Sermon, 3rd Advent Year A December 12, 2010, Matthew 11:2-11

Care Offensive

Isaiah 35:1–10
Matthew 11:2–11

One of the most important questions we can ask is “What in the world is God doing?”  Which

God?

is quickly followed by other questions about what God is doing: how does it concern me?

 

The text before us is crucial for this issue for all of us.  It opens with John the baptist, in prison, asking questions, feeling uncertain, needing answers.

The Not-OK Status Quo

We left off last week saying that John’s assessment of the world as it was in his day, was not OK.  Things had gone wrong.  People needed to change course, to change their minds, or, “repent” because the Kingdom of God (heaven) was coming at any moment.

We came to the conclusion that Advent season is a time for us to make our own assessment of  the status quo.

What Is God Doing?

Now it’s time to take the question one step further.  If things as they are are not right, what should God do about it, what will God do about it?  What do we want God to do about it?

Doesn’t this get to the heart of the question: why did God make this whole thing?  What does he want with us?

The (popular, but) Wrong Answer

I want to start with the wrong answer before we get to the right answer, because I believe that

This will bring them in for sure

the wrong answer is the one most commonly believed in.

 

It seems to me that a great majority of people who believe that there is a God think that he is angry and ready to (or already has started to) punish.  He punishes individuals, he punishes nations, he punishes world-wide economic systems – all because we deserve it.

Retribution

This is called the doctrine of retribution – and those of you who come to Thursday Bible study know what I’m talking about in depth.

(The bible studies are video taped and available on line – follow the links from our church web site www.gspres.com).

Clearly there is a basis for this.  If there is any justice in the world then it must be that a judgment day is coming.  The question is, is it a rolling judgment that is already happening?

If I get a flat tire on my way home from church, is that God judging me for something?  What if I get a bad diagnosis?  Is that judgment?  What if I lose someone I love?

Is that what God wants to do in the world; go around finding people doing bad things and punish them with retributive justice?

No! No! No!

That is the mistake that is so often made today.    This is the thinking behind that horribly

"God Hates"

misguided church in Kansas that sends people out to the funerals of fallen soldiers to proclaim messages of God’s judgment on America.  No! No! No!

 

This was actually the same mistake John the baptist made from his prison dungeon.

2Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Why the confusion?  John had proclaimed that  Messiah was coming to baptize with fire, not just water; to burn up the chaff – to slay the wicked – to bring judgment.

This was not happening, so what’s up?

The Right Answer: Jesus’

Now we are ready for the right answer, but let’s be really clear: what we are going to hear from Jesus in this crucial text is precisely why the Kansas church is wrong and why the idea that the bad things in our lives or our country or our world are God’s punishment is wrong.

Jesus answers the question by explaining what he is doing.  As he does, we should hear his answer as the answer to the questions, “What in the world is God doing?  What does he want to do?  What should he do with this world?”

Here is Jesus’ answer:

4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

God’s Care Offensive

Is God doing something?  Yes he is.  Is God on the offensive?  Yes he is; he is on a care offensive.  Blessed are those who are not offended by his care.

Is God aware of what the status quo of the world is?  Yes he is.  Is he happy with it?  No, he isn’t.  Bad things happen; things go wrong.  People suffer; it’s not good.

What is he doing about it?  Healing, redeeming, restoring!  This is what God is doing about it.

This is Matthew chapter 11.  In chapters 8 and 9 Matthew has chronicled Jesus’ ministry:

– he has restored sight to blind people, healed lepers, raised to life a dead girl, given speech to a man who was mute, and to all of them, most of whom were literally poor, he had preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.

What does God want to do with a world that is not right?  To judge it?  No! His will is to redeem us, restore us, heal us, make us whole.

The Prophetic Vision

This is exactly the vision that the prophets of old had.  Hear again from Isaiah:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. … 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come

Now, pause right there – God is coming, said the prophet: do do what?  Listen carefully:

with vengeance, with terrible recompense.

Vengeance?  Recompense?   In what form will his vengeance and recompense take?  Here it is:

He will come and save you.”

Thwarting Evil: By Good

God’s idea of victory over evil is to absolutely thwart its objective. Evil wants to hurt, destroy,Jesus' take on God divide, to cause pain.  When instead there is healing, wholeness and joy, evil has been utterly thwarted.

Listen to the very next lines of Isaiah’s vision of the way God will get his vengeance on evil:

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

In the ministry of Jesus, God was overwhelming evil with good.

In Jesus’ ministry, God came to find the pain, and the people who were suffering, and to bring them into contact with God’s loving, redemptive, healing touch through Jesus.

What is God Doing?

What in the world is God doing?  God is at work finding lost souls, wounded people, people with a past, people in pain, and not looking for ways to increase their suffering, but rather to heal it, to redeem it, to restore them to life as he created it to be lived.

And so, yes, his attention turns to those who need it the most; the poor, the ones shunned and discriminated against, the ones without power, the forgotten or neglected ones.

Anger is easier: but wrong

People are funny.  It seems that it is easier to get people to be angry at something than to be

Jesus' way? Really?

emotionally charged by goodness.  It’s easy to get people to come to a rally, hold up signs, chant three-word slogans and be “mad as whatever.”

 

But that is not the Jesus way, and it is not our way.  We are people of the kingdom.  We know that Jesus has commissioned us, he has sent us out on a mission – and it is his mission.

Our Calling: a Care-offensive

It is now our calling to be extensions of Jesus’ ministry.  It is our mandate to seek out after people in need, people in pain, and to bring signs of comfort and caring to them.

It is our mission to embrace “lepers” with full welcome and acceptance.  It is our joy to find lost souls and to show them into a community of inclusion.  It is our honor to find the despised and to demonstrate respect for them as men and women made in the image of one God.

That kind of broad, openness may cause some to be offended.  Well, we are sorry, but we are offering an alternative.  Come and be blessed, as Jesus said:

6 blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Blessed are those who are not offended by God’s lavish care for the world and for people in pain.  Blessed are those who continue Jesus’ care-offensive, pushing back evil in all its destructive forms.

 

Sermon for 2nd Advent A, Dec. 5, 2010 Isaiah 11:1–10; Matthew 3:1–12

Isaiah 11:1–10

Matthew 3:1–12

Where It All Begins

If you ask enough people the same question, eventually you will find someone who agrees

the right doctor

with you, thus making it unnecessary to do any more thinking or to change your mind.  I have heard that there are people who, when told by their doctor that they need to change their lifestyles, instead, change doctors.  A recent survey of Americans found that when a person finds a conflict between what they want to believe, for example, about current issues, or politics or economics and what their church is teaching, the majority will change churches.  We are living in the age of “suits me” religion.

The problem with this approach, however, is obvious.  It only works for a while.  It’s like Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme; at some point it all collapses.  Even if you find a doctor who lets you indulge, eventually you get sick.  Hearing only what suits you may feel good today, but may leave you unprepared for tomorrow.

How Should We Live?

How should we live? What should we believe?  What kinds of practices and policies should we support?   The answer to these questions requires an approach that will determine the outcome. Is our approach short-term or long term?

In the short term, we could keep the Ponzi scheme going a bit longer, keep changing doctors and churches to keep the mandates manageable.  This is called denial.  And it works.  For awhile.  Ask anyone who has become addicted.  Ask anyone with big credit card debt.

Alternatively, we could take a long-term approach.  This is the outcomes-based approach.  It insists on facing the truth squarely, even the “inconvenient truths” (and yes, I did use that term advisedly, precisely because it is an example).  The long term, outcomes approach says, “I’ve lived long enough to know that following the path of least resistance may be a good rule for hot-air furnaces, it’s the path to tragedy for people.”

Beginning with the Truth

For people of faith, for Christians, it all begins with a sober assessment of where we are.  It all begins for us with a moment of clarity, a time of brutal honesty that drops all pretenses and excuses.  It’s like the moment after the stress-test when the doctor comes in, and say, “OK, now its urgent.”

We begin with the fact that things as they are are not OK, and the moment is critical.  We

things as they are

begin with the understanding that God is not OK with the status quo, and it is time to do something about it.

The church year begins with Advent, not with Christmas.  Christmas is the solution; we begin by first facing the truth that there is a problem.  We do not begin with the shepherds on the hillside “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Rather we begin out in the wilderness with John in his rustic prophet costume, calling for a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of direction; that is, calling for repentance.  Things as they are, are not OK, but are about to change.

