Matthew 11:2-11

 

When John heard in prison of the works of the Christ,

he sent through his disciples saying to him,

 

“Are you the one who is to come or are we awaiting another.”

 

Jesus answered them saying,

“Go and report to John what you hear and see:

the blind see again and the lame walk,

lepers are made clean and the deaf hear,

and the dead are raised up and poor have good news preached to them. 

Blessed is the one who does not take offense concerning me.

 

While they were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,

 

“What did you go out into the dessert to see? 

A reed shaking by the wind? 

 

But what did you go out to see? 

A man clothed in soft garments? 

Behold, those wearing soft garments are in king’s houses. 

 

But what did you go out to see?  A prophet? 

Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 

This is the one about whom it is written:

                                                ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face,

                                                            who will prepare your way before you.’

 

Truly I say to you:

among those born of women there is none greater than John the Baptist;

but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him.


 

This is a strange little story.  What’s this little sprinkle of doubt and confusion doing amidst the triumph of Jesus’ authority and miracles?  You see, Jesus had just finished giving a long speech to his disciples, commissioning them to preach and also to perform miracles, like healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons.  He gives them very specific instructions on how to go about being his commissioned disciples.  Afterwards, they and he go out preach around Galilee.

Then John hears about these “works of the Christ.”  Now he had recently been put in prison for telling Herod to get his sex life in order.  I suspect if I were in John’s shoes, I would be questioning why I had spoken so hopefully about Jesus bringing the kingdom.  If he is bringing the kingdom, why am I in prison?  Whatever he was feeling, John chooses to send his questions on over to Jesus through some of his disciples: “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

So these disciples pack up and head for Galilee, where Jesus was doing these works John heard about.  If John were imprisoned in Judea, this would have been a bit of a journey for them.  They may have wondered what Jesus might say.  Would it be good news?  Would he say “yes”?  If he says “no,” who are some of the alternative candidates?  Whatever was going through their mind, they finally found Jesus preaching away in Galilee.

“Hey, Jesus, John has heard about your works and wants to ask if you are the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Now you can imagine Jesus’ reaction.  “Am I the one to come?  Is it me?  John hears about my works, yet still asks?  Well, I’ll give you an answer: Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind see again and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and poor have good news preached to them.  God bless you if you these amazing works don’t cause a scandal for you!”

“Well, thanks Jesus, that’s great, but we and John already knew that!  We want to know who you are, not what your doing!  What are we going to tell John?  Yes or no?  Let’s get out of here.”  Now as they walk away, Jesus begins to preach to the crowds.  We can guess they stuck around to see if he would give a straight answer to them.  But he starts talking about John:  “Who did we go out to see?  A reed shaking in the wind?  A man in soft garments?  Oh, I get it Jesus.  You’re funny.  No John isn’t a shaky reed like the one Herod’s coins.  And no, John does not wear soft garments like Herod in his palace.  He wore camel’s hair.  We get it.  But that’s old news: everyone knows John is an enemy of Herod. 

“What’s that Jesus?  You say he is more than a prophet?  He is the prophet predicted by Malachi?  Wow, that’s great!  What’s that, Jesus?  He is the greatest of all born of women?  Wow, you really think highly of John.  I guess we are following the right guy then.  What’s that, Jesus?  The least in the kingdom of heaven is better than him?  Well, that doesn’t make sense.  Why is the greatest prophet, the greatest man, less than anyone else?  You don’t make sense, Jesus.  You are messing with our heads.  Let’s get out of here.” 

            John’s disciples were probably a bit frustrated.  They take their simple question to the one who should know, and he tells them something they already know, then adds to that a long, complex, subtle explanation that tells more about the question than the answer.  Sound familiar?  Sound a little like seminary?  If you are anything like me, you probably have heard a lot about Jesus in your lifetime.  You probably came to seminary with some basic questions that could have been answered pretty simply.  You have a passion to spread good news to others, and hoped that seminary might fill in a bit of the content of that “good news.”

            But no, they don’t want to give us simple answers.  Actually, between the professors I’ve heard, books I’ve read, and friends I’ve made, it’s gotten a lot more complicated.  If anything, the gospel seems to be losing its content.  I spilled it a long time ago, it rolled under the couch, and now I can’t find it.  This past summer, a fellow student asked me to preach to her youth group, and I turned her down.  I was scared that I had nothing to say.  If you know me at all, that’s pretty funny.  And if you share my quest to know the gospel, that’s pretty tragic. 

It’s just that all my studies have really convinced me that the good news – that once excited me – is trapped in my contextual understandings.  The grand story I’ve been told has gotten a little smaller – now it’s just my story, or at least our story.  But not the story.  So I still finding myself asking after years of study: Who are you Jesus?  What can I tell others about you?  And all I hear back is either a “Duh? Look what I’ve done for you” or a long, dry, complicated mess of –isms and –ologies.  What is there to preach?

“Go and tell what you see and hear.”  Wait a minute ... that is an answer!  Jesus might not be just blowing off John and his disciples or rebuking their doubt.  Maybe there is more to his answer that meets the eye.  Maybe it was right under their noses.  These guys would have known their Bibles (at least a lot better than we do).  Maybe it took them until they were half way home, but they would have recognized Jesus little list of amazing works.  “Wait a minute Jesus, we do get it: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk … that sounds a lot like Isaiah: ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy’ (Isa. 35:5-6a RSV).  And your blessing if we don’t stumble over you, that is ringing a bell, too.  That’s like another part of Isaiah: ‘And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken’ (Isa. 8:14-15 RSV).  Blessed are those who don’t stumble over you!  I get it.  You are the one to come!

            “If we are catching the right subtext, then your command to go and tell what we hear and see meant something very special.  Its almost as if you have commissioned us – just like your own disciples – to spread the good news about you.  Of course.  Why didn’t we see that earlier?  Yes, Jesus, I will go, and I will tell about what I have really seen and really heard.”

            If ever or whenever these disciples caught on, there was definitely good news hiding in the words of Jesus.  Maybe there is good news hiding behind all our paralyzing education.  Maybe there has been an answer right before our noses, too.  So what if we really are bound by our context?  What if we are children of our age?  What does that change?  It certainly does not decrease the significance of our call to preach.  Not one iota.  If anything, it should teach us to be humble, to respect other people’s stories.  Maybe now you have learned – like I have – to tell mine a little softer, and to listen to others’ a little longer.  But no one is saying to stop telling your story.  The simple story that brought you here is the same story you can still tell.  This place really can be an environment of commissioning.  Have you heard and seen Jesus at work?  Do you still hear and see?  Do you hear him calling you: Go, and tell what you hear and see?

 

Advent 2002