Date: Advent 3a
Text: Matthew 11:2-11
Theme: Is He Really the Messiah?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is the story about the parrot who could only say three
words, "Who is it?" One day the parrot was home alone when there
was a loud knock at the back door. The parrot screeched, "Who is
The voice responded, "It's the plumber."
"Who is it?" The Parrot repeated.
"It's the plumber."
"Who is it?" came the reply.
"For the third time, it's the plumber. You called me to tell me that your cellar was flooded."
Again the parrot asked, "Who is it?"
By this time the plumber was so angry that his blood pressure went through the ceiling and he keeled over with a heart attack. A neighbor heard the commotion and rushed over to see what the problem was. He found the plumber on the porch, unconscious, unable to talk. The neighbor looked down at the man and asked, "Who is it?"
"It's the plumber," the parrot replied.
John the Baptist was in a similar predicament in today's Gospel lesson; he was in prison at the orders of King Herod; he was in prison and he heard reports of Jesus' ministry and he kept wondering, "Who is it? Is this the one? When will the Messiah act and carry out his mission?"
John had serious questions about Jesus' ministry and Jesus' claim as Messiah. These questions arose out of John's own message concerning the Messiah; these questions arose out of the message which God himself gave John concerning the Messiah and his mission. We saw the starting point for these questions in last week's Gospel lesson. Last week's Gospel lesson gave us a synopsis to John's Messianic message. John's Messianic message was a message of Law and Gospel. As we look at John's message from last week we can see his Messianic expectations and the reasons why he questions whether or not Jesus really is the Messiah.
Remember John's message, which we heard last week. When John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him, John told them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance." John then thundered in warning, "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I...He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Take a close look at John's message. It may be a law and gospel message but, at least in this case, the stress is definitely on the law. John calls Israel to repentance because Israel had turned its back upon God and his forgiveness. John calls Israel to repentance; he calls Israel back to God and does so by applying the law; he proclaims the wrath of God; he proclaims the ax laid to the root of trees; he proclaims the coming baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire. This is John's message. This is John's proclamation. And now, John while sitting in prison, asks, "Where IS the fire?"
"Where IS the fire?" John, by hearing the reports given him by his disciples, knows that the Holy Spirit has indeed been working in and through Israel. In his own ministry he saw hundreds of thousands of people come to repentance, through the work of God the Holy Spirit, and submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John saw the Holy Spirit at work but still wondered, "Where is the fire? Where is the wrath of God? Where is the ax cutting to the very root of the tree?"
Where is the fire? John was in prison because of King Herod. John had condemned his unlawful marriage and Herod could not tolerate that sort of sedition. He arrested John and now held him in chains. John's disciples had free access to him but John was not free; he was imprisoned by a usurper sitting on the throne of David. Where is the fire sweeping down from heaven consuming sinful Herod and his wife. Where is the heavenly fire consuming Herod's followers? Where is the fire?
Where is the fire? John knew that the religious establishment had turned against Jesus and were now plotting his death. The Pharisees, with their empty religious formalism, had gutted Judaism of its central message of God's love freely given. The Pharisees had so perverted the religion that it only existed in an empty shell. Where is the fire? Where is the purifying fire that would consume the Pharisees and their false religion and cleanse it of all the man made rules and regulations. Where is the fire?
John had his questions; John had his doubts; John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Matthew makes the point that John sends these disciples AFTER he heard what Jesus was doing. More literally, he sent the disciples after he heard of the WORKS which Christ was doing. John was not in a vacuum; he heard what Jesus was doing; and now he wondered what was going on. Was Jesus truly the Messiah? For, you see, Jesus had fulfilled a part of John's prophecy. He had fulfilled the gospel part; he demonstrated God's overwhelming love for sinful humanity; he demonstrated God's overwhelming forbearance in not punishing sinful humanity, as James tells us in the epistle lesson. Jesus' ministry is primarily one of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit, but John wanted to know, "Where is the fire?"
John challenged Jesus to conform to his ideal of the avenging Messiah. John challenged Jesus and, in doing so, he sought to master Jesus. John's question was not totally innocent. It was a challenge for Jesus to fulfill the prophecies which John had made in the form which John had made, right now, when John needed it the most. John was the royal official; he was the royal servant who took orders; but now he sought to order the king and master around. He sought to tell the king what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. "Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?" John lays down the challenge and awaits the answer.
We are like John. We often challenge Jesus and we want him to conform to our standards. We are like John the Baptist because we have our preconceived notions as to who Jesus is and what he should be. We attempt to manipulate Jesus into the type of Messiah we would like him to be. In our own lives we seek to master the Master. We want him to serve us rather than the other way around.
How do we seek to master the Master? How do we seek to make Jesus serve us? We do it when we confront God's will for our lives; we do it when we confront God's law and see how it impacts upon our lives; we confront God's will and then shrug our shoulders and roll our eyes and say, "Who cares. I don't care what God says I'm going to do what I want."
But we're not always that honest with our approach. As we get older we become more a little more sophisticated in our methods. We're not so crass as to confront God's will and say, "I don't care." We're more sophisticated. We confront God's will; we know his will; we know, for example, that he demands us to be honest in our dealing with one another, but we try to get around that requirement. We tell ourselves that we would like to be honest but that just won't work in the real world. We'd like to be honest but if we're not careful then other people will take advantage of us. We'd like to be honest but if we are it will cost us too much.
There are tons of other ways in which we seek to circumvent our God and his will and get away with it. We seek to master the Master. We're not all that different from John the Baptist. He had an agenda; let's not condemn him for it because he had his agenda as God's prophet; he was faithful in carrying out that agenda; his faithfulness put him in prison and now he wanted to see the fulfillment of his work. But in desiring to see that fulfillment he sought to master the Master. He sought to challenge Jesus. He sought to form Jesus in his image and get him to do what he wanted. And we do it too.
And when we seek to master the Master we must do what John did. John had his questions; he had his honest questions; behind his agenda, he had the honest question, "Are you the promised Messiah or do we await another?" And Jesus' response isn't one of condemnation; it isn't one of chastisement; Jesus tells John's disciples, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." Jesus' answer to John is, "Yes, I am the promised one. You need not wait any longer. I am the fulfillment of all prophecy. I am the fulfillment of Isaiah 35," our Old Testament lesson for today.
In the day of the Messiah, God promised through Isaiah, that the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, and the lepers cured. And Jesus did it. Jesus told John, "if you have questions then turn to my Word and find your answer there." And, when we have our questions, Jesus tells us the same thing.
Do we have an agenda? Then bring it in line with God's Word. Do we want to live a life contrary to God's will? Then bring it into line with God's Word. Do we want to go our own way and do it all ourselves? Then bring it into line with God's Word.
God's Word is the answer. In that Word we find God's will. But more than that, in that very same Word we find the power and the ability to live in that will. We find the power and the ability and the desire to serve the Master and live within his will.
In his later years Charles Darwin admitted that his mind was a "withered leaf to everything except science." Darwin could not even listen to Handel's Messiah, which had once moved him to states of exultation. So it is when we let the standards of this world and this life crowd our minds and suppress the needs of our spirit. A few minutes in quiet prayer and study in God's Word will revive and revitalize us and it brings us back to Jesus, the promised Messiah in whom we have life now and life for eternity. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.