Mt 11: 2-11 Advent 3 Yr A Tgwk, WS 15th Dec 2013
This morning, we’re going to think for a bit about questions – those we ask, and those asked of us.
First, Who is Jesus? What do you make of him?
That’s the question these chapters of Matthew are asking, and if you look at chs 11-12, you’ll see that they consist of a variety of stories which highlight the response of different people to Jesus. And here, we have John the Baptist as the first witness to the meaning of Jesus ministry.
What do we know about John B?
He was probably Jesus cousin- remember that when the angel came to Mary, she was told that her relative Elizabeth was also pregnant, and Mary went to visit her, so Jesus and John were the same age. They might not have been first cousins, but they were related. But they didn’t necessarily grow up close to each other geographically.
John was a Popular Preacher and prophet, who had a group of followers
He was Imprisoned for speaking out against the ruler – he had condemned Herod’s illicit marriage to his brother’s wife
John Heard what Jesus was doing, and as he couldn’t go to see for himself, he sent some of his followers to see what was going on, and to report back.
2nd question- Why did John have to ask who Jesus was?
John may have found it difficult that while He was imprisoned, Jesus was free – if Jesus was the Messiah, why didn’t he do something about releasing John? Why wasn’t he supporting John’s political preaching – why didn’t he get together with John’s disciples? I wonder if John felt not only superseded, but abandoned as well. He might have wondered if he had got things wrong, perhaps he hadn’t been preaching the right message. I think most of us, when things get difficult, or we can’t see a reason for what’s happening, are tempted to think that God has abandoned us, that we’ve failed as Christians, that perhaps there’s no point to Christianity if it seems God isn’t doing anything.
John had been preaching something rather different to what he heard Jesus was saying – in Mt 3 we read of John saying I baptize you with water so that you will give up your sins. But someone more powerful is going to come, and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His threshing fork is in his hand, and he is ready to separate the wheat from the husks. He will store the wheat in a barn and burn the husks in a fire that never goes out.
John had not heard of Jesus doing anything which sounded like that - added to which, Jesus failed to fast as John’s own followers did, and he kept the sort of company a careful Jew would avoid. He was criticised by lots of religious people, who had been challenged by John’s preaching, but they hadn’t thought that he was against the Jewish tradition, as they feared Jesus was. So, was John on the right side, he must have been wondering. Was Jesus really the Messiah who was expected, who John had proclaimed him to be?
John, like the religious leaders, and like us sometimes, was having difficulty getting his head around the fact that Jesus didn’t fit into any of his boxes. He couldn’t understand what Jesus was up to because it seemed so crazy, it seemed that he was mixing with the wrong people and he wasn’t being ‘religious’ enough. I think it’s quite easy for us to fall into that trap too.
3 – what was Jesus answer to John?
V4 is a quote from Isaiah
The blind will see, and the ears of the deaf will be healed. 6 Those who were lame will leap around like deer; tongues once silent will begin to shout.
John, as a good Jew, knew his scriptures and he would have been familiar with this prophecy –so these words would have told John that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but also reminded him what sort of a Messiah he was going to be
I think Jesus may have been as uncertain of John as John was of him – v 6 ‘blessed is he who doesn’t take offence/ trip up because of me’ Many people were put off by Jesus, when his style of ministry didn’t live up to their expectations. ‘Good news to the poor’ was an offence to the establishment, and if we use our imagination, we can understand that. We’ve lived in a western, Christian culture for so long that we see Jesus through that culture – and we find it hard to get our heads round the fact that Jesus isn’t British - he was born in a place which now has a huge wall separating it from the surrounding land and people – that his time was spent with the poor, the drop-outs, the ones who everyone else ignored and kept away from because they were ill, or smelly, or a bit odd, or embarrassing. Surely if he’s the Son of God, he can do better things with his time than hang out with people like that?
Jesus knew that John would have been puzzled that he didn’t conform to the popular expectation of a coming Messiah, he wasn’t going to bring political and economic deliverance to the Jewish people. But his performing miracles was more than the Jews expected – Jesus doing miraculously what only God was expected to do should show John who he was – the Messiah, the one Chosen by God. That’s why he told Johns followers to report back not only what Jesus said, but what he did.
Even so, Jesus knew how John was thinking, as well as how he had prepared the way for him, and he praised him to his disciples. I think it’s worth noting that although John was close to the end of his life, in prison, no longer able to do what he thought was the task God had given him, Jesus says that he’s not only the greatest prophet, but the greatest person who ever lived. Sometimes when things get us down, or we feel we’re useless, or that we’ve failed, we need to remember that Jesus doesn’t see us like that. Jesus knows our hearts, he knows all that we intend, and, as an old theologian said, ‘he sees more beauty in his servants’ work than his servants do themselves. The same tongue which bore testimony to John in prison will bear testimony to all his people at the last day….and then shall his faithful witnesses discover, to their wonder and surprise, that there never was a word spoken on their Masters’ behalf which does not receive a reward’ (JCRYle)
4 Jesus asks the crowd what they thought
Asks what they expected when they went to listen to John– entertainment, a celebrity, making the most of his popularity in his lifestyle?
We could paraphrase what Jesus says, as The Message Bible does
“What did you expect when you went out to see John in the wild? A weekend camper? Hardly. What then? A sheik in silk pajamas? Not in the wilderness, not by a long shot. What then? A prophet? That’s right, a prophet! Probably the best prophet you’ll ever hear. He is the prophet that Malachi announced when he wrote, ‘I’m sending my prophet ahead of you, to make the road smooth for you.’
Jesus tells them that what they get is the opposite of what they expect – John didn’t look like a famous person, he didn’t have the sort of lifestyle he could have done. He was a prophet – a very special one, because he was the last in the line of the prophets who foretold the coming of Christ.
And then Jesus goes on
11-14 “Let me tell you what’s going on here: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer; but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him.
John is the greatest of all the prophets up to his time – great, that is, in his place in God’s purpose, to be the messenger preparing the way for Jesus. John was the greatest of all the OT prophets. They had prophesied Christ but died without seeing him – John not only prophesied his coming but saw him face to face.
But that plan of God’s was leading to a new order, the kingdom of heaven, of which John was only the herald. The kingdom of heaven was to be the fulfilment of all that went before and that’s why to be in that kingdom, even as the least is to be greater than the man who proclaimed its coming, and lived before it. , v11 ‘the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John’ – as usual, in the kingdom of God, everything is turned upside down. It’s not that John wasn’t a great prophet, not that he wasn’t great in God’s kingdom, but that you don’t have to be a great prophet to get into the kingdom. You just have to be like a little child, as Jesus said . The Kingdom of God was opened to everyone when Jesus arrived – to the religious Jews, to the great leaders and prophets, to the ordinary people, to the little children, to us. So we’re back to the question
Who is Jesus? What do you make of him?
Because now, as then, all that really matters is whether we’re in God’s kingdom, or out of it. Whether we’re following Jesus, or going our own way. Whether we’re trusting in what Jesus does for us, or relying on ourselves.
The weeks leading up to advent have clues as to who Jesus is and what his destiny will be. Some of the clues are more obvious and simple than others. But all of the readings between now and Christmas point us to who Jesus is, and why he came. In the same way as the birth at Bethlehem, we’re faced with a question – who is this? The answer is not blindingly obvious to everyone, as we see from the gospel stories. Jesus doesn’t force himself on anyone, he doesn’t demand that anyone has faith in him. Instead, we’re faced with a question, and we’re free to come up with our own answer – is Jesus the chosen one, the Messiah, the one who is to be the Saviour of the World? – or not? A simple question, but our lives, and the Kingdom of God, hang on our answer.