Are You The One Or Should We Keep Looking
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 11: 2 – 11. Focus on how we prevent the kingdom of heaven from arriving on earth by our violence. Check out Kelly Crandell and the First Presbyterian Church Choir as they sing: I Saw Three Ships.
Have you ever heard that last verse in church before? “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” I’ve never heard that verse in church before. I had to smuggle it in here, since the verse is always omitted from the gospel reading for today or any other day of the church year for that matter. If you ask me, we don’t hear it in church because no one wants to believe that the kingdom of heaven is vulnerable to human violence. Violent people can take heaven by force? Who wants to believe that?
But according to Matthew, Jesus said these words, and like many other hard things Jesus said, they sound true. Some of us have been waiting so long for God’s kingdom to come that the odds of it happening in our lifetimes seem only slightly better than the odds of us winning the lottery. No more sorrow and sighing? Waters breaking forth in the wilderness? Everlasting joy for the Lord’s ransomed? Scripture says that will happen.
And during Advent we actually wait for it to happen. And while God’s world – mending, history – ending arrival in our midst is certainly possible, how many of us really think it probable anymore? It seems as if something has taken the kingdom away from us, and human violence seems as good a reason as any.
This saying comes near the end of a dismal encounter between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist, who have come to ask him whether he’s the coming one or not. They never use the word “imposter” but the nuance is there. John is in prison. Herod has put him there. Roman squatters still rule the Holy Land, where Tiberius Caesar parades as Lord. And Jesus hasn’t shown any signs of capitalizing on the popular support John has swung his way. Is Jesus who John thought he was or has there been a colossal mistake?
According to Matthew, John and Jesus started out on the same page. When John first appeared in the wilderness, his message was direct: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Then John was arrested, and Jesus picked up the theme. His first public proclamation was word for word what the Baptist had said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Today we don’t talk to much about the coming of the kingdom and when we use the term I have a feeling we think that we all agree on what that means, but apparently John and Jesus didn’t agree on what the coming of the kingdom meant. Did it mean God would lead Israel to triumph over her enemies, or did it mean the end of all warfare forever? Was the kingdom a present reality or a future one?
Like John and Jesus, people of faith still don’t agree on what we mean by the kingdom of heaven, but most of us can agree that we mean something better than now. We mean more peace than what we feel when we fall into bed exhausted each night. We mean more justice than we can read in the faces of soldiers and hostages whose awful eyes tell us the real news from Iraq. We mean deeper cause for celebration than a tax cut or bull market, and deeper healing than any of our colored pills can provide. We mean the transformation of life on earth as we know it, we mean the arrival of the very one our scripture speaks of. We mean Emmanuel—God with Us—making all things new.
Is that close? If it is – if I got anywhere near your longing, then you can understand what is sometimes referred to as the weight of God, by which I mean the expectations we place on God for what God will do to and for us when he finally arrives.
You can hear Jesus sidestepping those expectations when John’s disciples come to see him. The question they ask him sounds simple enough – “Are you the coming one, or are we to wait for another?” – but the question assumes that we’ll all agree on his job description. And Jesus has this frustrating tendency to turn our expectations of him on their head. So instead of accepting the terms of the question he tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they see and hear. “The lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
And while all of that may have been true it was also true that the poor were still poor – still sharecropping for the rich, still paying taxes to Caesar, still trying to make ends meet. Herod was still minting coins with his picture on them and spending them like a drunken sailor on his grandiose building projects. And Pilate was still robbing the Temple treasury to fix the plumbing in Jerusalem, while his soldiers broke the kneecaps of anyone who protested.
Couldn’t the coming one have gotten a better handle on all of that? Wouldn’t it have been more striking if Jesus had said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the terror is over, the evil ones are defeated, the occupation is ended, and the oppressors are sent home”? Wouldn’t the world have been a better place if Jesus had said, “the homeless are housed, the poor receive a living wage, the scales of justice are restored and the wealth is spread around evenly”?
But the truth is it’s hard to be the coming one without disappointing a lot of people, especially if you’ve been waiting a long time. Until you show up, people can imagine you any way they want to. They can draw up your job description so that when you show up and get down to business the celebration can begin, but before it’s been going on for too long some of folk start noticing that you’re not exactly what they expected.
You aren’t exactly mopping the floor with the bad guys, who are still getting away with murder but – you – are hanging out with a bunch of prostitutes, tax collectors and cripples – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but frankly this doesn’t look like its going to turn the world around any time soon.
And before long our expectations of Christ’s second coming grew in proportion to our disappointment with his first. Isaiah’s prophecy wasn’t fulfilled. Waters didn’t break forth in the wilderness. Lions didn’t lay down with lambs. God’s kingdom didn’t come, but Emperor Titus’s troops did. In the fall of 70 A. D. after a long, merciless siege – the Romans burned the Temple and the city of Jerusalem to the ground.
Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?
Jesus wouldn’t answer that question, at least not directly. Instead he told John’s disciples to make up their own answers based on what they heard and saw. He paraphrased a little of Isaiah, just in case they didn’t know what they were looking for – pointing out small things, not big things, happening among little people, not powerful people, with local effect, not cosmic effect, in a world where real change generally came in the wake of great armies on thundering horses.
Within a hundred years, the coming one’s followers would look for him to come again like that – not as a restorer of sight this time, not as a healer of cripples, or a raiser of the dead, but as a triumphant ruler whose complete victory over evil would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was King of Kings and Lord of Lords. His earlier humility and humanity would turn out to have been a disguise, his apparent weakness a temporary condition that vanished when he came again in power and might. When that happened, no one would have to ask him if he was the coming one ever again. Bowed down before him, the whole world would know who he was.
During Advent, this expectation turns up not only in our hymns and prayers but also, I think, in our human hearts, which are so weary of the world’s violence that we are willing for Christ, to do whatever it takes to bring it to an end. We have been taught to speak of his 2nd coming as delayed, but based on his words in verse 12, I’m ready to call our expectations mistaken.
Whatever the coming of the kingdom means, it cannot mean that the healing, reconciling, non-combative Christ we know was an imposter, just biding his time until he could beat down his enemies under his feet. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence.” If we seek the kingdom by violence, then violence will bear it away.
I don’t know why we’re so disappointed to discover that Christ comes again as he came the first time – working through small things, not big things, among little people, not powerful people, with local effect, not cosmic effect. I don’t know why we’re disappointed to discover that the kingdom of heaven operates under the sign of the cross just as the coming one did, except that we have always been disappointed by God’s reluctance to give us the kind of world, the kind of life, the kind of savior we want.
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” he said, knowing better than anyone the disappointing, redemptive ways in which God works – sending a human child into the world instead of a mighty king, sending servants instead of troops – sending people like you and me instead of real disciples to do his work, for in just this way the coming one has never given us what we wanted. But he has always given us what we needed.
Something like life, love and one other. Amen