Gospel According to Matthew 11:2-11
December 11, 2022: Advent III
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT
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.” – NRSV
Welcome to the third week of Advent!
It is the second week in a row when the main character in our Gospel reading is John the Baptist.
And he poses a question in this morning’s Gospel reading that is front and center in the Jesus story for Christians and non-Christians alike. And front and center in this season of Advent.
It is the question at the heart of our faith.
John asks Jesus: “Are you the one, or should we wait for another?”
It’s a question that begs the consideration of a big word in our theological toolbox. Epsitemology. Etymologically, epistemology is the study of knowledge, from the Greek episteme.
It is about the quality and nature of knowledge;
about the ways in which we distinguish between what is the truth and what is….not.
A timely subject for this One Nation Under God that has adopted an affinity for “fake news.” But that’s another sermon for another day.
The theological textbooks talk about epistemology as the intersection
between truth and belief and justification.
What makes something true? How do we know what we know? And how do we justify our knowledge?
Such questions are at the heart of how we talk about ourselves as Christians in the world.
And such questions are implicit in John the Baptist’s question of Jesus: Are you the one?
Which is a thoroughly reasonable question given the state of the world.
Because if the one we are waiting for is already here….why haven’t things changed?
But, John’s question is also relatively bizarre given last week’s Gospel where John was so very resolute about the identity of Jesus. Remember? You Brood of Vipers! Repent!
Prepare ye the way for the one who comes with fire and a winnowing fork.
John was the steadfast herald of the news that he seemed to know to be true without question or qualm. Last week John was a rock…utterly sure of himself and his message:
Repent! For the ax is lying at the root of every tree, and any that are not worthy to bear good fruit will be chopped to the quick, and burned to the core in an unquenchable fire…. Holy cow!
There was no inkling of any uncertainty in John last week.
But this week, John is cooling his heels in a Roman jail cell as he tries to get a grip on the perplexing posture of this so-called king about whom he has been preaching and for whom he has been waiting. And his tone takes a distinct detour. He goes from: Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!
To: Uh, are you sure you’re the Lord? You’re the one we’re waiting for? Get outta town.
I mean, no disrespect Jesus, but where’s your sword and your scepter.
Where is the pomp, the parade, the power and the glory that we were…preparing for?
How exactly do you plan to overthrow the forces of evil in a…a…sackcloth and sandals?
Frankly, Lord, you’re not exactly…actually not at all what we had in mind…in fact, forgive me,
but you don’t look all that different from us.
And more importantly, you don’t seem to have much more clout with the authorities than…than…than a camel with out-of-state plates. If you’re the king, you know, the one, then why is my rear end still in this jail cell? Are you sure you’re the one?
It almost makes us want to turn the question back on John;
Are you sure that you are the one, the prophet sent by God to herald God’s coming?,
Or are we to wait for another, perhaps one who will have a better handle on the Lord he is lauding. Because if you don’t know whether or not this Jesus is the one for whom we are waiting,
then who should we ask?!
Still, it is not too difficult to see John’s point, is it?
I can feel John’s predicament. Especially now, in these troubled times.
It seems perfectly reasonable to ask. Because…..
Number one, Jesus does not fit the expectation of the messiah.
And number two, the world is still a mess, still brimming with greed and selfishness and evil.
So I think we all want to know,
Jesus, are you the one, the Good News of God, or should we keep waiting?
In fact, it seems only logical to question the devastation, the oppression the injustice -which has, incidentally been reoccurring throughout the whole of human history, and did not appear to be even slightly curtailed by the birth, life, death, or resurrection of God’s own flesh and blood.
Henri Nouwen says that we are the first generation for whom the future is actually optional.
In the face of such a world, the question to Jesus, “are you the one who is coming” is not at all uncalled for.
And yet, it is not incumbent upon the distinctly divine to explain anything to the wholly human. Speaking strictly for myself, I am so not capable of comprehending God’s big picture plan, or, even less, of doing anything about it even if I were to be granted the inside scoop.
Explaining God’s design to me would be akin to Pythagoras explaining his theorem to a turnip. There’s just no point.
But Martin Smith says that Advent is about the mystery of God’s choice to embrace the limitations of human life. Advent is the space where our demand for knowledge meets God’s insistence on mystery. Where we sit in the dark (and getting darker every day) with nothing but our faith to hold on to. Certainty and uncertainty all wrapped up……in the same present. Here and now.
Advent is where we begin the dance.
It’s strange that a new beginning is often characterized by a theme of waiting. But the word in this morning’s passage that is translated as “wait” – are you the one who is coming, or should we wait for another – is really more appropriately translated from the Greek as “expect.” Which carries a bit of a different connotation than wait. We can wait for something about which we know very little.
But expectation comes with…….baggage. It comes with some knowing. Expecting comes with some knowledge of that for which we are waiting.
This verb is used 29 times in the New Testament, 23 of which are in the Gospel of Matthew. That otherwise boring statistic, tells us that Matthew is the Gospel of expectation.
Of knowing what is coming. Of prophesy fulfilled.
The fabric of expectation is grounded in a recognition of that which is awaited.
To re-cognize….to re-know…to know again.
Expectation is about waiting for something we already recognize, something we already know.
The danger, of course, is that our expectations can and often do color our eyesight. We often see only what we expect to see.
Like the police officer who had been staking out a bar on a busy road. After last call the officer noticed a man leaving the bar apparently so intoxicated that he could barely walk. The man stumbled around the parking lot for a few minutes, with the officer quietly observing. After what seemed an eternity in which he tried his keys on five different vehicles, the man managed to find his car and fall into it. He sat there for a few minutes as a number of other patrons left the bar and drove off. Finally he started the car, switched the wipers on and off–it was a fine, dry summer night – flicked the blinkers on and off a couple of times, honked the horn and then switched on the lights. He moved the vehicle forward a few inches, reversed a little and then remained still for a few more minutes. And at last, when his was pretty much the only car left, he managed to safely navigate the parking lot and pull out onto the main road .
The police officer, having waited patiently all this time, started up his patrol car, put on the flashing lights, and promptly pulled the man over and immediately administered a breathalyzer test. But to his amazement, the breathalyzer indicated no evidence that the man had consumed any alcohol at all! Dumbfounded, the officer said, I’ll have to take you to the police station in my cruiser.
This breathalyzer equipment seems to be broken.’
‘I doubt it,’ said the man. ‘Tonight was my night to be the designated decoy.”
Are you the one, or should we wait for another?
It’s a joke that rests on an unethical premise, but you get my point.
Seeing may be believing. But the question is always, what are we seeing?
Sometimes what looks like a duck and smells like a duck and acts like a duck….is just a decoy.
And so John asks Jesus: Are you sure you are the one?
Maybe rather than the season of expectation, Advent is really the season of expectation management. John was expecting the Messiah, …with a capital M.
The kind of Messiah that was promised in the Book of Isaiah.
Isaiah prophesied that such a Messiah would be named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace.” Handle’s Messiah. Isaiah’s Messiah. This was the Messiah that John expected.
John expected a king…a warrior like David…a prominent priest…a prophet like Elijah…John was not expecting a poor, powerless (by any political and social standards), peasant with a relatively rotten temper and a radical disregard for all earthly…..expectations.
This Gospel reading does nothing else, it reinforces the inadequacies of our expectations over, and over, and over again.
And so it is not all surprising that Jesus did not answer John’s question as we might hope or expect.
” 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.”
This is not an answer to the question “Are you the one?” There is no first person verb or pronoun in Jesus’ answer. Jesus does not respond to whether he is or is not the one.
And this is worth noting about Jesus. He never defends or even defines himself.
He is always pointing toward God. Never pointing toward himself. Never clarifying who he is. Only and always talking about the Source of his Authority with a capital A.
Because identity is almost always grounded in the Source of Authority.
If we want to know who someone is and how they are likely to behave,
the first thing we want to know is where they get their authority.
Where do they get their marching orders? And how do they know what they know? Whose truth are they telling?
And so, getting back to epistemology, it is all about authority.
Advent is all about the question: Who is our authority as Christians? Who is our God? And if the light arising from the darkness does not look like Jesus of Nazareth.
If the gift does not come wrapped in a homeless migrant
who preaches for his supper and heals for his vocation;
If our God does not look like Jesus born in Bethlehem,
a brown-skinned baby without a modicum of social stature or a single denari to his name. If our authority does not come from the unsightly, uncomfortable margins,
Then like John, we will be trapped in a prison of our own poor expectations management. We will be waiting for a…..while.
The Good News of Advent, is that we already know what we await, as Matthew suggests. It is already etched on our hearts. We are waiting for our own divinity to shine through the night, to be delivered.
Let us be the Advent blessing that God awaits and expects in us.
© December 2022 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw