Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sermon: "Are you the One?" Matthew 11:2-11 [Third Sunday of Advent 2013]

“Are you the One?”
Matthew 11:2-11
[cf. Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10]

One of the greatest questions posed in all of scripture is Jesus’ own question to his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” [1]

“Who do people say that I am,” Jesus asked. And it’s a question that is all about identity — interestingly not just Jesus’ identity but our own, too. Who Jesus is and who we expect him to be turns out to be quite important in our own faith lives.

The famous New Testament scholar Tom Wright tells of his time as a minister and lecturer at university. He writes, 
For seven years I was College Chaplain at Worcester College, Oxford.  Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance.  Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.” 
I developed a stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?”  This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing.  So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven.  Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god.  I don’t believe in that god either.” [2]
I think it is safe to say that there are a great many people today that are a bit confused by who God is - in particular the second member of the Triune God - Jesus Christ. As it turns out, this was true of Jesus in the first century as well - there was confusion about his identity even for those who were some of his most important followers.

Exhibit A? John the Baptist.

You remember John, right? He was the baby who leaped [3]. The great early confessor of Jesus who was fond of saying things like “I am not the Christ” [4]. “I am not the Prophet.” “I am not Elijah.” Who are you then, John?  “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ [5]. 

But as it turns out, John was a doubter too. What gives?

Well, in our text today - gone is the John who was crying out in the wilderness that the Messiah was coming. Gone is the delivery of his messages of judgment and calling for repentance [6]. Gone is the baptizing and the witness to “one who is to come.”

Say hello to the John who is prison. I’ll spare you the longish details but John is in prison because he had denounced King Herod for philandering [7] with his sister-in-law. 

And in the midst of poor John’s imprisoned state - word gets through to him of some things Jesus the Messiah was doing in his ministry - and it all sounds a bit sketchy to ole’ John. He’s troubled. Listen to how NT Wright describes John in this state:
King Herod had taken exception to John’s fiery preaching, and particularly to his denunciation of him for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. This was all part of John’s announcement that God’s kingdom—and God’s true king—were on the way. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. No wonder Herod put him in prison.
But now, in prison, John was disappointed. He heard about what Jesus was doing, and it didn’t sound at all like the show he thought they’d rehearsed. He was expecting Jesus to be a man of fire, an Elijah-like character who would sweep through Israel as Elijah had dealt with the prophets of Baal (the pagan god many Israelites worshipped instead of YHWH). No doubt John looked forward eagerly to the day, not long now, when Jesus would confront Herod himself, topple him from his throne, become king in his place—and get his cousin out of prison, and give him a place of honour. 
But it seemed as though Jesus was working to a different script altogether. Jesus was going around befriending tax-collectors and ‘sinners’ (people whom strict Jews would regard as outsiders, not keeping the Torah properly). He was gaining a great reputation—but not for doing what John wanted him to do. What was going on? Had John been mistaken? Was Jesus after all ‘the one who was to come’—the one the play demanded, the one written into the script John thought they were acting out? [8]
John is confused. What sort of Messiah could Jesus be who teaches in the synagogues, preaches the gospel of the kingdom, and heals every disease and infirmity? [9]

And so John asks his famous question - “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And in the moment of asking his question, John is confronted by the question we all have to answer - Jesus’ own question for all people  - “Who do people say that I am?”

And Jesus answers him like this (channeling the words of Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6):
“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.” [10]
In this insanely great [11] moment of Jesus’ reply to John in prison - the one (John) who has formerly been the great testifier for the Messiah instead is testified to by no less than Christ himself. Christ himself prepares the witness that John must receive. John must hear for himself that in Christ the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them (v. 5). John must hear and understand these things because by hearing and understanding this testimony, John will become a greater disciple. And he will understand that, yes, Jesus is the Messiah.

Yes, maybe Jesus is doing something quite unexpected - using a ‘different script’ as NT Wright says — but it is one that is consistent with the witness of Who the Old Testament said the Messiah would be. No wonder Jesus said of the OT scriptures, “these testify of me…” [12]

So, how does this text speak to us today?

