Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
December 12, 2010
Have you ever thought you were losing your faith? Ever question whether God is really there for you when you lose someone you love or when the pressures of life threaten to crush you or the walls seem to close in? Have you ever despaired about the way evil thrives and goodness is thwarted? Do you ever wonder why God does not stop the ongoing madness of the world? If so, perhaps you can identify with John the Baptist's desperate plea in this morning's passage.
John the Baptist was a colorful character who never gave a second thought to the public's perception of him. An unconventional man, he viewed everything in black and white. He seemed not to notice the ambiguities of life. Nothing fell into a gray area for John; people were good or evil, righteous or wicked. And in his mind, most were stubbornly positioned on the wrong side of the ledger.
As a restless man on fire for God, his passion made him both attractive and offensive. He could be appealing, but he could be obnoxious. John was a fiery orator who called some of the most devout people of his day "a brood of vipers" and mocked them with sarcasm. He told people what they did not want to hear about themselves and proceeded to threaten them with damnation. He called on them to repent before it was too late.
You might expect people to simply change the channel and ignore him, but his words resonated so deeply in their bones, they ventured out to the wilderness to hear him preach. John could not be confined to a community, so he lived in the wild. He wore rugged outdoor clothing and ate natural foods centuries before it was fashionable.
This man was a prophet who understood his role as sounding the alarm. He warned people to wake up because the Messiah was about to appear. Then, one day, while baptizing people in the Jordan River, he found himself standing face to face with Jesus. I suspect it was the only time John was nearly speechless. After that day in the Jordan, the ministry of Jesus began to flourish, but John did not retire from the scene to write his memoirs. He continued to speak out until his brave and blunt rhetoric landed him in serious trouble. Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and son of Herod the Great, became enthralled with his brother's wife. Obsessed with having her for himself, Herod lured her away from his brother and married her.
John the Baptist could not hold his tongue and rebuked Herod publicly saying, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." Everyone knew it was true, but only John had the backbone to reprimand the ruler of Galilee. For his candor, John was thrown into prison.
Can you imagine how tormenting confinement to a prison cell would be to someone who thrived in the wide-open wilderness? John would have had to call upon every spiritual resource to survive imprisonment. But surely a man of such faith would have clung to hope that his ordeal would not break him.
However, as the days dragged on and his health deteriorated and his hope dimmed, John must have experienced a dark night of the soul. He must have experienced what most of us experience sooner or later - the absence of God. When life is cruel, many of us wonder where God is and if God cares.
John the Baptist might have thought, "I'm as faithful and devout as anyone could be. Yet, here I am withering while the wicked prosper." He must have wondered why Jesus had not liberated him. He began to think he might have been wrong about Jesus. In the light of day when the crowds flocked around him and his ministry was thriving, John confidently declared that Jesus was the Messiah. But now that he is gasping for breath, he wonders if he was mistaken, John sends his own disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?
John believed the Messiah would produce radical change. Like many others in his day, John assumed God's chosen one would liberate them from the oppressive Romans and establish a kingdom of justice and peace. Yet it was obvious that corruption was continuing to win the day. John wondered: Where was the Messiah who would punish the wicked and reward the righteous? Where was the Messiah who would finally turn the world right-side up?
We certainly cannot blame him for yearning for goodness to triumph and evil to fail. Don't we want to see justice win the day? Who of us doesn't want to see those involved in the child sex-trade punished? Who doesn't want to see cancer cured and victims of oppression freed?
Jesus sent word back to John that he was indeed, the one. He said, "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."
Whatever did Jesus mean by "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me?" I suspect he meant, "Blessed is anyone who does not get tripped up over the kind of Messiah I am." He was not, as many had hoped, one who wielded the kind of power that defeats armies and installs new governments. He did not possess supernatural power to wipe out the wicked and reward the righteous. He was a different kind of Messiah. He died.
And his crucifixion signaled that God's power is not the power to control and coerce, but rather the power of love. It is a love so deep and so faithful that God will not sidestep the inevitable suffering that accompanies human existence. God promises to be by our side not only when all is right in our lives, but also when we must walk through the darkest and deepest of valleys.
In one of his books, pastor and writer Frederick Buechner tells about his only brother, Jamie, who lived alone in Manhattan. Jamie was a private, dignified, proper gentleman who was dying of cancer and Buechner visited him when the end was near. Buechner says his brother rarely attended church and did not want a funeral, so Buechner suggested perhaps cocktails and dinner for some of his old friends in the fall when everybody returned to the city. Jamie agreed that sounded like a good idea. And then his dying brother asked a favor. He asked Buechner if he would write a prayer that he could use and keep on the table by his bedside.
Buechner wrote a simple prayer: "Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love. In Christ's name I ask it. Amen."1
Jesus signaled John the Baptist that he would not forcefully topple Herod or melt the prison bars that held him captive. Instead, he promised God's presence with us in whatever prison we are held and he promised new life after death.
We wish and pray that God would wipe out evil and suffering, and make everything right. But God is not the master puppeteer who controls each event of the world and forces us to act in harmony with divine ways. God does not unilaterally clean up our messes and make the world right. That would rob us of what gives our lives meaning and vitality - our freedom to make choices.
How we live can make a mess of things, but it is also what makes life an adventure.
What purpose would our lives have if our decisions had no real consequences? What incentive would we have to take the right path over the wrong path if God was going to discount our decisions and fix our every mistake?
Our actions have very real consequences and our human tendency to sin - anger, greed, selfishness - causes a vast amount of pain. God does not rob us of freedom by limiting the repercussions of our actions. Instead, God embraces us, and in Christ, shows us the path to a deeply satisfying life- the way of compassion, justice and peace.
The Reverend Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told of an experience of discrimination during the Civil Rights movement when he was living in Memphis. He made it a point to visit a nearby restaurant each week to test the segregated system of the city.
On his first attempt to be served, he ordered a hamburger. The white waitress replied, "We don't serve Negroes." Lowery replied, "I did not ask to be served a Negro, I asked to be served a hamburger." She refused. Each week he returned to the restaurant and ordered a hamburger from the same waitress with the same result.
Then, one day, as the Civil Rights movement took root across the South, the mayor of Memphis declared that all retail establishments would be desegregated. Lowery went to the restaurant and ordered a hamburger. The waitress replied, "How would you like it prepared?" He said, "Well done." When the waitress brought the hamburger, she said, "Would you let me pay for it?"2
The waitress was beginning to live out of a different kind of power. It was not the power to dominate and control, but rather the power of love. Love is the power that reconciles and transforms. Love is the power that creates justice and spreads peace.
God guides us to a joy-filled and hope-filled life if we will embrace the mightiest power on earth - the power of love.
1. John M. Buchanan, quoting from Frederick Buechner's The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found in "Fear Not," December 16, 2001.
2. William K. McElvaney, Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation, (New York: IUniverse, Inc., 2009), p.65.
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