Read the passage at the bottom of this post: Matthew 11:2-11, The Message or Matthew 11:2-11, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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So far our Advent lessons have taught us to prepare to celebrate both the past and the future - to celebrate both the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago, and to heighten our anticipation of his coming anew at a date and time no one knows for certain.
And they have stressed the importance of inner preparation - aligning our attitudes and behaviours with God's desires for all, and not just busying ourselves with tidying the house.
Today's lesson cuts to the heart of the matter, and asks THE question that every follower of Jesus in every age must ask:
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
Matthew 11:2 (NRSV)
Matthew has begun by reporting that John the Baptist had heard in prison what the Messiah was doing. Doesn't that suggest that John - or others - have already concluded that Jesus IS the Messiah?
In our present age of celebrity, it is hard for us to realize how pointed and difficult this question was for Jesus to answer.
You might think that a simple, "Yes," would do. Or even a more pumped up, "Oh yeah. I'm da man, uh huh, uh huh."
But at the time of Jesus it was shameful and dishonourable to publicly claim for oneself a higher status than one was born with.
And at the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a hill-billy, back woods hamlet. And Jesus was the conceived-out-of-wedlock son of Mary; married to that weakling Joseph who didn't do the honourable thing of publicly disgracing Mary when he found she was pregnant, who made his living as a peasant wood worker.
In other words, Jesus was at the bottom of the status ladder.
But on the other hand, Jesus is saying and doing things that are getting people talking about him. Gossip is spreading. Even into the prison where John is. People are starting to wonder - Just who is this guy? What are we to make of him? Could someone like that possibly be the Messiah? Wow!
So John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask the question everyone is gossiping about: Are you the one, or not?
And Jesus honourably does NOT answer the question directly. Instead, he tells the followers of John to go back and report what they themselves have seen and heard. In other words, make up your own mind; you decide who I am.
But notice that the evidence of what Jesus has done are precisely the answer to our prayer, "Your will be done on earth as it is heaven." They reflect both the teaching of Isaiah that Jesus reads in Luke 4:16-21 at the beginning of his ministry, and the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12.
Jesus then further demonstrates his honourableness by praising John. Jesus is not an honour hog. He is not seeking to increase his fame by reducing John's.
And yet. And yet. True to form, Jesus turns the status ladder upside down:
among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Is Jesus the one who is to come? That is the question. And the answer is: See for yourselves. Hear for yourselves. Decide for yourselves.
And the unasked, but trickier question is: Can you live with the answer? Can you live with a guy who keeps turning the status ladder upside down?
Note: Historical background information is primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (see link below), pages 120-122, 342-343, 361-363, 373-374, 414.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 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."
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Matthew 11:2-11 (The Message)
2 John, meanwhile, had been locked up in prison. When he got wind of what Jesus was doing, he sent his own disciples 3 to ask, "Are you the One we've been expecting, or are we still waiting?"
4 Jesus told them, "Go back and tell John what's going on:
5 The blind see,
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.
6 "Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!"
7 When John's disciples left to report, Jesus started talking to the crowd about John. "What did you expect when you went out to see him in the wild? A weekend camper? 8 Hardly. What then? A sheik in silk pajamas? Not in the wilderness, not by a long shot. 9 What then? A prophet? That's right, a prophet! Probably the best prophet you'll ever hear. 10 He is the prophet that Malachi announced when he wrote, 'I'm sending my prophet ahead of you, to make the road smooth for you.'
11 "Let me tell you what's going on here: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer; but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
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