Well, let’s talk about doubt. 
This text is especially important for us to hear in Advent. It gives us a chance to admit we have doubt, too. Here, in this season, the pressure to “believe” or at least act like we believe is intense. But what if we doubt? Do we have the grace to admit it? [13] It’s OK to doubt and to even be surprised by God. The best descriptor for what the Christian life is all about is Faith Seeking Understanding [14]. Sometimes we need to admit more often that we just don’t understand. But we’re striving to - in faith. And doubt can be an important lens through which we can see what God is really doing in the world.
Now, let’s talk about God doing unexpected things, just like Jesus in his earthly ministry.
Sometimes we struggle when we hear that God is doing things among groups where we are surprised he might be doing things. Case in point: among people who don’t meet under the umbrella of the Churches of Christ.
You know the drill - the surprise that can sometimes hit us when we realize that God spends time within other tribes…
“What!?”, we exclaim. “Jesus is at work among the Catholics!? How can that be? What do you mean God is at work with that congregation? He’s hanging out with the Episcopalians!? What is this world coming to?”
I get that - but try to get beyond that. The text today suggests that sometimes Jesus (OK, really lots of times Jesus) does things we don’t expect. Do the good work of praying for other tribes and congregations and the good work that God is already doing among them. Pray for these others Christian groups to be faithful. 
Now, let’s talk about being on mission with Jesus in the world. 
Jesus, we’re told, came to the neediest in this world to do a great work of mercy: “…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” as the text today says. How does this inform us today as the church? Well, we need to pick up this New Testament witness to Christ’s work and embrace it as our own mission today in light of Christ. In the Gospels, we see that the church’s mission flows out of the mission of Jesus. And we see that Jesus models a profoundly holistic mission. He both proclaims and embodies the good news of the kingdom of God. He demonstrates it with deeds of power and acts of mercy toward outsiders. Our mission, as well, must be motivated by Jesus’ love and compassion for the least and the lost.
This text also tells us that who Jesus is and who we expect him to be turns out to be quite important in our own faith lives.
John the Baptist needed a new understanding of who the Messiah was, what sort of work the Messiah does, and with what sort of people he does it [15]. Mercy was at the heart of Jesus’ messianic mission, just as it remains at the heart of the church’s work today—an important implication for us as disciples. Whether or not that’s the script people want us to follow, that’s the way we’ve got to go—to be ambassadors, ministers of mercy, and reconcilers for God. And Jesus invokes a special blessing on people who realize that this is the true story. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:6). This is where and how God is at work. Those who recognize it, and are not offended because they were expecting something else, will know God’s blessing [16].
Finally, this text hints at something we who are Christians know to be true. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. And from God’s indwelling Spirit and His work within us we are able to say, along with the Apostle Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” [17] We are witnesses to this great revelation of God—God Himself in flesh in Jesus Christ.

And in the moment that God empowers us to confess this great truth — a moment of revelation that comes to us like salvation — we are given the answer to who we really are — we are given the answer to the question of our own identity. 

We are those who - along with John the Baptist - witness and point to the Christ, to the Messiah, to the baby in the manger, to the God who takes on flesh.

We are the Advent people — waiting and witnessing to the risen Lord —the God who will come again in mercy and truth.

We are those who confess with that great martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer - “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” [18]

We are His, aren’t we? We are those who have ceased to exist, who live only as Christ lives in us. We are nothing, and He is everything. We are, because He is.

Let’s pray


[1] Matthew 16:13
[2] Extract from NT Wright’s lecture “Jesus and the Identity of God” originally published in Ex Auditu in 1998. Accessed on the “NT Wright Page” online at:
[3] Luke 1:41
[4] John 1:20
[5] John 1:23
[6] Brueggemann, et al, Texts for Preaching (Year A), p. 26.
[7] philander |fəˈlandər| — readily or frequently entering into casual sexual relationships.
[8] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 125.
[9] Brueggemann, et al, Texts for Preaching (Year A), p. 26.
[10] Matthew 11:4-6
[11] Yeah, I went there - Apple works its way into my homily! 
[12] John 5:39
[13] A great question and point for consideration from “Doubting Advent” - an expository essay from Dr. William R. Long, accessed online at:
[14] fides quaerens intellectum. Literally, “faith seeking understanding.” The phrase originated with Anselm in his Proslogion and was used to show the relationship of religious faith to human reason. For Anselm, matters of religion and theology are understood only by first believing them and then proceeding to gain an intellectual understanding of the things already believed. In other words, faith is both logically and chronologically prior to reason. I’m spiritualizing it’s more technical meaning a bit here to make my point. Caveat emptor.
[15] Brueggemann, et al, Texts for Preaching (Year A), p. 26.
[16] Wright, Matthew, 126.
[17] Matthew 16:16
[18] From one of Bonhoeffer’s last poems before he was martyred: “Who Am I?” You can read the entire poem here: