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Dec 17 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

December 15, 2013 – Matthew 11:2-11

The Advent Question

Now when John, while imprisoned heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about 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 dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in king’s palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
‘Behold, I send My messenger ahead of you,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’
Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  Matthew 11:2-11

INTRO: Today our meditation in scripture brings us to the Advent question

A point of tension enters Matthew’s story between John the Baptist and Jesus
– will it lead to conflict? a split? or can the tension be resolved?

There was a fundamental difference between Jesus and John (vv. 15-19)
– in mid-twentieth century, Richard Niebuhr published Christ and Culture
• in it, he explored the ways different Christian traditions have related to their surrounding culture
• the first he introduces is “Christ Against Culture” – a judgment and rejection of society
○ this is similar to John the Baptist’s position — it is to condemn society and those living in it
– the position Jesus took was to enter culture to transform people (rescue and heal them)
– the different perceptions of Jesus and John first came to light at Jesus’ baptism (Mt. 3:14-15)
• John was put off that Jesus would identify himself with sinners
• it ran contrary to his notion of who needed to be baptized

It’s not surprising that they would eventually cross swords

True to form, John’s question was blunt and to the point

“Are You the Expected One, or should we look for someone else?”

“Expected One” is literally “the Coming One,” in the Latin version, venturusad ventus to arrive, arrival: Advent
– It is if John were saying, “I told my followers You were the One, but now I have my doubts”
• John predicted a catastrophic upheaval – judgment
• a cutting down, and fire, and a thrashing (Mt. 3:10-12)
– when we look for dynamic forces that move history, we find economics, politics, military, world leaders
• but we generally fail to discern the hand of God
• when prophets were sometimes shown future history, they saw only the hand of God
○ not the slow, natural processes he often uses

Jesus did not give John a direct answer
– “Go and report what you hear and see . . .” – but didn’t John already know all this?
• it was when “he heard of the works of Christ” that he sent his disciples with the blunt question
• the Lord’s “works” were precisely the reason John was perplexed
○ Jesus wasn’t doing the sort of things he expected
– I imagine tone in John’s voice to be frustration, anger
• “Are You the One?! Did I bet on the wrong horse? Should we be looking in a different direction? Should we be looking for someone else? Perhaps someone who acts more like a Messiah?”

It’s no accident that Matthew connects this question with John’s imprisonment
– there are many anomalies we can tolerate when we are in good health
• many bothersome questions we don’t ask when the sun is shining
• but this man of the wilderness, now locked in a dungeon, was desperate
○ he had reached an hour of crisis and his life was hanging by a thread
○ had he allowed himself to be deceived? Was his whole life’s program going to fizzle out?
– perhaps we hear another tone in his voice – disillusionment
• when beginning in verse 7 Jesus asked the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” he was strongly emphasizing that John was a prophet–in fact, there was none greater
○ so even prophets can be disillusioned, lose heart, doubt, and complain
• I love how God answered Jeremiah’s complaints:

If you have run with the footmen and they have tired you out,
Then how can you compete with horses?
If you fall down in a land of peace,
How will you do in the thicket of the Jordan? 
(Jer. 12:5)
And again, later on:
If you return, then I will restore you–
Before Me You will stand;
And if you extract the precious from the worthless,
you will become My spokesman. 
(Jer. 15:19)

In other words, “Straighten up and I will let you go back to work”
• John cast his complaint in the form of a question, “Are You the One?”

We all ask this question at one time or another

Perhaps not in the same form, but something like it
– “If God is real, then why doesn’t he heal me?”
– “If God is good, why is there so much suffering?”
• we should know that we’re not the first to ask it
○ Job asked the question, so did the psalmists, and prophets like Jeremiah and Habakkuk
○ Jesus himself asked it, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Religious disillusionment is a common experience
– it’s how God breaks us out of our magical thinking
• in Jesus’ answer to John, he listed the things he was doing, including “the dead are raised up”
• was this meant to help John locate his place on the list?
○ was this all he had to look forward to–that he would die? That his life would end without ever seeing the fire?

My dad believed he had a promise from God — that he would live to see the church raptured from the earth
– so even in his last week–to his last conscious hour–, he was in denial of his death
• he never came to that point of acceptance that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described
○ yet Jesus didn’t fault him for that, and Dad died peacefully and painlessly in his sleep

Helmut Thielicke compared John’s question to Jesus’ cry from the cross. But as long as Jesus can say “My God,” he cannot be lost on total despair. “That is why what sounded like the inarticulate cry of a desperate man on Golgotha ended in the words of a deep peace: ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). ¶ In exactly the same way, a margin of peace surrounds the despair of John.”

– so, even if we don’t get an answer, or the answer that we want, or we don’t understand the Lord’s answer,
• we’re not abandoned and left to die alone
○ nor have we devoted our lives to a failed mission — regardless of how things may look

And what was Jesus’ answer?

First, what he does will tell us who he is
– unlike the humans he’s come to redeem and heal, there’s no contradiction in Jesus

Secondly, Jesus doesn’t allow everything to take its natural course
– in his community, the blind are not neglected, the deaf are not ignored, the poor are not avoided or overlooked
– this is good news for us
• Jesus does something that changes course of our lives
○ if we need proof that this is happening, we have it
• my meditation yesterday was in 1 John:

No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has give us of His Spirit. (1 Jn. 4:12-13)

• the perfection of God’s love is the work of his Spirit in us
○ it is real and observable – even to ourselves, because we can see whether we are becoming more loving
– religion gives us a worldview, doctrines, rituals, duties, and so on
• it’s our job to take these things into real life and see if they hold up
○ and to see if we hold up for having these things
• sometimes real life teaches us that our religion has been in theory only–imaginary
– the more real God becomes to us, the more we realize:

  • how wrong to assume we control him by our beliefs
  • how little we know of him
  • how foolish it is to think we have exclusive rights to him
    look at the sky and ocean, then feel the presence and reality of the God who made them and see if you still feel like you own God

– perhaps prayer isn’t supposed to change the world to my specifications
• maybe prayer is where God changes me to his specifications
• when in silent prayer, I am not imaging an inner lake where I drown my anxieties
○ I am encountering a Presence that calms the storm
○ I am listening to my Savior’s voice telling me, “Do not be afraid. I’m here”

The third part of Jesus’ answer is in verse 6, “And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me”
– “Who accepts Me as I am and not who you wish I would be”
– “Who meets me with surrender rather than the demand to meet certain expectations”

CONC: What do we do with our Advent question?

Suppress it? Deny it? Accept the pious answers thrown at us? Look for a satisfying intellectual solution?
– no one sitting at the bedside of a sick child or standing near a grave is going to be pleased with a sound and perfectly reasonable explanation for this heartache

Like John, we are encouraged to take our question to Jesus
– we can bring it all to him — our confusion, our anger, our despair
– we can be certain that our questions won’t be answered at a distance from him
• as we see with John, Jesus just not simply dole out answers
• this is because the resolve we crave is not found merely in the words or deeds of Jesus, but in his person
○ “. . . who does not take offense at ME
• in our dark hour we don’t want reasonable explanations
○ we want the comfort of a person whose heart we trust

It is only when we are up close to Jesus that our troubled souls can rest
It is only when we are up close to Jesus that we are overwhelmed with assurance, “All will be well”
It is only when we are up close to Jesus that the Advent becomes the adventure of faith

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