Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
1st Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10
2nd Reading: James 5:7-10
I invite you to consider for a moment. When you were growing up, was one parent a disciplinarian and the other more freely showing affection or love? Was one parent more fun and the other more strict? Or maybe one parent played both roles.
In today's readings we have John the Baptist and Jesus. John is more the strict disciplinarian, fiery, warning people, telling them to shape up. And Jesus is the merciful one who is healing everyone and being more gentle. Maybe we need both sides of this coin to help us reflect on our lives and make changes for the better, but also the love that accepts us for who we are and gives us the confidence to act without fear.
Like I said, John the Baptist is a fiery guy. Last week he blasted the scribes and pharisees, basically the pastors and bishops of that time and place. Ouch! When they come out to see what he's all about in the wilderness, so they can keep him under control, he says, "Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Live lives worthy of the Gospel! Repent! Change your ways!" John calls us all out about the self-righteous part of us, the complacent part of all of us. He doesn't want us sitting idly by thinking we have made it. He is the prophet Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel. He addresses their expectations three times--"What did you come out to see? What did you expect?" Did you expect someone shaky who would bend in fear of your influence or your criticism? Far from it. John had the confidence of a Prophet, because he is one. Did you expect soft robes? Did you think John would be concerned about his own comfort? No! He's not interested in his own comfort or ours. He's going to say the things God is asking him to say, because he's a prophet. He's going to live the life he preaches, so even his robes which are scratchy are a constant reminder to stay alert and work for something greater than our individual comfort. Did you expect a prophet--someone who stands up to those in power, who speaks on behalf of the poor and oppressed regardless of the consequences he will face? Yes, Jesus says, "He is a prophet and more. He is the forerunner, preparing all of you for the Messiah, for God in your midst, for your own transformation and repentance." John was not what people were expecting. He was different from other people. Israel hadn't seen a prophet in a long time. They were reading about them in their scriptures, but it is another thing entirely to encounter this in a person and try to figure out, what is their motivation, is this person crazy or sharing a counter-cultural message from God, or maybe a little of both.
Jesus addresses the crowds expectations about John, but John had expectations of Jesus and the Messiah that aren't matching up. In some ways Jesus is saying to John, "What did you go out to see?" "What were you expecting?" John is unsure if Jesus is the one, so he sends a message to Jesus, "Are you the one we've been waiting for or are we still waiting for another?" I think John was in shock. His faith may have even been shaken. He had probably been an Essene, part of a group of religious people who spent time in isolation, who removed themselves from this world and lived in the desert wasteland, in order to pray and not be tempted to participate in the evil systems of this world. John is used to wide-open spaces and lots of quiet. Now he finds himself imprisoned. Can you imagine the shock of going from being out in the desert, seeing the sun rise and set every day, connected with the land, feeling the wind, eating what the earth provides, having very little contact with anyone, to this dark prison, with confining walls, in close proximity with lots of other people, no time to himself. Both places, both the wilderness and the prison, were places of suffering, but one suffering he was used to and had taken on voluntarily and the other was completely foreign to him and antithetical to how he normally connected with God. So from this prison he addresses Jesus, "Are you really the one, Jesus, or are we still waiting?"
Jesus gives this answer, basically judge for yourself. The words of the prophets are coming true, their predictions about the Messiah, that the blind would receive their sight, the lame would walk, the deaf would hear, etc. But what he doesn't say is the part of the prediction that says, "The prisoner will be set free." I think John is asking, "Where's mine? If you're doing all these things for everyone else, why am I languishing in prison? Why do I live every day not knowing if I will be released or executed? If you really are the one, shouldn't you be breaking me out of this jail, Jesus?" Of course we all know that it won't be long and John the Baptist's head will be served up on a platter. He's not going to make it out alive. John, is more than a prophet. Of course prophets had often been executed for speaking up against powerful rulers without regard to their own safety, but if we thought that Jesus would have it any easier, that he would live through this and avoid the prophet's fate, what happens to John the Baptist gives us a heads up for where Jesus is headed, and where we are all headed as his followers.
John the Baptist, the disciplinarian, calling people on the mat, saying it like it is, not cutting anyone any slack, calling for repentance. He's fiery, he's direct, and he's not afraid of anyone. As an Essene, self-discipline would have been his preferred path to God, and he calls on all of us to follow that path and repent.
Jesus is the gentle one. I had to chuckle when first read, "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." I thought, "That's a pretty low bar." Jesus is freely handing out blessings. He's not making anyone jump through any hoops to get these blessings. He's healing anyone and everyone. They don't have to pass any test of righteousness or change their life (although I would hope they do). In fact maybe what was sometimes so offensive about Jesus is how freely he gives love and bestows mercy and brings healing. People were offended because his love was so widespread and easily accessible and went out to people they didn't see as deserving.
In the reading from James, we get the gentle Jesus, as well. Be patient, be kind, God is near, it will all work itself out in due time.
However, only the paragraph before this is such fire and condemnation. Normally I don't get to preach on this because it is too fiery for the lectionary, but it isn't too fiery for the Bible, so here's the John the Baptist paragraph. " Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you."
Ouch! This scathing condemnation is meant to alert us the dangers of the direction we're headed. We're not getting off the hook. We've put our faith in our things, all the wrong places. But it isn't too late. We can change our focus and look to Jesus and the way of life he offers, of caring for the poor, and visiting the imprisoned, and loving our enemies.
Maybe like two parents or like one parent playing two roles, we need both John the Baptist and Jesus. Maybe we need the condemnation and wake up call that John provides for us, the awareness of how far we are from the Kingdom Jesus is bringing and how we need to shape up. And we definitely need the love and mercy and free blessing and free gift of God’s grace that Jesus offers, the low bar, the accessibility to God and the Kingdom and God’s love. That’s what it means to be both saint and sinner as Martin Luther pointed out. We are convicted by the law that we cannot keep, all the rules that we fail to follow, which turns us toward Jesus for forgiveness and love. Jesus makes us his brothers and sisters and we respond with lives of thanksgiving in which we do good works out of gratefulness for God’s mercy and love.
We've got these two viewpoints about how to approach God's Kingdom, but Jesus always has the final word. He is the one who adopts us into his family, who died to take away our sin, who invites us to the table of grace. He is the one who is God with us, Emanuel. He is the one who gives us new life. So love and grace have the final word.