Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Are You The One?”
Rev. Art Ritter
December 15, 2019
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.
David Leininger quotes a Reader’s Digest article from a few years ago. A woman told about searching for the perfect birthday card for her husband. She searched through many on the store racks until she ran across a rather promising one. On the outside it read, “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.” Then she turned to the inside, which was inscribed like this, “You’re not exactly what I prayed for, but apparently you are the answer.”
Here in the Detroit area, we are suffering through what may be the worst display of professional sports performance in my entire lifetime. The Tigers finished with the worst record in Major League Baseball last season. That’s nothing new. They tied for that achievement the previous year and they are odds-on favorite to do it again in 2020. The Red Wings currently have the worst record in the National Hockey League, and as I put word to paper they were in the midst of an eleven game losing streak. The Lions – oh, the Lions! The Lions haven’t won a championship since 1957 and have won only one playoff game since that time, never appearing in a Super Bowl. Our Lions once again rest comfortably in last place, currently on a six game losing streak. Only the Pistons are not cellar dwellers, but they have a losing record. Even if the Pistons do make the playoffs, they are certain to exit quietly in the first round.
I have to admit that I am most concerned about my Detroit Tigers. At the recent winter meetings, the Tigers did the expected – nothing. They have no one on their roster of real trade value. We Tigers fan are told to be encouraged because we had the top choice once again we have the first choice in next summer’s Major League draft of young players. Things might look good in five to seven years! The real hope of Tigers’ fans are centered on a group of young pitchers who are at least a year or two or three away from entering the major leagues. We are told to trust that these young arms and these high draft choices will someday provide us our salvation. I wonder however if any of these much touted players will be the one who pitches us to a pennant. As a realistic Tigers fan who remembers the promise and then disappointment of Chis Pittaro, Torey Lovello, Chris Shelton, Joel Zumaya, and Michael Fulmer – I am not going to hold my breath.
I don’t think that John the Baptist was a Detroit Tigers fan, but he might have known how we Tigers fan feel. This morning’s Scripture lesson is kind of a strange one to hear on the third Sunday of Advent. Last week we were once introduced to John, a rather cocky prophet who cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord. One is coming who will change the world and bring into place the Kingdom of God. Repent and get ready!” People were attracted to John and they lined up in masses to be baptized. Certainly he had his critics, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. But he was confident enough in his success to respond back to them strongly, “You brood of vipers! Who told you that you could escape from the judgment of God’s Kingdom?”
This morning’s reading is also about John the Baptist but it is from a different time. Whoever is responsible for selecting the lectionary assignments got the sense of timing all wrong and instead of talking about a baby born in Bethlehem, jumped ahead some ten chapters and thirty years into the middle of the gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry. What an odd choice-an Advent reading that comes immediately after Jesus’ instructions to his followers about what they will encounter on the road to discipleship.
But perhaps it isn’t so strange. According to Matthew’s account, John the Baptist, the extra confident fire and brimstone preacher of last week, is now in prison. Months have passed since he baptized Jesus and proclaimed him as the Holy One of God. As the time went by, things must have gotten harder for John. Herod the Great had him locked up. Jesus has begun his ministry and things hadn’t gone as well as perhaps John thought they should go. Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary points out the wonderful description the author of Matthew uses in verse two, “When John heard in prison what Jesus was doing.” Apparently, John was more than just a little disappointed in what he was hearing. John talked of Jesus chopping down sinners like trees and throwing them into the fire. John sought a Messiah who would arrive like a raging bull, making a clean sweep and a complete change in the world. While John looked for and hope for a strong Messiah who would stand up for himself and make people feel proud and strong, instead he got Jesus- a Messiah preoccupied with the sick and the lame and the downtrodden, people who certainly weren’t the movers and shakers of the world. How was any of that going to help people know right from wrong? While he expected a tidal wave of God’s judgment, what he heard about in Jesus was merely a constant drip of God’s grace and mercy. John wasn’t quite so certain that Jesus’ ministry was the culmination of his own ministry of baptism and a call to repentance. And so John the Baptist sent his followers to Jesus, just to check things out. He sent them with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for someone else?” What a great question! Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or is somebody better coming along? Are you the one? Sitting in a jail cell, John the Baptist had his doubts about Jesus the Christ. If he wasn’t doubting, he certainly was having some strong second thoughts. Perhaps we could go so far as to say he was disappointed.
Jesus’ response was also quite interesting. He really didn’t answer John’s question. Instead he told John’s followers to go back and report to John what they had seen and heard. Go back and tell him about the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news. Jesus didn’t support his identity with proof of his own importance. Instead he talked about something bigger than himself, the work of God that was happening among those and within those wherever he happened to be. Things might not be happening in the glorious ways that John had wished, but things were happening at the deepest levels of all, in the personal and most important things of life.
Are you the one? Maybe that is the question of Advent. Each of us carries a host of expectations at Christmas. Like John the Baptist we tend to set the bar pretty high. We expect a lot of our Christmas hopes and dreams and we often expect the magic of this season to change the world, or at least our little corner of the world. We might be pinning our hopes on some divine force to spread some pixie dust to magically fix things and make everything all right. When very little happens in the way we wish, when discouragement and darkness are not banished, we might wonder about the authenticity of our faith or the faithfulness of our God.
What is it that we should look for at Christmas? What is it that we should hope for in the gift of God? Perhaps we can seek a world where the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news. Perhaps we can lend a hand in making all of those things happen around us. Instead of grand glorious world-altering celebration that we work so hard to create, we can simply become more aware of the presence of God around us. We can understand that we are in this Kingdom of God business too. We can realize that we have a part to play in making our hope real.
I recall many years ago when Laura was pregnant with Amelia, we attended a night for expectant parents and siblings at Beaumont Hospital. While Laura and I heard presentations about what to expect when we would arrive at the hospital on that future uncertain night, Maren went to a separate room to hear about what it would be like to be an older sister. Later, the three of us reunited in front of the nursery windows, the place where all of the newborns were sleeping. Laura and I were standing in front of one baby when Maren, full of excitement and confidence approached. “Is that one my new sister?” Laura and I wanted to laugh but we didn’t want to embarrass Maren. It was so enlightening to hear such innocent and simple expectations. Is that my new sister? If only it could be that easy.
There is an old Hasidic story of a pious Jew who asked his Rabbi, “For forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Seder night, waiting for him to come, but he never does. What is the reason?” The rabbi answered, “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children. Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for the eight days of Passover. On the Seder night, Elijah will certainly come.” The man did as the rabbi told him, but after the Passover he came back and claimed that again he had waited in vain to see Elijah. The rabbi answered, “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor. But of course you could not see him.” But the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”
Theologian N.T. Wright called this question the elephant in the room at Advent. Is the one born in Bethlehem “the One?” Will the realities of our world once again turn the warm fuzzies of Christmas into an unfulfilled dream? Or will what we celebrate at Christmas inspire us enough to engage in the mission of God, bringing the promise of God’s son into our lives and our world. If we believe that Jesus is the One, the world may not change, but our part in the world needs to.