“Preparing the Way”
Matthew 11: 2-11, December 8th, 2019
Sermon by Pastor Tm Woodard
“Hear now these words from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter eleven, verses two thru eleven”
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.
“As we consider this scripture in its context, how shall we interpret it’s meaning for us here in this present time and setting?”
“Preparing the Way”
How many of us still remember the biography of the man named “Nelson Mandela, (he) was the first black president of South Africa, elected after time in prison for his anti-apartheid work.” He was quite an inspiration to many. “He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.” /Wikipedia/ I stumbled upon a story about him meeting with one of our former presidents. At first glance I was shocked to hear how (Mandela included his jailers in his presidential inauguration. President Clinton asked him, “Didn’t you hate them?” Mandela said, “Yes, but I realized if I hated them, I was still their prisoner, and I wanted to be free.”) /Nancy Rockwell/ In a different time period we hear about how John the Baptist was also imprisoned. His story does not end like Mandela’s, yet they were both political prisoners of their time. Mandela was able to prepare a nation to break free of the bondage of apartheid, a policy of segregation and discrimination based on race. John the Baptist reached out asking a question of Jesus which ultimately freed him from his bondage.
As we reflect on these two historical figures, we see a parallelism in that they both defied the social and pollical systems of their time, for which they both were put into prison. Nelson spoke out against the system of apartheid, John spoke about the coming of the Old Testaments understanding of the Messiah, a conquering warrior to free them from the bonds of the Roman oppression. As we first look to these men we see stark differences. Yet, when we set them side by side, we see how alike they truly were. They both fought for and boldly proclaimed freedom for those who were unjustly marginalized and pushed aside. They both landed in prison for their efforts. These are the facts, yet their legacies are about the questions they asked and their attitude about their time in prison.
Nelson, once freed, no longer felt the need to hold onto his anger for the jailers that held him in prison; and clearly, he wanted everyone else to do the same as he sought for a ‘coming together’ of all people within his nation – no matter their race or color! John the Baptist wanted to hear confirmation from Jesus that he was indeed the Messiah. Surely, he did this as he was concerned that Jesus was not fitting the warrior leader role that the Old Testament accounts inferred was to come. When he received back the message from Jesus, his heart was opened to the fullness of what Jesus said. “Jesus answered them, “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.” /Matthew 11:4-5/ With all that John’s disciples told him, John surely was at peace as he knew he had prepared the way for the coming of the true Messiah, Jesus the Christ.
The Rev Dr. Janet H. Hunt asks us a question. “Have you ever found yourself asking John’s difficult, important question? Where did you hear or see your answer?” We all have questions. I have a few I would like to ask Jesus, and surely you have a couple questions you want answered as well. Her first question is easy. We all have our doubts, from time to time. We certainly would like some confirmation now and then that we are understanding; especially the what, why and when of it all. We are not children anymore! We expect more than a new pair of shoes or a new shirt for Christmas. We seek the answers to life’s oldest questions! What gave John the courage, the tenacity to endure all which he did as he followed his heart, his calling to prepare the way for Jesus? What Gave Mandela the strength of character to forgive his jailers thereby setting himself free from years of bondage under their watchful eye in a cold dark jail cell? Dr. Hunt’s second question pushes us to see the answers we seek. Suggesting to us that the answers we seek are and have been here for us to grasp even as we stumble and get lost in the shadows of life’s turmoil’s and disappointments.
Larry Broding, a Roman Catholic, and a Director of Christian Education in San Diego, he has a question for us as we grapple with the questions already before us. “Have you caught the ‘holiday spirit’ yet? How do you get into the holiday mood? Do you rely on others or events to spark your ‘Christmas feeling?'” I know, it feels like we are skipping over the answers to our questions, yet, I pray you will stay with me as we go a little deeper in our quest for answers. First, what is meant by the ‘holiday spirit’? Is it the decorations of Christmas, or is in the gifts that we scurry around to buy for our families and friends? Having just spent these last months pondering how to become a healthier church by expanding our ministry, focusing more on those we hope to serve in the name of the spirit of kindness and compassion. We may want to expand our thoughts to considering how we serve the needs of the children of God, in our quest. Is not the ‘holiday spirit’ meant to help us focus on the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ rather than on a commercial ‘spirit of holiday shopping and spending? Let us make sure we are seeking to catch the right ‘spirit.’
I pray I am not being misunderstood. I am not against gift giving. Nor am I against decorations and parties. But I am strongly suggesting that if you are lost in the hustle and bustle of the ‘holiday’ focus of our society… well, you may miss the point of it all! And despite how good it feels to know our economy is percolating because we are spending money in the billions in this festive time, it is not the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ to which you seek. Yes, many whom have the true ‘Spirit of Christmas’, we are indeed in the mix of all that goes with this ‘holiday season’. But our questions are deeper than all this. Ben Witherington a professor of New Testament studies offers us a different view, he points us toward our expectations. “The undercurrent of the entire text is the difference between people’s expectations, even John’s, and the reality of who Jesus was and the actual character of his ministry.” Let us consider our expectations as we seek out answers.
As Christians we expect that God, through Christ, will forgive our human natures of self-importance, self-indulgence, and our resentments which lead toward anger. Then of course there is our constant desire for more, our desire that which we ought not have, and envy for things which belong to another; and let us not forget about our human laziness. Yes, indeed all of humankind suffer from these human maladies and as Christians, we believe we will be forgiven once we acknowledge our failing(s) and ask God to forgive us. And the teachings of Jesus tell us we shall be forgiven, if we pass on this attitude of forgiveness to others. One could muse that this was at the heart of Mandela’s willingness to forgive his jailers, as he too, acknowledged his own humanness. We do not know for a certainty of John the Baptist’s state of mind while in prison, yet it is reasonable to pray he was at peace with his demise once he came to realize the fulness of Jesus’ ministry which his disciples gleaned for John to consider; knowing that Jesus credited his efforts of preparation.
What are your expectations as members of a church, especially during these weeks leading up to Christmas? What are other’s expectations of us as a church? Are we living up to their expectations? Clearly, our expectations and those of others, shape our opinions and our very moods. If you come to worship and you are accustomed to a certain level of liturgy and you experience a higher or lower rite of worship, you or our visitors may be disappointed. What of the worshipper who comes to worship expecting only to feel or sense the presence of God’s love? If we focused more on this aspect of worship, then perhaps more would find that which they truly seek.
Our children, grandchildren and even our great-grandchildren have or shall have expectations of us, and they shall look to how we handled and how we live our lives, seeking to learn from our choices, our successes and our failures. Let us therefore seek out the “True Spirit of Christmas” this season. Seeking the hope that Christ brings; displaying the peace that God’s mercy and forgiveness offers us; sharing the joy of knowing the kindness and grace of the Son of God whom we celebrate at Christmas; displaying and sharing the love of a God who came to live amongst us.