Here's my sermon from this morning. I wasn't totally happy with it, but... oh well.
Good morning. God's grace and peace be with all of you.
Our gospel text this morning begins with a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John the Baptist, who is in prison, sends this question through his followers to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come?” The question might seem to be a strange one, coming from John the Baptist. After all, it was John who baptized Jesus, John who would have seen the heavens opened up and God's Spirit descending in the form of a dove and heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Wouldn't John, of all people, know that Jesus is “the one who is to come?”
Yet John doubts. John questions Jesus' identity, even when it would seem that he had more than enough evidence to prove who Jesus is. John is so concerned, he must send messengers from prison to ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” John is overwhelmed by a pressing question about Jesus; he simply must know: “Who are you?”
Jesus' answer may seem as unusual as John's question. Despite John's experiences with Jesus, he feels compelled to ask about Jesus' identity. And Jesus does not seem to answer the question he is asked. Jesus does not say, “I am the one who is to come,” or “I am the Messiah,” or even give a simple yes or no. Instead, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Jesus doesn't say who he is, instead he says what he does: “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.”
In response to a question about his identity, Jesus answers with his actions. In other words, Jesus is telling John, “If you want to know who I am, look at what I'm doing.” Jesus' identity is found in his actions. John is supposed to find the answer to his question in what Jesus is doing. And the same is true for us. If we want to know if Jesus is really “the one,” Jesus is telling us to look at how he lived in the world.
The answer is not what John was expecting or wanted to hear. If you remember the Gospel reading from last week, we got to hear about John’s expectations for the “coming one.” In Matthew 3, we read John’s words: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John is anticipating divine judgment. He vividly describes how the “one who is to come” will act: he will cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit; he will separate the wheat from the chaff. The righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished.
This was the hope of many in Jesus’ time, who had suffered terrible oppression at the hands of the powerful. The judgment of God was their only hope for justice in an unjust world. Even today, we may hope for the same: that God will finally come and give everyone what he or she deserves. Like John the Baptist, we may look forward to a divine judgment.
Again, however, Jesus’ answer goes against expectations. Jesus tells John’s followers, “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.” These are not actions of judgment! There is no ax at the foot of the tree here, no unquenchable fire. No, instead Jesus is describing acts of mercy and compassion. Jesus does not bring judgment; he brings good news to those who need to hear it most.
Are these the actions of a Messiah? John certainly didn’t think so — after all, “Messiah” is a political term. “Messiah” means “anointed one,” and the ones who were anointed were kings, going all the way back to King Saul. A king ought to be ruling, not performing acts of mercy and preaching to the poor! Jesus is neither the divine judge nor the chosen king that John and the people of his time were expecting. And so John asks, “Are you the one? Can you possibly be the one?”
Jesus has one other word for the followers of John. After he tells them all he has done, all the acts of mercy and grace, he says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” — anyone who takes no offense at a wandering preacher instead of a king, anyone who takes no offense at a merciful savior instead of a divine judge. John is facing the real possibility that he will take offense — that he will reject Jesus because Jesus does not meet John’s expectations. That possibility of offense is real for all potential followers of Jesus. The disciples, the crowds — all of them are confronted by a Messiah who goes against their expectations and hopes. They may take offense at who Jesus is, what Jesus does. But Jesus tells them, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
We, too, must face the possibility of offense. When God does not act in the way we want or expect, we may become offended. When Jesus reveals mercy when we expect judgment, we may become offended. When Jesus sides with the poor and weak instead of the rich and powerful, we may become offended. We may turn away, refusing to accept this Jesus.
In the season of Advent, we are waiting for the coming of God into the world in Jesus. As we wait, it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves, “Who are we waiting for?” Are we waiting for a divine judge, like John? Are we waiting for a powerful ruler? And if we are waiting for God to come into the world, how will we respond to Jesus as a helpless baby in a filthy stable?
I’m not asking these questions just to make a point. I think they are questions we should seriously consider in our own faith lives. Because there is the possibility of offense for all of us. After all, if the reality of Jesus — the Son of God, come to earth — were immediately obvious to everyone, then faith would not matter. If Jesus’ identity were clear to everyone, then everyone would follow him. But that’s not the case. The truth is, many people have been offended by who Jesus is. That’s not an occasion for us to be self-congratulatory, as if we “get it” when others do not. We face the possibility of offense as well: at times, even we turn away and refuse to follow. So we have to ask ourselves, “Who are we waiting for, this Advent?” We have to ask, “What will our response be? Are we going to be offended by Jesus?”
Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” How will we respond to Jesus, to God in human form? If, by the grace of God, we are among those “blessed,” then our response should be to follow Jesus. In a few short weeks, we will remember a baby born in a stable to a teenaged and unmarried mother. From those humble beginnings, Jesus did not rise to a life of power and privilege. Instead, he lived constantly among the sick, the poor, the outcasts of society, and he died shamefully on a cross. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This is the Lord we follow.
Jesus lived out God’s love, mercy, and care for the world. Jesus gave people what they most desperately needed — physical care, to be sure, but above all, compassion and hope. Jesus brought good news to the poor. So too, as followers of Jesus, should we. Christ calls us to be companions to those who are suffering, those we might find distasteful or frightening. Christ calls us not only to write a check, though that is certainly important, but to see them face-to-face. Christ, who was born in a dirty stable and lived among the poor, is calling us when he says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Amen.