A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

December 15, 2013

Third Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“To the victors belong the spoils.” So it has always been, and so it was with Herod Antipater, who fortunately sided with Julius Caesar in his infamous face-off with Pompey. For his loyalty to Caesar, in the year 48 B.C., Herod, who had Hebrew blood, was granted Roman citizenship and given the administrative position of governing Judea on behalf of the Roman government. It was, to say the least, a cushy appointment. It had its moments, of course, but it paid well and Herod was promised that he could keep the position in the family once he was gone.

He died a few years later, but not before making sure his sons were given positions of authority as well. One of his sons, also named Herod (there were a lot of different Herods back in that day) ruled all of the province of Galilee. Galilee was a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and the younger Herod took it upon himself to rid the land of the outlaws, and in the process make a name for himself.

There’s nothing like getting the attention of, and ingratiating one’s self to, the Romans… in a good way, of course. So, he went after the bandit gangs of Galilee, and on those occasions when he was successful in capturing the ringleaders, he promptly cut off their heads. Evidently, it was his favorite form of execution. Quick and easy, it was not like the brutal, long-lasting crucifixions the Romans seemed to be so crazy about.

It was this Herod who crowned himself Herod the Great, and who imprisoned John the Baptist. It appears that Herod looked upon the Baptist the same way he did the zealot bandits who were always running around making things difficult for him. Better to put John where he couldn’t stir up any more trouble. He would deal with John’s disciples later. So, he throws the Baptist in prison and gives him some time to think about the folly of opposing the likes of one who was so clearly in control of his destiny, not to mention the entire region. Herod wanted John to stew for awhile. He’d decide soon enough what to do with him.

We’re all aware of how that turned out. But before John lost his head – literally – he did have some moments to think… about his life, his ministry, and the endorsement he had given to Jesus of Nazareth. John had essentially crowned Jesus as the coming Messiah, but while languishing in Herod’s prison he was beginning to have his doubts. Prison can do that to you, I would imagine… cause you to believe your doubts and doubt your beliefs. The things he’s been hearing about Jesus… well, they just don’t mesh entirely with John’s preconceived notions of how a true messiah ought to behave.

What did John expect of Jesus? That’s hard to say, but it could be this… Just before he met Jesus, John told the people who had come out to the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized, “He (referring to the Coming One) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And then, using imagery straight from the prophets, he proclaims, “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!”

That’s what he expected of the coming Messiah. And what did Jesus do? Leaving his winnowing fork back home, Jesus proclaimed a message of mercy and forgiveness, and revealed the essence of the kingdom of heaven by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and raising the dead. Jesus did not come as the great liberator, he came as a suffering servant.

When John’s disciples come to him in prison and tell him that instead of vengeance Jesus is offering forgiveness, rather than judgment he bestows mercy, and that Jesus spends time with outcasts and sinners, John can’t understand it. Was he wrong about Jesus?

Things certainly haven’t turned out the way John had anticipated. That evil fox, Herod, was still in power and he, the loyal and committed servant of God, like a caged eagle, is in prison. His voice, once strident and clear with the message of God’s coming judgment, was now silent within the prison’s stoned walls, and he knows instinctively these are his last days. He will never again walk the banks of his beloved Jordan River. He will never again baptize or preach the message of repentance. It’s all over for John. It’s all over.

A man can become desperately uncertain about things in a situation like that. Perhaps, before he dies, he wants to make sure he has not lived in vain. If Jesus of Nazareth is not the Coming One (and right now the odds don’t seem to be in his favor), then who is? God had promised him he would see the messiah. He had all his hopes tied up in Jesus. Had he been wrong? Had his life and ministry been lived in vain? John is filled with all kinds of questions about Jesus. He wants to make certain, if it is possible, that the man he preceded, and prepared the way for, is indeed who and what he had proclaimed him to be. There’s so much at stake in this. He just had to be sure.

So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” For John to go to all this trouble, there had to be a huge difference in his idea of the messiah and the kind of messiah Jesus was turning out to be. John is having second thoughts about Jesus, isn’t he?

