Advent, take three

Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019 – Matthew 11:2-11 – Trinity, Winchester

John clearly has his doubts about Jesus. Even from prison he sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” In other words, “Tell us, Jesus, is there someone else coming whose sandals you are not fit to untie?” 

The question is, where does John’s doubt come from? [1] Wasn’t he the one who told us that Jesus was the real deal in the first place? 

Wasn’t he the one who told the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Wasn’t he the one who said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Surely this is the same John. Why does he doubt now?

Perhaps his doubts arise from present circumstance. He who was once a prisoner of hope, is now a prisoner of Herod. Time spent locked away may have taken a toll on his prophetic spirit. 

Or perhaps his doubts are caused, ironically, by his knowledge of Bible. John knows well that the prophets say that the Messiah will bring a fiery brand of judgement and uproot disobedient nations. 

John doesn’t see Jesus of Nazareth living up to those expectations. [2] Jesus is not destroying delinquent nations. Instead, Jesus is walking around preaching to poor people. What a letdown, right? Maybe he’s not the one after all.

John’s doubts reveal that he doesn’t quite understand the scandalous nature of Jesus’ ministry. At least, not yet. Fortunately, Jesus clears things up. He says to John’s disciples, “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.”

These words not only describe Jesus’ ministry, they point us to the very nature of God. [3] God is not a God of wrath and judgement in the conventional sense.

God’s judgement is mediated through loving acts of grace. These people don’t have enough food. Feed them. These people can’t stay warm. Clothe them. These people are sick. Heal them. These people wander in darkness. Tell them the Gospel Truth.

Talk about uprooting the nations and exercising judgment! Jesus’ ministry embodies a radical opposition to the status quo. The difference is, it doesn’t demand our attention in the way we are accustomed to.

We like shiny objects and elaborate productions, but that’s not the way Jesus works. If you ask me, John takes all that stuff about fire and destruction too literally. Sure, God is a destroyer, but not because he lays waste to erring nations. God is a destroyer because he destroys death and brings about life.

Jesus embodies the role of the Messiah because he heals the sick, restores the weak, and saves the lost. The fire he kindles is not the fire of fury, but the Spirit of God, which burns away the remnants of sin and death.

We hear echos of this Messianic role in today’s Collect. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us . . . let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”

This is not a prayer to a God who punishes brutally. This is a prayer to a God who saves mightily. That divine might may not always look like we expect to, but nevertheless it is present in the One who tells us to turn the other cheek instead of hitting back.

Proof that the Kingdom of God has arrived does not come in the grandiose actions of a savior du jour, but in the constant presence of the savior of eternity.

That said, it’s hard to recognize God’s presence in the world, and that makes it easy to doubt God’s power. We have heard the voices of God’s prophets drowned out by gunfire. We have known patriarchs to edit our history books before they go to print. We have tasted the bitterness of hasty words that rinse the flavor of grace from our mouths.

We have even willingly chosen to ignore God’s work in the world, patting our pockets and saying, “I’m sorry, Sir, I don’t have any cash on me today.”

Whether we overlook it, or whether we refuse to see it, Jesus is among us, quietly embodying salvation. Jesus is among us, reciting the names of the dead as they are welcomed into heaven. Jesus is among us, recording the history of the oppressed in permanent ink. Jesus is among, forgiving our trespasses and helping us muster up the courage to forgive those who trespass against us.

For the most part this is quiet, behind-the-scenes work. We so crave attention-grabbing theatrics that we tend to ignore the real nation-uprooting, judgment-exercising, status-quo-challenging work of God happening all around us. When we don’t see it, we assume it isn’t there. Like John, we begin to wonder who we’re really waiting for, all the while forgetting that Jesus has already come, not with trumpet fanfare, but with an infant’s cry in the still, dark silence of the night. 



[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (WJK: Louisville, 1997), 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

First, follow

Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018 – Mark 8:31-38

I had the privilege of preaching at St. Mark’s in Little Rock, AR a few weeks ago. I was honored to receive the Anne Kumpuris scholarship from the parish, and I am thrilled that the parish hosted me. You can watch the sermon here. 

Let’s take a moment to set the stage for today’s gospel. In the scene immediately preceding today’s Gospel, as Jesus and his disciples enter Caesarea Philippi, it becomes clear that there is confusion about who Jesus actually is.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They reply, “A prophet. John the Baptist, Elijah.”

“And what about you? What do you think?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

“That’s correct,” Jesus says to Peter, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Don’t tell anyone.

At that point, today’s Gospel begins. Jesus immediately tells his disciples that he will undergo extreme suffering and rejection.

That’s right. Immediately after Jesus affirms that he is indeed the Messiah, he tells his followers that he will suffer and die.

“I am the Messiah, and I will die.”  Those two things do not fit. Jesus’ followers have just confessed that they believe him to be the Messiah, and then he tells them that he is going to be attacked and killed.

