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Sunday, December 17, 2006

What Did You Come to See?

Advent 3
December 17, 2006

Matthew 11:2-11

Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.

Something tells me that John the Baptist wouldn’t show up on most congregations’ call list for a new pastor. He’s not very warm or fuzzy. He doesn’t tiptoe around the issues and he doesn’t beat around the bush. He doesn’t care what you think of him and he certainly doesn’t seem to care if he hurts your feelings. John is a prophet sent by God. His words are not his own. And they’re not smooth and polished either. They’ve got rough edges, edges that cut. He called people to a change heart, a new way of thinking, a recognition of our standing before God.

Jesus said that John was not a reed shaken by the wind. So many preachers are just exactly that. Reeds shaken by the wind. A lot of times, pastors like all Christians, are tempted to just go with the flow, to avoid talking about the difficult teachings of Scripture, to shy away from controversial subjects or offensive moral instruction.

We want to be popular. We like it when people pat us on the back and say, “well done.” We think we need to be loved and respected by everyone. But Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, For so did their fathers to the false prophets (Luke 6).” Preachers, just like all Christians however, should worry less about winning the admiration of the world and think more about finding favor with God.

John hammered at the arrogance of men. Particularly religious arrogance, the sin of the Pharisees, the ever-present danger of the dedicated churchgoer. Pharisees, old and new, imagine that the kingdom of God belongs to them because they sing in the choir, attend every church function, give 10% of their income to missions, and volunteer all their free time to good causes. Please don’t misunderstand me. I wish every person did those things. Do those things. They’re good things to do. But don’t forget that your status as a child of God rests solely on the kindness of God, and it’s never because we have toed the line. Because we have not. There is no one so pious among us who can boast before the Lord. Even when you pour out your lifeblood in service to your neighbor, fighting off wild animals to spread the Gospel, even your most holy works are tainted by selfishness or the desire for recognition and reward.

In one of his less tactful moods, John criticized King Herod Antipas for stealing his brother’s wife. And that is what eventually led to John’s arrest and execution. So today, as John awaits the chopping block he sends some of his followers to Jesus to ask if He is the One or not.

This reminds me a little bit of the hit movie from a few years ago called The Matrix. In that science fiction action movie, earth was in a struggle between good and evil and there was a prophecy of someone who would come to set thing right. The big question in the movie was, “Are you the one or should we expect someone else?”

I should add that many interpreters have understood this text to mean not that John himself was having doubts but that his followers were wavering and he sent them to Jesus for their benefit more than his own. But either way, you need to face this question. Is Jesus the One or do you want someone else? Why did you come to church today? Did you come here to be entertained or to have your egos stroked? Did you get up and come out of a sense of obligation? Or did you come here because God makes Himself known to us in the breaking of the bread, because you need what God wants to give and you know you need it?

A few years ago, there was a book that came out with the title: “Disappointment with God.” Disappointment occurs when our expectations are not met by our experiences. Haven’t you ever made a choice or a decision only to find that what you got was not what you thought you were going to get? Of course you have. We all have. A doctor at Johns Hopkins did a study and concluded that one of the main emotions experienced by adults in America is the feeling of disappointment with their lives. How can it be, you may ask, that the richest, most pampered and highly entertained society on earth could feel this way? Because what we assume will make us happy – riches, pampering and entertainment – seldom does.

As Christians, our disappointments in life often translate into being disappointments with God. All of us have certain expectation for what God should be like. If you could write God’s job description, what would you say? In my baser moments, here is what I would write: The right god for the job should always answer my prayers how I want, when I want. He should never make me wait. He should never say anything to make me feel bad about myself. He should always affirm my decisions. He should not place demands on me or require me to do things that I don’t want to do. And he should give me a lovely house on the beach surrounded by lots of friends and let me die in my sleep. That’s the kind of God our flesh wants. Actually I guess what I’ve really described is a genie in a bottle. Give me seven wishes. Even Santa Claus only gives you presents when you’ve been good. Maybe your job description for God would be a little different from mine, but I’ll bet I nailed it pretty close.

A lot of people had expectations for the Messiah and they weren’t always sure that Jesus fit the bill. People become disillusioned with God when they expect Him to do things for them which He has not promised to do. People give up on church when they expect it to be something which it is not.

Jesus never promised us an easy life if we follow Him. Not in this world. Quite the opposite, He told us we could expect to be mistreated on His account. He taught us to anticipate martyrdom. John the Baptist may not have liked being in jail for calling sinners to repent, but he surely was not surprised. Nor should we be surprise when the world rejects us on account of Christ as if something strange were happening to us. No servant is greater than His Master. If our Lord was despised and rejected by men, why should we expect a standing ovation?

What God does promise is absolution to every sinner who repents. He promises eternal life to those who are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He promises that though you may suffer in this life, you will one day be lifted up and exalted above the stars.

We suffer for our confession of Christ, but we also suffer because we do stupid things, because we are mortal, because our family and neighbors sin against us. There are all sorts of reasons to suffer, but one reason to rejoice. God is good and in His goodness, He looks upon you with favor. Because Jesus died on the cross, God is no longer holding your sins against you. He’s not like us. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. When you get into a fight with your spouse, you bring up every bad thing they’ve ever done. But that’s not what God does. We hate our enemies and love our friends. But God in Christ loves His enemies and turns them into His friends. You are touchy and easily offended and find it very difficult to forgive people who hurt you. But God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. Here is a trustworthy saying, deserving of full acceptance: God will not treat you as your sins deserve because Jesus has been treated as your sins deserve in your place. And we will be treated as Jesus deserves, like a Son. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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