What Kind of Messiah is This?
A Homily from Matthew 11:2-11
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
December 12, 2004 (Third Sunday of Advent)
The primary function of the Season of Advent is to redirect our attention away from where we are and toward where we will be at the end of time when Jesus returns. Because Advent precedes Christmas, it is easy to fall into thinking that the expectation of the season is about the arrival of the Christ-child; but – as dramatic as that hope is – as Christians our hope is not only in a manger in Bethlehem. We look also to the far horizon for the arrival of a New Earth and a New Jerusalem. We look toward the end of history and the victory of Christ.
The gospel lections in Advent approach that hope from different perspectives, but I think we should probably start with how those perspectives fit into our current context at Virginia-Highland Church in December of 2004. This has been a tough week for our congregation, and we have gathered to worship on “Joy Sunday” in the midst of conflict, hurt feelings, and significant financial struggle and sacrifice.
In that context, it seems almost disingenuous to preach about expectation and the future when we have so much to worry about right here and right now; but that is the purpose of Advent. Throughout the history of Christianity there have always been “right nows” that demanded time, energy, and attention. On the Sundays of Advent, however, we are asked to look beyond those real and important concerns to the equally real and even more important, eternal concerns of our faith.
I have no desire to minimize the stress that our congregation is under. We are working through some difficult challenges; and, even though I expect us to come through them as a stronger and more vital congregation, I know that there is a lot of pain in our community right now. Nevertheless, I think that both the season and the texts ask us (as they have asked turbulent Christian communities over the centuries) to look beyond our present problems and stand, together, looking in wonder at the hope that awaits all of us.
In the past two Sundays we’ve looked at that future from two different perspectives. On the first Sunday in Advent we heard the words of Jesus, “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left…be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!” [MT 24:36-44] On the second Sunday, we heard the words of John the Baptizer who proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor…the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” [MT 3:1-12]
Jesus told us to be ready, and John told us to be forgiven. This week, we hear a long-distance conversation between Jesus and John. In it, we are reminded that we should also expect to be surprised.
We are told that John is in prison when he hears about “what Jesus had been doing.” That’s a rather ambiguous phrase, so I went back to the previous chapters in Matthew’s gospel. It looks like Jesus was primarily healing the sick, casting out demons, forgiving sins, and teaching his message of mercy and peace. He had also instructed his disciples to do the same, and along the way he warned them that the future for those who would follow him was dangerous and dark. Jesus warned them that his arrival carried with it a sword that would separate families and end lives. He warned that redeeming our souls may cost us bodily luxuries like freedom, security, comfort, and even life. He warned that taking on the mercy of the gospel also meant taking on the scandalous burden of the cross.
John didn’t like the sound of that. He had prophesied the coming of the mighty hero of God who – with fire in his eyes and an axe in his hand – would set things right. He didn’t get himself sent to prison for some itinerant do-gooder who would give mercy to anyone who asked for it, and then lead his followers to a brutal death (and call it a victory). John had emerged from the wilderness for Jesus because he though that the man from Nazareth was the savior of the world, not a suicidal lunatic.
Sitting in the prison of an unrepentant sinner who ruled as the puppet of Rome, it’s easy to see why John might have begun to wonder if he had backed the wrong guy. Who wants to hear “Do not judge” when it is the judges themselves who must be found guilty? Who cares about a few lepers and blind beggars if there is tyranny in the land? Who cares about the slave of a Roman Army officer if the Roman Army is still occupying the Promised Land? Who thinks that dying on a cross is a better plan for the Son of God than conquering the world and overthrowing evil?
With these questions in mind, John the Baptizer sends some of his followers to Jesus to get some answers. This is the closest thing we will find to High School in the Bible, except perhaps for the descriptions of torment found in Revelation. In High School the conversations went something like this. “Susie thought you and she were going steady because you gave her your ring, but she just heard from Tommy’s cousin’s boyfriend’s mechanic’s son’s aunt that you went to the mall with Jane. So like, are you Susie’s boyfriend or not?”
John’s disciples may have been asking a different question, but the tone was the same. “Hey Jesus, John thought you were the Messiah because you were born at the right place and time and because of that whole “voice of God” thing when you were baptized. You know, John really likes you and he’s in prison now – probably because of you – and he’s really upset because everyone’s telling him that you’re talking crazy and you don’t care about Messiah-stuff. You’re too busy spouting all this philosophy, and you’re giving out miracles to everybody…even Romans. So, are you going to get with the program or do we need to go find a new Messiah?”
“Are you going to get with the program or do we need to find a new Messiah?” Not a bad question really. Christians aren’t the only ones to ask it. There are people sitting in temples and mosques all over the world who ask it as well. Some of them will decide that they think the god of their religion doesn’t look like what they expect a God to be. Others will find more practical gods like money or success. Still others will give up on gods of all kinds.
The problem with this line of thinking is that we don’t get the kind of Messiah we want, we get the kind of Messiah God sends. It’s not hard to sympathize with John, because we have all sorts of expectations about who Jesus is and what God will do for us. In modern, mainstream Christianity those expectations have a different flavor than John the Baptizer’s. For many of us, our ideas of Jesus are rooted in our own fantasies about a kind and gentle savior who would never do anything upsetting or ruffle any feathers.
