A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
December 15, 2013
The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The people at Coca-Cola seem to think you can “Open Happiness” by popping the top off an ice-cold bottle of Coke, but in this Advent season we are opening hope, peace, joy, and love by turning the pages of scripture and being reminded that the coming of Christ changes everything. Two weeks ago we opened hope by talking about not only our children’s hopes for Christmas, and not only our own hopes for help and healing, but also about God’s hopes for the redemption of all creation. Last week we opened peace by talking about peace with God, and how it’s not only that we have to make peace with him, but that he—in the person of Jesus—has come to make peace with us. Today I want to open joy, and that’s not going to be easy. It would be nice if joy came in a bottle—like Coke—and you could buy it at the store, and bring it home, pop the top, take a big gulp, and feel all that joyful fizziness bubbling up inside you and spilling over to others.
But you can’t.
When you look up the word joy in the dictionary it doesn’t say anything about where you can get it. It says that joy is: 1) “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying,” for example that feeling you get when your favorite team scores a touchdown, 2) “a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight,” as in the someone or something who brings you joy, 3) “the expression or display of glad feeling,” which might describe the look on your face when you are joyful or the way you literally jump up and down, and 4) “a state of happiness or felicity,” which might be a quieter, deeper, calmer thing—something you might feel in your heart even if it doesn’t show on your face. As I said, the dictionary doesn’t tell you where you can get joy, but it does seem to suggest that joy can be “got.” That second definition speaks of joy as a source of keen pleasure or delight—a something or someone who causes the emotion of great delight or happiness, who makes your face light up, who brings about that state of deep and quiet joy. And, as you may have guessed, I want to talk about Jesus as that source.
In today’s reading from Matthew 11 Jesus is doing what he always seems to be doing in the Gospels—preaching and teaching, helping and healing—when he gets an unexpected visit from the disciples of John the Baptist. John has been locked up in prison by King Herod. He hasn’t been able to follow Jesus around and watch him work. But he’s heard what he’s been up to, and it doesn’t seem to be exactly what he expected. Listen to the question he asks in Matthew 11:2-6:
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.”
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” How could John ask such a thing? He was the one who said, ‘I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” And then, when Jesus came for baptism, John tried to stop him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” In other words John recognized Jesus for who he was—the Messiah, the one more powerful than he, the one whose sandals he wasn’t worthy to carry—but here, a few chapters later, he isn’t so sure.
When John was preaching in the wilderness he told people to repent because the kingdom of heaven was near. And then he told them how he thought that kingdom would come. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” he said; “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water,” he said, “but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John had in mind a Messiah who would come with an ax in one hand and a winnowing fork in the other, one who would chop down the fruitless trees, and burn up the useless chaff, one who would bring in God’s kingdom with a rush and a roar, and baptize God’s people with spirit and fire. What he got instead was Jesus, who went around healing the sick, and blessing the poor, and telling clever parables about the kingdom. John seems almost disappointed, and I think I know why.
New Testament scholar Ralph Martin says that the expectation of a Messiah was at a fever pitch in the time of John the Baptist. He quotes from a document called the Psalms of Solomon, which is not in our Bible but was very popular in those days. It was being read in the synagogues, in the public square, and in private homes. It spoke of a Messiah who, like his ancestor David, would be a mighty warrior and rescue his people from their enemies. He would overthrow the Romans and set up God’s kingdom, making Jerusalem his capital and restoring the temple to its former glory. Martin says, “The days of the Messiah’s rule would be days of indescribable blessedness and unparalleled prosperity for Israel. The nation would be elevated to a rank of supremacy, with Jerusalem acknowledged as the chief city in the world. The Gentile nations would either submit to the dominance of Israel, or be broken in pieces and brought into subjugation.”[i]
Let me read a few verses from the Psalms of Solomon, just to give you a taste of what the people in John the Baptist’s day were hearing:
Behold, O Lord, and raise up for[your people] their king, the son of David, at the appointed time which, O God, you did choose, that he may reign over Israel, your servant. And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, and may cleanse Jerusalem from the Gentiles that trample her down in destruction . . . With a rod of iron may he break in pieces all their resources. Let him destroy the lawless Gentiles by the word of his mouth.[ii]
If that’s what John was hearing then it’s not surprising that he would expect a Messiah who would come with an ax in one hand and a winnowing fork in another. But what was Jesus hearing? He says, “Go and tell John that 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.” It’s almost a direct quote from today’s Old Testament lesson, where Isaiah says: “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 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” (vss. 3-6a). “Here is your God,” Isaiah says, “and this is what he does: He doesn’t chop down trees and burn up chaff. He doesn’t shatter unrighteous rulers with a rod of iron. No, he comes, he saves, he helps, he heals. That’s how you will recognize him.”