We get it, but for Peter, this is shocking news. It just does not add up. Peter pulls Jesus aside and scolds him—“Don’t say that, Jesus! It doesn’t look good! “The Messiah doesn’t come to die! He comes to reign!”

Peter’s confusion is understandable. Jesus is not the type of Messiah that Peter, or any of the rest of Jesus’ disciples, have been expecting. The Messiah they are expecting and the Jesus who stands before them do not match.

The Messiah their ancestors died waiting on would never forecast his own death. The Messiah they expect is a warrior who will destroy their enemies before their very eyes, not someone who will submit to Roman imperial authority. The Messiah they are looking for will come in a triumphant blaze of glory to usher in the new age, not to die a criminal’s death outside the city walls.

Jesus needs to get his disciples to understand their tradition in a new way. They have long-expected a Messiah, but this Jesus before them doesn’t exactly match their expectations.

Jesus has made some progress with them so far. After all, Peter was able to identify him as the Messiah. Even though Peter got the answer right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he understood the question.

We have all been there. If you have studied a language or taken a math class you might know that just because you answer correctly doesn’t necessarily mean you really “get it.”

Just because you fill in the blank with the appropriate verb conjugation, or write the correct number on the line, doesn’t mean you really understand why those answers are correct.

Likewise, just because Peter answers that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, that doesn’t mean that he understands all that it entails.

Peter and the others still have some learning to do.

That’s fine. We all do.

John and Debra have been married for 18 years. They have two children. John is a very successful accountant, a partner in his firm. Other than at church on Sunday, the family doesn’t get much time together. But John always tells them that he loves them. That’s sort of his thing. He always tells his wife and children that he loves them.

When he wakes up he says, “I love you.” Before he heads out the door he says, “I love you.” He works late nearly every day. On Saturdays when he inevitably misses soccer games and dance recitals he texts, “Good luck today, I love you!” On Valentine’s Day he sends his wife flowers and a card with this message. “I’m sorry I can’t make the reservation. I love you.”

John is very sweet, and it is clear that he knows the importance of telling his loved ones how he feels, but his wife and kids cannot help but think, does he really get it?

Just because you tell someone all the time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you really know what it means to love someone. Just because you write a sweet note, draw a perfectly shaped heart, and say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” with the biggest smile ever doesn’t mean you really know all that love entails.

Just because you confess Jesus as the Messiah doesn’t mean you really understand what it means.

I remember as kid listening to my father talking to a traveling salesman who was selling a cleaning product—some sort of polishing solvent. This was the best product on the market, you understand.

This product could clean anything! This product was second to none!

“Well, what does it do.”

“This is the premier product on the market.”

“How does it work?”

“You won’t find a product as good as this one.”

“Yes, but what is it exactly?”

Just because you know something is the best, doesn’t mean you really understand all that it has to offer.

“You are the Messiah, Lord!” says Peter. “Don’t tell people you’re going to die!”

“No!” says Jesus, “You don’t get it yet, Peter.”

He even says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We tend to focus a lot on the “Satan” part of that phrase and not as much on the “get behind me” part. Satan means “accuser.”

Let’s not be more dramatic than we have to be. Focus on the “get behind me” part.

Jesus says, “Get behind me. You don’t get it yet. I’m in charge here. You need to get behind me and start paying attention.”

Well, behind Jesus is a pretty good place to be. It’s from there that we follow him.

“Peter, you don’t quite get this yet, so get in line. Get behind me. Let me be the leader now. You just keep following. There will come a time when I will be gone and you will have to lead, but right now, it’s my turn.”

Follow me, Peter, so that you can see difference between the one who you expect and the one who I am. The difference between the Messiah so long expected and the one who I embody.

Follow me and I’ll show the difference between the things you expect, and the things that God has in store. “For now, you don’t need to tell anyone who I am; you just need to follow me, Peter.”

That, brothers and sisters, is the gospel’s call to all of us. Follow.

Lent can be a disorienting season. Even in the midst of the challenges, Jesus calls us to follow him.

When you don’t understand why bad things happen, what are you to think?

When you want to throw up our hands after 17 kids get murdered, what are you to do?

When you lose a loved one, what are you to know from that experience?

Those questions, and so many more, can be answered first by following Jesus.

When bad things happen, we grasp at answers, we seek out solutions. We think if we can identify an answer, then we can solve the problem.

The truth is, having the right answers is not enough.

But Jesus does not call us to right answers, he calls us to follow.

Understanding and finding answers is good, but it is not where we start. Jesus calls us to discover why his way is the way. How do we do that? We follow.

We follow him all the way to Easter.

Follow Jesus.

Follow him into Jerusalem and learn what a parade for real king looks like. Follow him to the Mount of Olives and learn a lesson from a fig tree.

Follow him to Gethsemane and learn what it means to sweat blood. Follow him all the way to the cross and learn what it means to weep and wail and cry.

Even when you don’t know why.

Stand there. Behold the blackened sky.

Stand there. Watch him die.

Stand there. For three days. Wait on the Lord. And early one morning, it will be clear enough.