"Is This The One?"
Scripture - Matthew 11:2-11
Sermon Preached by Thomas R. Stout
Sunday, December 8, 2013

I can only imagine what anytime in a prison can do to a person. I have no idea what it would be like to endure 27 years, 18 of them in hard labor, as did Nelson Mandela. We have heard and seen a lot of words and film of Mandela since his death this past Thursday, but what caught my attention came in the Friday evening news report from NBC. Richard Engle told us that one of Mandela's greatest lessons in prison came when he realized that they could strip away from anything they wanted: his clothing, his work, his family. But, Mandela said he learned that the one thing he could keep them from stripping him was his heart and mind. There, my friends, is an important spiritual lesson for all of us this Advent. What is in our heart and mind is up to you and me. We are the keepers of our souls. And what Nelson Mandela kept and grew in his heart and mind in those 27 years, that effected the rest of his life, and the icon he became to equality, justice, peace and reconciliation.

What a wonderful picture to have before us this morning as we have listened to Matthew's story about John the Baptist in prison. Here we are on the 2nd Sunday in Advent, and our hearts and minds have these two stories of people shaped by their experience in prison. What is here that will guide us in remembering the first coming of the Christ, and what here will prepare us for yet another coming?

Let me begin by suggesting that both Mandela and John had to deal first with their own internal questions, their own disillusionments, their own disappointments. I do not know Nelson Mandela's story well enough to comment more deeply on it, but I do catch a similarity between him and John in our lesson. Being sent unjustly into prison caused both men to wander about the causes and the people with whom they worked.

Look closer with me at John. Can you picture a person as strong and as definite as John ever questioning what he was about? Can you believe he would have any doubts about Jesus? Remember briefly the first stories about these two cousins: When their mothers met with their sons still in their respective wombs; when John baptized Jesus in the Jordon River; when John sent two of his disciples after "the Lamb of God". But in this morning's lesson John asks: "Is this the one?" Something was missing for John in Jesus.

As well as John knew him, as close as they were, still John wondered. Why had he not called down fire from heaven to consume the evil one, or stopped them in their tracks? Yes, some of the vision of the coming Kingdom was to be seen in Jesus work: the eyes of the blind were being opened, the ears of the deaf were being unstopped. But other parts of the agenda John expected were not happening: like vengeance, recompense, the establishment of the Holy Way. As he languished in Herod's prison, John wondered why Jesus was not living up to his expectations. Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?

And it is still true isn't it. John's question so often can become yours and mine even when we say we believe Jesus is the Christ. Every year at Christmas time some truly wonderful things seem to happen. A nuclear arms inspection treaty is worked out. But then we hear the details, and there are conditions to be met before ratification happens. Congregations like ours all over the nation help families in need celebrate the season with toys and clothes and food. But then the Food Stamp program is held hostage, or unemployment benefits get held up all for some kind of political gain. Listen to the carols that sing of love, joy, peace; and then listen to the vitriol on talk radio or TV news broadcasts. Are you the one who is to come...?

But did you notice this in our lesson about John the Baptist: even in his questioning, he did not look away from Jesus. Rather, he turned to Jesus all the more, and asked in essence: help me to understand here: are you he who is to come? And that is where I need to pay attention, and so do you. Not what is missing, but rather to what is actually there. What is the body of Christ up to in our world? And what does Jesus say in response to his cousin's question? I would suggest that this is a primary way you and I can work through whatever it is that imprisons our hearts and mind, and call us to question that for which we believe and work.

In response to John, Jesus says two things. First, "Tell John what you see and hear." With those words Jesus hits the ball back to his cousin. "You," Jesus says, "you, John, you must decide who I am. It is your decision not mine." The objective reality out there, beyond us, does not really matter so much as what is on the inside of us. What counts the most for John, or for any one of us, is what we perceive to be true. For the only thing I have found that can stand up to a disappointed heart is what is already in and believed deep down in my heart. Until you and I have made our decision about Jesus of Nazareth, what he is, what he brings, will have little or no effect. Deciding about Jesus, or anyone else, in the face of inconsistency, is first of all a personal decision.

Second, if Jesus would urge on John the necessity of this personal decision, still Jesus did give his cousin an independent, objective answer. What John wanted, what you and I so often want, is some sign that what we have believed in and hoped for is actually so. And that is what Jesus gives in his response to John's question. "Look at my life, look at my work. You want an answer, well then, look and listen!"

And there is one thing more. I also get the real sense that Jesus is challenging John to examine his own expectations. How do you know that what you are looking for is correct? Is real? This is the issue in this lesson: what is really real?

Are you familiar with Margery Williams book The Velveteen Rabbit? There is a conversation between the Skin Horse and the Rabbit that addresses just our question.

"What is Real?" asked the Rabbit one day when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real, it isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It is something that happens to you. When a child loves you a long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are real, you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. You get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don't matter at all, because once you are real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Jesus invited John there in prison to examine himself. Did he understand? Was he real? What were his edges like? So too, I expect was this true for Nelson Mandela. And so too for you and me: do we understand? Are we real? What are edges like? How loose in the joints, how shabby, how well used and loved are we? And there, my friends, is the answer to this question about Jesus: Is This The One, or shall be look for another? This is what makes us real and keeps us real. And, this is what will shape the rest of our lives.

Peace Prayer ~ Gregory Knox Jones

Gracious God, on this Advent Sunday of peace, as we focus on your inspiring dream of the entire human family living together in peace, we give thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela. This humble man from a poor village, once deemed a terrorist, led his entire nation in overcoming the oppression of apartheid and then transitioning to the freedom of democracy without descending into a deadly armed struggle.

As we mark his passing, we note the many ways his life mirrored the trials, the commitment and the achievement of the Hebrew leader, Moses. As Moses fought a lengthy and dangerous fight against the Egyptian Pharaoh to free his people, Madiba led a protracted and perilous struggle to break the chains of bondage and to free his people. He was guided by a vision of a society based on the biblical principles of justice and liberty not only for the powerful and the privileged, but for all people, no matter their station in life. This towering figure encountered mighty resistance and immense obstacles, but he was dedicated to the ideal of a free society where people had equal opportunities and lived together in harmony.

Eternal God, in the history of our planet, the fight for freedom and justice has too often led to vindictive retribution and merciless bloodshed. We are grateful that the South African bloodbath many believed to be inevitable was averted because this mighty leader knew that compassion is more effective than antagonism, forgiveness more powerful than revenge, and reconciliation more transformative than retaliation. Your son, Jesus, taught that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, Nelson Mandela was one of the few to put this teaching into practice, and what an amazing difference it made.

Loving God, remind us that when we commit to following Christ, you commission us to a spiritual adventure and a special way of living. We pray that your Spirit will fill us with the courage and the conviction to commit ourselves to what you have shown us is worthy and virtuous and life-enhancing. You command us - you do not suggest, but command us - to love our neighbor, to strive for what is fair and just, and to work tirelessly to end apartheid in other places in the world. Encourage us never to forget that one person can make a difference in a nation, in a community, in a workplace, in a family. You expect each one of us in this sanctuary to be a peacemaker mending what is broken, healing what is ill and bringing hope to places of despair. Prompt each of us to cultivate a generous spirit through which your love can flow to a world in pain and desperately in need of your grace and peace.

We pray in the name of the Prince of Peace, who taught us to pray together...