. But Advent gives us room to ask ourselves, “What do I really think about God? Who do I really believe Jesus is, for me?”

Now the reality is, these kinds of questions can be frightening to some of us. For some folks, the idea of a questioning faith is a dangerous thing. We live in a time when expressing doubt is seen as a sign of weakness in one’s position. The very idea of questioning one’s own preconceptions is seen as giving up on our principals. For many folks in today’s society, the best way to make a point is to force the issue, to not allow for any doubt, to never admit to any doubt, and to certainly not allow for any other ways of thinking. At best, these other points of view are distractions; at worst, they are heresies, inspired by the devil to draw people off the right path.

Sometimes it feels like it would be just easier to have one way to interpret scripture, one way to hear a parable, one way to think about God, one way to believe in Jesus. Because to allow for any questioning or uncertainty feels like defeat. And there are plenty of churches and preachers who are willing to go there. Questions are not allowed. Dissenting points of view are shut down. All for the sake of the Gospel, of course.

But I don’t believe this. I don’t believe that there is only one way to think about God. I don’t believe that faith means removing all questions, or even answering all questions. In fact, I don’t believe that doubt is the enemy of faith. But I do believe a false certainty is. A false certainty is the enemy of faith.

Doubt is a natural part of being human. Doubt is an honest emotional response to not knowing everything there is to know about everything. We live in an unpredictable world, and there are times in our lives in which we simply don’t see the hand God moving around us. There are times, in fact, when we feel like the hand of God is actively moving against us, and it would be dishonest to not admit to a certain amount of doubt at those times.

Doubt is part of our spiritual lives, and denying it, or trying to fake our way through life when we feel uncertain about how we feel about God is not being faithful. Because we’re not fooling anybody. And we’re certainly not fooling God.

Doubt is not the enemy of faith. But a false certainty is.

Because being honest about our relationship with God means that we are able to recognize and confess our own limitations, even our own limitations of faithfulness. An honest faith means that sometimes we can’t trust in our own faith. Faith means that sometimes we can only trust in the faithfulness of Christ, rather than our own. To trust even when we are not sure. And to be able to admit when we are not sure.

In our scripture today, we see John the Baptist in this very situation. Now, you might think that John would be the one person in the world who had complete faith in who Jesus was. If there was anybody you could count on to support Jesus Christ as the Messiah, if would be John the Baptist. After all, John was called to proclaim Jesus Christ. Even before he was born, in his mother’s womb, John was itching to let people know who Jesus was. He lived as a hermit to proclaim the messiah, he ate honey and grasshoppers to proclaim the messiah. He wore nothing but scratchy hair shirts to proclaim the messiah. His whole life was to be bullhorn announcing the coming of the Messiah. And then he baptized Jesus. He was there in the water with Jesus when the heavens opened up and God claimed Jesus as his son.

But now, John is imprisoned by Herod, and he knows that his life is coming to an end. And he hears about Jesus walking around the countryside, healing the sick, helping the poor, feeding the hungry. Jesus is doing all these nice things, but what about John? When is the mighty arm of the Messiah going to reach out and save him?

To John, in prison, Jesus is not the Messiah he expected. He just doesn't fit this bill. If he really is the Messiah, when is he going to start acting like one? Or maybe we should wait for another Messiah, one who is going to do things the way we think things should be done. Less of this social justice baloney, and more leading a revolution against the Romans. Less of this feel good stuff about love and forgiveness, and a more about a fiery sword and leading an Army of God. And, if he has time, to spring John from prison.

John wasn’t so sure anymore about who the Messiah was supposed to be. And he was less sure that Jesus was the one. And I can hardly blame him.

And I think that there might be more folks who identify with John that we know. Especially in this holiday season, when everywhere you look you see signs that say ‘joy’, and ‘peace’, and there are presents, and family parties, and food and good times, and laughter, but there, under the surface, there are also folks with cancer, there are folks who are cut off from their families, there are folks who are celebrating Christmas alone for the first time, or the second time, or the third time. Some of us who can’t help but wonder, how is Christmas really such a nice time of year? Who is Jesus Christ, for me? What reasons do I have for celebrating the birth of a Messiah?

There are folks in our community who have every reason to doubt the good news of Jesus Christ. The very excitement that marks the holiday for so many eludes them, and makes the stark loneliness of their lives even worse, somehow. Like John the Baptist, in prison, waiting for his own execution, they hear all about Jesus, but are having a hard time seeing him in their own lives.

Now, Jesus could certainly have rebuked John for his lack of faith. He could have told John to just suck it up and be a man, and pull himself together, and believe. Like too many well-meaning Christians, Jesus could have blamed John for his own lack of faith, and told him that if he just believed harder, that maybe he would be released from jail, and everything would be better.  

But he doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t rebuke John. He simply reminds John’s messengers that he is doing those things that a Messiah does. And he encourages John to continue trusting that he knows what he’s doing.

And then, to the crowds, Jesus doesn’t use John’s questions against him either. Rather, he holds up John as a paragon of faith. He reminds the crowds of John’s strength, of his perseverance. And he praises John’s life and his faith above all other living men and women.

You see, Jesus has high regard for John, whether John is uncertain or not. He recognizes that John is only human, and that even John can’t help but feel a certain amount of confusion about Jesus. But that doesn’t faze Jesus at all. Because the reality it, we might, from time to time, stop believing in Jesus.

But he never stops believing in us. This is what steadfast love means. This is the promise that we will celebrate in just over a week or so. That God will never stop loving us, even when we find ourselves wondering, doubting, even rejecting that same love. This is the reason for this season. That even in the midst of our darkness, even in our doubt, even in our confusion, the light of Jesus’ faith shines for us.

Thanks be to God for Advent. Amen