This is what Jesus says to 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 then, almost as an afterthought, as if he’s rubbing it in to the Baptizer, Jesus adds, “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

Have you ever had second thoughts about Jesus? I realize that’s a touchy question to ask, especially during the Advent season when we’re anticipating the celebration of Christ’s birth. But this is also a season for meaningful introspection, looking inwardly to our hearts in order to prepare for the One who wants to enter them. So let me ask you again: have you ever had second thoughts about Jesus?

Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask for a show of hands. Nothing is going on the record here. It’s strictly a question for you, as Mary did when she found she was to be with child – with God’s child – to ponder.

Ponder is one of those words that doesn’t really need to be defined, isn’t it? It pretty much defines itself. We all know what ponder means. If there is a season in which we should spend a bit more time doing that, it is now. I commend you to it. Instead of spending so much of your time checking out the sales ads in the Sunday paper, or digging on-line for that perfect gift, you might give something to yourself: the gift of pondering.

That’s what John did, not that he was able to do much else from a jail cell. However, we need to be forewarned that he is the poster child for the truth that sometimes pondering can cause you to ask the wrong questions. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Actually, it’s not the wrong question at all. In fact, it’s a good question. Have you ever asked it? Have you ever had second thoughts about Jesus? “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

If you have asked that question, maybe it was during one of those tough moments in life when things weren’t going so well. It may have been your own personal tragedy that led you to question this whole thing about God and faith. And since faith for most of us is centered in the person of Jesus, as we consider him God’s chosen Son, you found yourself doubting him. Where was Jesus when you needed him most?

Has that ever happened to you?

With all the negative, evil stuff going on in our world – the Sandy Hook massacre readily comes to mind as we commemorate the first anniversary of that tragedy – are you disappointed in Jesus… that Jesus would let it happen? If you were able to confront Jesus about all this, as John did from prison, what do you think he might say to you? The chances are, he would say something like this…

Go and tell (insert your own name here) 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 he who takes no offense at me.

Not exactly a straight answer, is it? No, in response to John’s probing question, Jesus leaves the Baptist to arrive at his own conclusions,1 conclusions that must be based, not on his preconceptions of what the Messiah ought to be, but of what he has heard and seen. And what he has heard and seen is that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and those who have known nothing but bad news now have been given good news.

Relate that to our world, yours and mine. If Jesus were to answer us today, he might say it like this…

Those with cancer find their tumors gone,

those with AIDS are sick no more,

Alzheimer’s patients think and remember clearly,

illegal drugs and terrorist attacks no longer exist,

and hatred, envy, and jealousy are all passed away.

What a wonderful world that would be.

In just about every funeral service I officiate, I include a reading from John’s Revelation (not John the Baptist, but another John). He speaks of such a world, a world where God “wipes away all tears from their eyes.” It is a place, John says, “Where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” He then says, “The former things (such as terrorist attacks, cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, illegal drugs, Sandy Hook, hatred, envy, jealousy… name your own personal enemy or evil) these things,” John says, “will be passed away.”

In other words, in the kingdom, the only thing that will die is that which needs to die, for it is not of God. This is the message of the season, that Jesus has brought some of that goodness to the world in which you and I live… right now. And while  we might not be immune from all these bad things here on earth, we can believe and know that the Messiah, whose coming we anticipate, promises us that some day – some day – these awful things will be eradicated and his kingdom will be completed.

The Jesus who gives sight and hearing, the ability to walk and life where there once was death, is the One who will enable this to be. And he comes to you and me now, offering us his presence and guidance, even as we live in a world that is largely a place of disbelief. The Apostle Paul tells us it’s downright scandalous – that is the exact word he uses… scandalous – to believe this, but as Jesus said to the Baptist he says to us, “And blessed is he who takes no offense (who is not scandalized) at me.”

Do you find yourself doubting Jesus these days? A famous carol of the season asks the question, “Do you hear what I hear? A star, a star, shining in the night. He will bring us goodness and light.” Jesus the Messiah is always to be found where he is needed the most.

As you look for his coming in this Advent season, look straight at where your doubts are. You will find him there, holding his hands out to you, and offering you his hope, his love, his joy, his peace. And that is what you will hear and see.

Lord, come to us this season, even in the midst of our doubts — especially in the midst of our doubts — and love us anyway. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.


1Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A (Trinity Press International: Philadelphia, 1992), p. 22.

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