John’s message was simple:

2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Repent of what?  Change your mind about what?  Where did John come up with his assessment that things were not OK and his concept of what they should be?

Help from the Prophets

The answer is that John was steeped in the traditions of Torah, the Hebrew scriptures or, as we say, the Old Testament.  He had absorbed the message of the prophets, those “servants of the Lord” who used their Spirit-inspired imaginations to assert an alternative reality.

The prophets, like Isaiah, diagnosed the disease of their communities and called for change.   As they did, they pictured a world set right again.  They imagined the world, not as it was, but as it was meant to be.  John’s assessment of the not OK state of his world came by way of contrast with the prophetic imagination.  This is advent on which we make the same, unflinching sober assessment as well.

So, to the prophet Isaiah: how should the world be?

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

It is not hard to discern the meaning of these imaginative metaphors.  A world without violence and bloodshed is the vision.  It is a vision of a world in which no one is hurt and nothing is destroyed.

The Spirit-infused King will come

How could this completely alternative reality ever be actualized?  When a new shoot starts to grow out of the stump of a tree cut down long ago, a new day will dawn.  The tree is the family line of King David, cut off  down to a small stump years ago.  The prophet imagines a new green shoot emerging as a fresh branch  from the stump: a new king from the old family line of Jesse, father of David.

Listen to the prophet’s vision of this new possibility:

1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch

a shoot from the stump

shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

The question is, what difference will it make that this new branch of the old family line of King David will be so infused with God’s Spirit?  What will God’s Spirit in this new King do for him?  How will the Spirit of God help him?

3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

His perspective will be God’s perspective.  He will not use merely human judgment as he looks at the status quo, but rather out of an intense “fear of the Lord” – utter and profound respect for God’s will and power, he will assess the situation and render judgments.

New Ways of Seeing

He will see that the normal way of looking at the poor and the despised is to dismiss them,

not OK

neglect them, or even take advantage of them, but the Spirit of God will give him an entirely alternative view.  He will not just listen to what the “good old boys” say, the consensus, majority pronouncements.  Rather, because he listens to the Spirit, he will decide with “equity” or “justice” for the “meek” or the ones who have no voice or social power to protect their interests.

His method will not be a new round of violence, but rather the weapons of words that proclaim that a new age of justice and righteousness has come:

“he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

Unlike the status quo in which the strong prevail, in his kingdom, might does not make right: only right is right, measured by faithfulness to the Lord:

5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

John, Jesus, and Us on the Prophetic Trajectory

This is the prophetic vision that inspired John.  The difference between this vision and the status quo in his day was huge, and John came to call it “not OK.”  John saw a world through the eyes of the Spirit of God said, repentance is required.

Today in Advent we hear John’s call to assess the status quo again.  Today we hold up the same standard as John used, only perhaps with even greater clarity and intensity.  John proclaimed a time of repentance because the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God was about to burst onto the scene.   We are on the other side of that announcement.  We understand that Jesus, the Spirit-infused shoot from David’s line has come, and he has announced the dawn of the Kingdom.

We now see even more clearly than John could have because we have heard from the King himself.  Isaiah had it right: he did not assess our world according to human eyes and the talk of the day.  Rather he used the criteria of justice and righteousness.

Advent Honesty

In advent, we face the truth about ourselves in a new way: we ask ourselves, “how am I living my life?”  Am I led by the Spirit of God?  Are my personal decisions and actions consistent with a person who believes that the poor in spirit are blessed?  Does my voting record reflect the belief that the meek will inherit the earth?  Does my budget show that I believe that being filled comes from hungering and thirsting after righteousness?   Would my friends call me a person of mercy or a peacemaker?  Have I ever risked ridicule for the sake of the kingdom of God?

We could change the channels until the person on the TV was telling us what we wished were true about the world and what to do about it.  The Ponzi scheme could continue a bit longer; we could find a compliant doctor – but we know better.  We have heard the call to repent; we have held up the criteria, following the trajectory from the prophets to the Lord Jesus.  We will be Spirit-led people of the kingdom of God!  No excuses; no reservations.