Those images of Jesus can be so firmly entrenched that when we read things like “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” a few sentences before today’s passage we have trouble believing that it could come from our calm, non-violent Messiah. Then when we read that the sword is pointed at him and at us; and that following him might mean our own deaths we flip ahead in the Bible looking for something happier to read.
Or we begin to doubt. We either doubt our understanding of Jesus; or we doubt that Jesus really could be the Messiah. Running into areas of doubt is a part of faith, since you have to believe in something before you can question it. That’s why, in the middle of proclaiming the greatest hope of our faith, we have a text that describes how even Jesus’ greatest cheerleader doubted.
Jesus doesn’t seem too surprised. He looks at John’s followers and says, “You tell John what you see here. Just as the prophet Isaiah foretold, the blind can see, those who were paralyzed can walk, the deaf can hear, the dead are alive and the poor have finally heard good news. This is the future that the prophet foretold, and if John wants to be a part of it he cannot be ashamed or offended by everything it includes – even my death.”
John almost certainly knew the prophecy from John 35 that Jesus was quoting. It’s only five chapters before the part about “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” that we heard him proclaiming last week. In fact, I suspect that John still believed Jesus was the Messiah, or he wouldn’t have sent his followers to Jesus in the first place. Most likely, John simply hoped to prod Jesus into being more like the Messiah he wanted, the kind he was hoping would come when he first set out to baptize people into the hope of a new kingdom.
Yet if Jesus makes that new realm look like what we wants, it’s not his kingdom – it’s ours. If Jesus steps in like Superman and squashes the bad guys then he’s a comic book figure; not the Son of God on whom all the sin of the world rests. If Jesus acts like we think he should, then how could he ever teach us a new way to act?
And that’s why, in this season of expectation, we should expect to be surprised. Try not to fall back on old expectations of who Jesus is. Try not to limit ourselves to pictures from old paintings and the idyllic images we manufactured in our first grade Sunday School classes.
Those of us who picture Jesus as a conquering hero…we must be reminded of the Jesus of the cross. Those who picture a meek Jesus…we must think of the Jesus who overturned tables in the temple. Those of us who think Jesus blesses our wealth…we must remember his advice to give everything to the poor. Those of us who have made a martyrdom of our poverty…must remember the extravagant perfume that Jesus allowed in the washing of his feet.
No matter how mature we are in our faith, no matter how well-developed our theology, God still has surprises in store for us. In remaining open to those surprises, I am not recommending that we make up new images of Jesus. If we do that, we’re just replacing one false construct with another. Jesus turned to some of the oldest prophecies in the Bible to demonstrate his divinity. The surprise he offered John was not because the Messiah offered something new; but because the Son of God helped John to see what he had been ignoring all along.
Jesus points out that no one should be too surprised. He asks his own followers, “What did you expect me to be? Did you go into the wilderness hoping to find someone dressed in soft robes? Those kinds of people belong in royal palaces, and that’s where you find them. Prophets live in the wilderness, and that’s what you found in John; and of all the prophets he is the greatest. Yet the least of the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.”
Ultimately that’s where all of this talk of saviors and prophets takes us: to the kingdom of heaven, the realm of God. Our text then has led us to the same place to which all this season points our attention, the incomprehensible advent of a new order on heaven and on earth.
In that future, the old standards don’t matter any more. John was the very best that a broken and violent world of sin and greed could offer; but Jesus reminds his followers and us that he came to proclaim a world that John could not even imagine. It is not a world where a “good” empire replaces a “bad” one; it is a place with no empires. It is not a world where God’s vengeance is enacted on the evil; it is a place where the Son of God bears that vengeance upon his shoulders. It is not a world of peace through strength; it is a world of peace through surrender.
Isaiah tells us that, in that place, we shall see the glory and majesty of God. Our weak hands and feeble knees will become strong. There will be no fear, and even the most foolish among us will not be able to get lost or into trouble. [Isa 53:1-10]
I take great comfort in that last part, because I know what a great fool I can be; what great fools we all can be. You don’t have to attend a church business meeting to be reminded of that, but it doesn’t hurt – we can all lose sight of the things that matter and be very foolish indeed.
The good news is that we cannot be so foolish that we stand in the way of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus didn’t say to John, “Tell him to get with my program or we won’t be able to do the work of God.” Jesus told him to give up on his ideas of how the Messiah should be…if he wants to participate in what God is doing.
I strongly suspect that everyone here also wants to be a part of what God is doing. We have worked hard to create a place that offers in its inclusiveness a foretaste of the diversity and unity that Jesus promised. We have, perhaps, even created a place where even our foolishness cannot separate us from this community formed around the love and limitless mercy of God.
John was surprised to learn that he had to give up his righteous indignation and perhaps even his political aspirations to join in the realm of God. For each of us, the surprises and the sacrifices may be different; but the kingdom we are seeking is the same.
Be ready, it might arrive tomorrow. Be forgiven, because if it does come tomorrow we want to be a part of it. Be surprised, because if the kingdom of God is to be truly divine; it won’t look like anything we can imagine.