Jesus comes to us in our prisons. (Satterlee)
What are your expectations of the Messiah?
How are we imprisoned by our false expectations?
The cross is where Jesus meets us in our prison. What imprisons you?
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,*
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,*
but it shall be for God’s people;*
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!
Luke 1:47-55 — The Magnificat, Mary’s Song
… God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty…
Be patient, therefore, beloved,* until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.*Beloved,* do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved,* take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?* Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Pointing to Outcomes
Our text begins the third of five narratives in Matthew’s gospel. We just finished the missionary discourse in chapter 10.
In his sermon on this gospel text, Martin Luther suggests John the Baptist had no doubt whatsoever that Jesus was the One to come. After all, he heard the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my Beloved Son…” (Matthew 3:17). So why did John send his disciples to Jesus to ask? If Matthew recorded the heavenly words at John’s baptism of Jesus (“This is my beloved Son…”), why would he then have John wondering at all?
Luther responds that John is doing this for the sake of his disciples, not himself, so that they, who are following him, might now believe in Jesus and follow him instead. “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
David Garland (Reading Matthew) suggests that John is like Moses, leading the people to the Promised Land, that he himself will not be able to see. John knows his ministry and his life are coming to an end. He is allowing his disciples to get a taste of Jesus’ ministry. John points his disciples away from himself.
Faithful leaders always point beyond themselves. Egotistical leaders point to themselves. They elevate themselves. Egotistical leaders preach sermons that make people say, “Wow, he is great!” Servant leaders preach sermons that make people say “Wow, God is great!” The egotistical leader inspires people to increase the church for their glory. The servant spiritual leader inspires people to increase God’s kingdom for God’s glory.
Leaders that make a difference point to something bigger than themselves: the mission. John pointed to Jesus. Jesus pointed to God and God’s Mission: the Kingdom.
To what or to whom are you pointing your people? What is the mission of your church? Is the mission of your congregation survival, or is the mission bigger than that – the healing of the world?
John invites his groupies to go and see Jesus for themselves.
Jesus says, “Tell John what you see:
- blind see
- lame walk
- lepers cleansed
- deaf hear
- dead raised
- good news preached to the poor.”
John’s disciples see Jesus’ public ministry first hand. No hearsay. Experience the real deal.
Garland points out that the “proofs” Jesus mentions here in Matthew are reflective of Isaiah’s messianic predictions:
- Isaiah 29:18 – “the deaf shall hear, the blind shall see”
- Isaiah 35:5-6 – “the eyes of the blind shall be opened; the ears of the deaf will be unstopped; the lame shall leap…”
- Isaiah 42:18 – “listen, dead: look up, blind”
- Isaiah 26:19 – “the dead shall live”
- Isaiah 61:1 – “to bring good news to the oppressed”
These things are also the very activity that Jesus was doing in the second narrative section, chapters 8 and 9.
I find it interesting that when Jesus faces doubts, from none other than John, the one who baptized him, Jesus points to the outcomes. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. “Am I the real deal? You tell me. What do you see? And how does that line up with your understanding of the Kingdom?”
How does that work in your congregation? Can your members say to their curious friends, “Come and see?” What would these friends see? What is the fruit? One thing we know about healthy trees from the gospels: they bear fruit.
Is the tree bearing fruit? Is there healing going on? Hope? Are there signs of the kingdom of heaven in your church’s worship, community, and ministry? Is there any kind of transformation taking place in people’s lives? Is there joy? Love? (“By this shall all people know you are my disciples: if you love one another.” John 13:35) Is good news being preached to the poor?
Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruit.” Jesus is about results. Our theology often creeps into cheap grace. I often hear people quote “God doesn’t call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful.” It’s sometimes attributed to Mother Teresa – ironic given how prolific her ministry was. God may not call us to be successful, but God does call us to be fruitful. Jesus curses the fig tree, a symbol for the religious institutions of his day, for not bearing fruit. What do you do with a tree that doesn’t bear fruit? Cut it down, and throw it into the fire. The master wants to do just that. The gardener, however, asks for a stay of execution. Let me dig around it and apply manure for a year, and then we’ll re-evaluate. Sometimes I think we are all in this very situation.
I’m reading Renovate or Die, by Methodist Bishop Bob Farr. He says ministry is like renovation. Sometimes we treat it like redecoration. Spruce up the building. Ministry is more like renovation. You have to check the foundation. You might have to take down and move walls. The plumbing and electricity will need work. Redecoration won’t do.
The same might be said for our lives. We’d like to follow Jesus, as long as it doesn’t require us to change too much. We might ask the same question this Advent. What fruit are our lives bearing? What evidence is there that faith is alive and the Spirit is at work?
Sometimes I think we are so caught up in our theology of grace; we are afraid to do good works, lest we might be accused of trying to earn our salvation. Indeed Luther himself, in his sermon on this text, says things that would bother the purveyors of Lutheran neo-orthodoxy. Luther says,
Here we have stated that where the works are absent, there is also no Christ.
Where there are no works, there is no Christ. Just let that one sink in for a bit.
Faith, without works, is dead.
Luther goes on:
Christ is a living, active and fruit-bearing character who does not rest, but works unceasingly wherever he is. Therefore, those bishops and teachers that are not doing the works of Christ, we should avoid and consider as wolves.
John points to Jesus. Jesus points to the mission, the works, the fruit for signs that God is here, breaking in. Jesus doesn’t even try to spin it, much: “Go tell John what you see…”
Could you do that? “Go tell your friends what you see going on here in this ministry…”
One pastor said to me, “What if, instead of reporting attendance and giving (noses and nickels) we reported outcomes: hungry fed, naked clothed, homeless housed, strangers welcomed, sick cared for, and prisoners visited?”
There’s an irony in the last part of Jesus’ comment: “…and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Proclaiming the gospel turns out to be the pinnacle of good works. Luther takes this opportunity to do a little teaching on law and gospel. Apparently they gave him more than 10-12 minutes to preach. This sermon looks like an hour or more to me. (But then again, there was no TV back then…)
Why good news to the poor, and not to the rich? Luther says,
But my kingdom, because it seeks not its own advantage, but rather bestows benefits upon others, is sufficient of itself and needs no one’s help; therefore, it cannot bear to be surrounded by such as are already sufficient of themselves, such as are healthy, rich, strong, pure, active, pious, and able in every respect. To such I am of no benefit; they obtain nothing from me.
The gospel is for those who are famished, physically and spiritually.
Good news for the poor encompasses any who are broken in any way. If you think you are not broken – if you have it all together – well, then Christ may be of no use to you. “God cannot fill what is already full.” – another Mother Teresa quote. The only prerequisite for being filled with God’s grace is you must be empty. The only prerequisite for being resurrected is you must be dead.
Christ comes, bringing good news to the poor, hope for the hopeless, joy for the sorrowful, and healing for the brokenhearted. This is good news for you, and good news for you… to carry to others.