Summit Presbyterian Church
December 11, 2017
Isaiah 35: 1-10 Matthew 11:2-11
The Healing of Others
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is strange question coming from John the Baptizer. As you may remember, John is the prophet who appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. He must have spoken with great power, for the crowds came from Jerusalem, the region along the Jordan, and all Judea. John baptized them in the river Jordan, as they confessed their sins. He told them: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The 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.”
And then Jesus came to the river. This was his first public appearance. He hadn’t yet done any preaching, teaching, or healing. But John recognized him: so when Jesus asked to be baptized, John tried to prevent him, saying “I need to be baptized by you.” But Jesus said it was necessary to fulfill all righteousness, so John complied. John was there when Jesus rose out of the water and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
So why is John now asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Well, John’s in prison now. Prison changes things. John isn’t in prison because he baptized Jesus. John is in prison because he criticized King Herod. Herod was the ruler of Galilee, a puppet king of the Roman Empire, one who worried about the loyalty of his subjects. Herod had divorced his first wife and married the wife of his brother Philip - political scandals are nothing new. John kept telling Herod, “that’s not lawful.” So Herod arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison. John didn’t know what was going to happen to him, but he knew that any day the guards could come and lead him away to his execution. So he must have wondered: I baptized Jesus, I heard the voice from heaven, but where’s the winnowing fork? Wasn’t the Messiah going to gather the righteous into the granary, and burn the wicked with unquenchable fire? From the darkness of his prison cell the kingdom of heaven must have seemed far away indeed. Was Jesus the one to come, or were they to wait for another?
Jesus responds by telling John’s disciples to testify to what they have seen and heard: 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 — just as Isaiah foretold it when he said, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
The one to come is known by his healing and preaching not by punishment of the wicked. The Reign of Heaven has come near when those who are sick are healed; when those who are depressed are lifted up; when those who have been enslaved are freed; when those who are lonely find friendship; when those who are hungry have bread; when those who have been toiling in the vineyard receive a just wage; when those who have been forced to flee their homes are welcomed in a new place; and when, as Isaiah also said, nations turn their swords into plowshares. Those are the hallmarks of the kingdom and that is how we know that Jesus is the one. And we, too, have seen and heard these things.
But not for everyone, yet. The guards came for John soon after. Herod demanded his head, on a platter, after he made a foolish oath at his birthday party. What do we say to John and other political prisoners? What do we say to those whose cancer is not cured or who will never walk again? What do we say to those who don’t have enough and who watch their children go hungry? What do we say to ourselves, when we’re weighed down with grief or hardship or depression? It’s all well and good that some have been healed and are leaping for joy, but in this world still full of suffering, how do we know that Jesus is the one, that we need not wait for another?
Jesus says, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Blessed is anyone who receives Jesus, who welcomes Jesus, who trusts Jesus, whether they are in a king’s palace or a prison cell. That’s how we know Jesus is the one because Jesus is a blessing for anyone who turns to him, whatever their circumstances. Jesus blesses us in the here and now, whether we’re at a low point or high point in our life, whether we don’t have enough or we have too much. Let’s count those blessings:
-Jesus offers forgiveness, no matter what we’ve done or left undone. This grace of Jesus Christ comforts, strengthens and encourages us, so we may turn to God and start anew, without our guilt dragging us down.
-Jesus offers us the way to live: through his sermons and parables, through the commandments as they also come through Moses and the prophets and through the example of his life. A life of simplicity, prayer, hospitality, and non-violence. Jesus offers us a way to live that is peaceful and just, joyful and full of purpose.
-Jesus offers us his loving presence, in all times and places, in the darkest of prison cells and in the brightness of the morning sun. Assuring us we haven’t been forgotten, and he will be with us always, to the end of the age.
-Jesus offers hope. Jesus too, was thrown in prison, tortured and executed. But that wasn’t the end of the story; Jesus rose from the dead and lives among us, showing us that the Herods of this world do not and will not have the last word.
So as disciples of Jesus we say to John, and to all who are suffering: Jesus is the one. When you trust in him you’ll be blessed and will know. But if we only say these words, they’ll ring hollow. As the body of Christ we must show forth those blessings. Through prayer for all the world. Through the sharing of our treasure, our time, our gifts. By standing in solidarity with all who are hated or oppressed. By working for justice and peace, so that everyone may sit under their own vine and their own fig tree and not be afraid.
For the winnowing fork is yet to come. Christ offers grace but also judges the people with equity and the nations with truth: God has seen suffering and known suffering. But when Christ comes to gather the wheat into the barn, there’s no reason, in due time, the whole world may not be gathered there. If we learn to repent from our evil ways, loving God and one another, people of all nations and faiths may be gathered there, full of joy and gladness. And sin and sorrow burned away in the inquenchable fire of Christ’s love. And so we say, “Come, Lord Jesus.”