The following text is from the sermon I delivered at my church this evening. The main text was Matthew 11:2-11 and you would do well to read it before reading the blog. Biblical quotations are from the NRSV and from Tom Wright’s ‘For Everyone’ series, including one or two adaptations.
“Blind people are seeing! Lame people are walking! Lepers are being cleansed! Deaf people can hear again! The dead are being raised to life! And – the poor are hearing the good news!” Would we be offended if that was happening in our parish?
This evening’s sermon contains much information and I offer this framework to guide you through it: I will do a brief survey of the themes from the previous two week’s sermons before looking at why John was no longer sure if Jesus was the one. We then look at the nature of Jesus’ cryptic reply to John’s queries and what Jesus has to say about John. Finally, we see what relevance this has for us today.
Two weeks ago we heard about the Babylonian exile of Judah initially in 597 BC and then more catastrophically, in 587 BC when the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed. Exile is an important theme in Matthew. He show us this by arranging the genealogy of Jesus in the beginning of his Gospel into three sets of fourteen, the first headed up by Abraham echoing covenant, the second headed up by David echoing kingship and the third headed up by the first exilic king, Jechoniah, echoing exile. By rearranging the three sets of fourteen, we get six sets of seven and Jesus then heading up the seventh seven which I believe is Matthew’s method of saying Jesus is the climax of the covenant, the coming king and the one who brings the exile to a close. You will find this theme of exile throughout the sermon.
Then last week, we heard about John preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming and urging those who heard him to repent. He offered a baptism in the Jordan River and heard the confessions of their sins. As far as we can tell, John was primarily baptising Israelites from the Judean countryside around Jerusalem and the Jordan.
The term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and other terms like ‘No King but God’ were used as revolutionary slogans at the time of Jesus. The primary meaning that was attached to these slogans was that Israel’s God was becoming King. Further, baptising people in the Jordan was symbolically acting out Israel coming out of the wilderness and entering into the Promised Land, just as they had done with Joshua after the Exodus from Egypt. Essentially, John was both vocally proclaiming that God was becoming King and symbolically acting out God’s chosen people taking up possession of their Promised Land. Put another way, he was acting out and proclaiming the end of exile. You might say, “But Philip, the end of the Babylonian captivity and hence the end of exile took place in 539 BC” Certainly, the geographical end of exile did take place then. But as in Malachi 3:1, and alluded to in our reading we have: “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you and he will clear your path before you, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”. The Israelites of Jesus’ day were still waiting for the Lord to suddenly come to his temple. Exile would not be truly over until God took up his residence in the temple once again.
But John was also pointing to someone else, someone who’s sandals he was not worthy of carrying, and every indication was that this was Jesus. Only in our reading this evening, we find that John is no longer so sure and he sends some of his disciples to find out if Jesus is the one. Why is that?
Well, the most obvious reason is that John was sitting in prison and John was not so sure that this is where he was supposed to be if God was becoming king. But there are other more subtle reasons and sometimes the way we arrange our readings in the lectionary does not highlight these reasons. For instance we hear all about the blind seeing and the deaf hearing in this evening’s Psalm and the reading from Isaiah. But we as Christians have selected certain readings in light of Jesus and in order to tell a particular story at Christmas or at other times. I’m not always sure that we tell the right story though. This evening’s readings were not the primary texts consulted when people discussed the end of exile. Daniel chapter seven was probably the most popular and there we hear about one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds in heaven, of an everlasting Kingdom and of Judgement. Absolutely nothing about the blind seeing and the deaf hearing. Another one was Isaiah chapter sixty one, and at least we hear about setting the captives free and of debts being cancelled which is obviously good news to the poor. Of course, everybody had their own version of which captives were to be set free and who’s debts would be cancelled, but the point I’m trying to make is that most people were not too concerned about the deaf and the blind and the lame.
But Jesus clearly is.
When it comes to the blind and the lame, perhaps a not so well known story from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles will illustrate the general feeling towards the blind and the lame. When David wanted to capture Jerusalem from the Jebusites, they taunted him by saying, “The regular guards have knocked off. We’re manning the walls with the blind. The lame will be their messengers. They’ll keep you out.” Obviously David took the city, and subsequently the blind and the lame were banned from the temple so that he wouldn’t be reminded of those taunts. The blind and the lame were not kindly looked upon by the majority of people at the time of Jesus. That Jesus was spending so much time healing the blind, the deaf and the lame was confusing for John, who was probably expecting a military defeat of the Romans, to be released and judgement against those Jews that kowtowed to the Romans.
This leads onto the next point, which is Jesus’ reply to John’s enquiry. Essentially, Jesus says, “‘Go and tell John what you’ve seen and heard. Blind people are seeing! Lame people are walking! Lepers are being cleansed! Deaf people can hear again! The dead are being raised to life! And the poor are hearing the good news!”
Not exactly a direct answer. Why does Jesus not say, “Yes, I’m the one.”?
Not, as many scholars would suggest, because Jesus is somehow not sure whether he is the Messiah. Nor because the end of exile is to be likened to some kind of private spirituality that you work out for yourself. I suggest the clue to a far more historically coherent possibility is found in the chapter of the Gospel preceding our reading, where Jesus tells the disciples “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” And then shortly after that he says, ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me’
John was sitting in prison precisely because he had pushed the boundary with Herod, the wannabe King of the Jews, just a bit too far. Now if the word got out that there was someone claiming to be the Messiah, in other words the real King of the Jews, that would not make the wannabe king too happy. As I mentioned before, Kingdom of Heaven was revolutionary talk. A messianic figure was a political figure. Jesus had just warned his disciples to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves and that they would be hauled before rulers and councils and kings. Jesus was not going to make himself an easy target so he gives a cryptic answer which he follows with a cryptic blessing:
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
What is all this about? Cryptic answers, cryptic blessings! What is Jesus trying to accomplish here. For me, this is the most important line in this whole reading and if there is one thing you take home with you this evening, it is Jesus’ words to John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” I imagine that this blessing links directly into John’s expectations of what end of Exile means and what the Kingdom of Heaven is going to look like. Jesus is fulfilling some of those expectations, but not all of them, and then he is doing things which just about nobody thought was important.
Let us recap what most people were expecting:
A glorious Messianic figure was going to come and lead Israel to a military victory over Rome. Prisoners would be set free. Debts would be cancelled. The Resurrection of the Righteous would occur and the Messiah would then rebuild the temple and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. And Israel would then rule as proxies for this God over the rest of humanity. There were a few variations around this, but those were the general expectations of most Jews of Jesus’ day.
Now, what was Jesus doing? He was an itinerant preacher, preaching that God was becoming King, but this did not entail the cancelation of debts because all the debt records were kept in the temple. He was healing the blind and the deaf which just about nobody was expecting and he was raising the dead, but not in a once off resurrection of the righteous, but one by one he was raising people here and there, which although it didn’t happen often, was not something Israel was unfamiliar with.
Can you see how someone may be offended at Jesus’ suggestion that he may be the Messiah, albeit subtly? He wasn’t doing what was expected, he was doing something new. Will you be offended when God does something new?
After John’s disciples have left Jesus turns around and he says, “Actually John, you’re the one. You are the one of whom it is written: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.” No one born of a woman is greater than John, yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. Here is Jesus being Cryptic once again. What does he mean now?
The analogy I draw here is to South Africa’s bid for the 2010 World Cup. Let us pretend for a moment that Danny Jordaan didn’t go from being CEO of the bid committee to CEO of the Local Organising Committee. Thinking back to 2003, what we could say is now that we have won the bid, Danny Jordaan, who was the most important person in the bid committee is not even as important as the least paid civil servant in the City of Cape Town who is planning the transport for the World Cup. The bid committee has done its job, but now we are starting something new. We don’t carry on bidding for the World Cup once we have won the bid, we start implementing the building, the transport planning, the training of the construction workers. We don’t do this because the bid committee was a failure; we do it precisely because they have done their work successfully. So it is with Jesus and John the Baptist. A few verses after our reading, in verse fourteen, Jesus says of John, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Jesus is the one whom you seek who will suddenly come to his temple. But rather than saying so directly, he says, “If you’ve got ears, then listen!” Matthew alludes to deafness and hearing seven times and to blindness and sight nine times in this passage alone. It would be careless to think that he was not trying to draw our attention to a very important point in this passage. Do we have ears to hear and eyes to see?
So what does this mean for us today, sitting in St Thomas as Anglicans, as Christians, as people of faith? Perhaps we should ask the question, who do we most identify with in this story? I don’t know how your minds work, but I can let you into how mine works. When I look at a story, I identify with the hero. I look and see who the hero is, and I say, “I’m like him” Now I realise that I am far closer to John and the rest of Israel. I read my bible and I look for texts that suit me and back up my point of view and I try and squeeze the Messiah into a box that suits me, a box that I can handle. That is exactly what John and others did. They had an idea of who the Messiah was and what he was going to do, and when Messiah came nobody recognised him because he did not fit their predefined criteria.
My biggest challenge to a congregation with theological understandings as diverse as St Thomas’ is to help people from across this broad spectrum to understand that maybe, just maybe, it’s not the person on the other side of the divide that has got it wrong. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I have put Jesus into a box which has nothing to do with his character or nature. Too often, because we believe in an unchanging God, we freeze him. We forget that we worship a living God. Before I relate all of the above to our advent theme of Joy I would like to leave you with a quote by the Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner: “… to reflect and reconsider is a mark of learning and growth, a measure of curiosity and intellectual capacity. For us who spend our lives as teachers and learners in the realm of religion in the here and now, to reach a firm and final ‘position’ means to die, to stop our quest.”
As mentioned, our advent theme for this week is Joy. In light of all that we have heard above, I pray that we recognise that Joy will not always come in the ways expected. I pray that you will be open to the way God moves and that you will not try and force God to operate in a particular way. Are you able, as Paul did, to count it as all Joy when he was locked in prison? Jesus brought good news to the poor. I would like to suggest that true Joy will come to us when we bring the good news to the poor. Not good news of a future happiness in a disembodied heaven, but good news in the form of cancellation of debts, in terms of the ability to earn their own income and to participate in decision making processes of society more than once every five years. As I said, the Messiah was a political, this worldly figure. His message was not abstract. It challenged its hearers to a new way of being human. “Let anyone with ears listen!”
Most of my thoughts come from Luke Timothy Johnson’s ‘The Writings of the New Testament’ and NT Wright’s ‘The New Testament and the People of God’, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’ and ‘Matthew for Everyone’. I pray that you have learned from this and are able to share with others some of the information.
Grace and peace