It’s as if Jesus and John each had a playbook on “How to Be the Messiah,” but John’s was a piece of political propaganda called the Psalms of Solomon and Jesus’ was nothing less than the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. We know that there was a copy of that scroll in his hometown synagogue because when he preached there one time that’s what they gave him to read, but we don’t know how many other scrolls they had. I have this suspicion that in a small-town synagogue like that they may have only been able to afford a few: the Torah, of course; Isaiah and maybe one of the other major prophets; and then a few little scrolls they got on sale like Habakkuk, Joel, and a slightly used copy of Obadiah. I’m speculating, of course, but what if Jesus grew up in that little synagogue hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah read aloud Sabbath after Sabbath, mostly because that’s what they had, and what if he closed his eyes and let those words sink down deep into his mind, his heart, his soul? He was the Word made flesh, but what if it was those words, above all others, that became flesh in him? If so he might begin to believe that his mission in life was not so much to shatter unrighteous rulers as it was to help and heal the sick, to preach good news to the poor.
And this is what he does.
He says, “Go tell John what you have heard and seen: 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.” Because this is what can happen when you don’t measure up to people’s expectations: they can take offense at you. How many people have taken offense at political candidates who didn’t live up to their campaign promises? And what about John? He was practically Jesus’ campaign manager! He was the one telling everybody that Jesus was going to get rid of the dead wood and burn up the chaff. But now all he seems to be doing is helping and healing people, preaching good news to the poor. How is that going to get rid of the Romans? “Are you the one who is to come,” John asks, “or should we look for another.” He seems disappointed, but then again he had political dreams; he was dreaming that one, tiny middle-eastern nation could be restored to its former glory. Jesus has bigger dreams than that; he hasn’t only come to save Israel, he’s come to save the whole world, and what he does is a sign of what’s coming, of that time when God will be in charge of everything, when there won’t be any hunger or hurting, no sickness or suffering, no death or dying anymore.
But please don’t think badly of John. Near the end of today’s Gospel reading Jesus says that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. He is not only a prophet, he is “the Messenger” sent to prepare the way (Mal. 3:1). And yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.” Jesus says it as he’s looking around at those people he has come to help and heal—the blind, the deaf, the lepers, the lame, and the poor. His dream is not national; it’s global. And it’s not political; it’s personal. Because while he has come for everyone in the world he also makes it clear that he has come for every one [holding up one finger].
I think of what it must have been like for just one of those people Jesus healed, for the lame person, for example, who was made to walk. Picture him on crutches, coming to Jesus, dragging his useless, twisted legs behind him. And then picture Jesus standing before him, looking into his eyes, putting a hand on his shoulder and saying, “Be healed.” And then picture that man’s face as he feels the strength flowing into his withered legs, feels them growing straight and strong again. Picture him in that moment when he straightens up and lets his crutches fall to the ground. Picture him shifting his weight gingerly from one foot to the other, and then starting to walk, faster and faster, until he breaks into a run, racing down the road toward home and stopping only when he remembers that there’s someone he needs to thank. And then picture him running back, dropping at Jesus’ feet, gasping for breath, holding on to his ankles, and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” John asks. If he had been standing there Jesus might have pointed to the man at his feet and said, “Ask him,”
“He’ll tell you.”
[i] Ralph Martin, New Testament Foundations, Volume I: the Four Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 108.
[ii] Psalms of Solomon 17:21-24.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.