St. Matthew’s Sermon 12-15-2019

St. Matthew’s Sermon 12-15-2019
What Then Did You Go Out to See?
Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen

Last week’s reading was from earlier in Matthew’s Gospel; there we heard John proclaim…
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. (3:11a).
And, in that same reading we hear the story of John and Jesus meeting for the first time, John saying that he should be baptized by Jesus (letting us know that he recognized Jesus as that “one”) and we hear that he saw “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him, and heard a “voice from heaven that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”” (3:13-17)
Today, however, we hear that John sends some messengers to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
What happened? Why is John, who announced the coming of the Messiah, saw the Spirit, and heard the voice now asking “Are you really the one…?” John apparently has doubts, but why?
Matthew doesn’t give us a clear reason in this part of his account so, from this point alone, we can only speculate. But if we go back again, to that other story about John, we might begin to fill in some of the blank spaces.

In that reading from chapter 3 we also hear John proclaim about the coming one “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (3:10, 12) But in today’s reading Jesus instructs the messengers to go back and tell John what they 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”.
Mingling these two parts of the story we can see a contrast between John’s threatening rhetoric of “unquenchable fire” and Jesus’ gentle acts of healing and mercy and, with that, we can see tension between John’s expectations of the coming savior and the reality of that coming. Where John was expecting someone to use God’s power to chop, thrash and burn, Jesus came with power to heal and pardon.
Yet Matthew isn’t trying to portray John as misguided, or weak in faith, He’s using John to show us that even the best, the prophet, can face doubts when what we expect isn’t what we get.
Not only John, but all of Israel expected the Messiah to be a militant; one who would lead the people into battle with the sword; a kingly figure who would crush the enemies so badly no one would dare to stand against them again.
But Jesus was no militant; he gathered a few disciples, none of whom were soldier material; Jesus didn’t take a political stance against Herod nor Rome; and he was an unlikely leader, he wasn’t rich, didn’t wear fancy clothes, wasn’t well educated, and certainly wasn’t well connected with other earthly powers.
It’s easy to see, then, why John was questioning.
And it makes Jesus’ continuing conversation with the crowd gathered near him a bit more understandable when he said
“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”.
There were reeds in the wilderness of the Jordan valley. And there were several of Herod’s fortress palaces there too. So reeds shaken by the wind and royals and their staff would be seen there; it’s what you would expect to see. But Jesus reminds them that they didn’t go out to see the expected but the unexpected; a Prophet, a great Prophet… dressed in camel hair and eating locust and wild honey.
As we look at this, we are called to place ourselves into the story and ask “When do we question, how do we question, and who do we question”? And with that we have to ask “is it okay to question”?
When, how, and who are matters of the individual. Each doubt, each uncertainty, comes from each person’s unique experience and each one’s mood in the moment so I cannot address those in a way suitable for all. I can, however, speak to the matter of permissibility, and to that I say emphatically… YES! Especially when we think we know what to expect.
A brief writing that I’ve seen recently speaks to this well; in my own paraphrase it states that “when God looks like us, thinks like us, loves all the people we love, and hates all the people we hate… we must question… for we have created God in our image.
We must question our own expectations; for many are the false prophets who dress in fine clothes, fly about the world in private jets, and display a great charisma as they preach from fancy stages, live in mansions and surround themselves with notable friends.
We must question our own biases and ask ourselves how many times we have ignored true Prophets because they didn’t look the way we expect them to look, or say what we expect them to say, or do what we expect them to do. (I’m guilty, by the way)
And, of course, when we’ve voiced these questions we will ultimately ask how we know the difference between the true and the false. This, Jesus answers in today’s reading… What do you hear and see? Not in outward appearances, not in fancy words, but in results; 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.
By this you will know of the true prophet; if they are healing, not wounding; if they are giving, not taking; if they see the poor, not as the problem, but a symptom of the problem; if they are promoting love, not hate.
True Messengers of God come in unexpected appearances and deliver unexpected messages; we must allow ourselves to be challenged by those messages and be open to having our expectations questioned. By this we will know the love of God and enter the place where even the least are great!

Isaiah 35:1-10
35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus
35:2 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.
35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
35:4 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.”
35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
35:6 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;
35:7 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.
35:8 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.
35:9 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.
35:10 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.

James 5:7-10
5:7 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.
5:8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
5:9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!
5:10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples
11:3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:
11:5 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.
11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
11:7 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?
11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.
11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
11:10 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.’
11:11 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.