Drew’s sermon from December 15th, 2013. The passage for this Sunday was Matthew 11:2-11, which concerns the fate of John the Baptist. May this Advent season bring you peace and joy.
Coming Down the Mountain
When we first meet John in the book of Matthew, he is on fire. He is preaching with the fervor of a late-night televangelist, and people are coming from miles around to see and to hear and to be baptized by him. Even his enemies are coming from their penthouses in Jerusalem down to the muddy waters of the Jordan to humble themselves and ask for his baptism. And he gives them hell, because he sees what’s coming, and he tells them that they’re the ones who should be afraid, that all their fancy pedigrees will do them no good when the time comes.
And when Jesus comes down to the riverbank, he is so confident that Jesus is the one, he won’t even baptize him. He says, “You should be baptizing me, not the other way around.” But Jesus insists, and so he takes Jesus into the Jordan and John was right there when the heavens opened up and the Spirit descended like a dove, and the voice cried, “This is my son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.”
Unfortunately, things did not continue to go so well for John. Word got back to Herod about what John was saying about him and his new wife Herodias, who had just divorced his brother so that she could marry him. And all the locusts and wild honey in the world couldn’t prepare John for the cold, dark prison cell, or the gnawing fear in his gut that he might never see the outside of it again.
Herod’s prison is where John is when we next see him. And he’s starting to wonder if his earlier confidence might have been misplaced. And if you look at if from John’s perspective, it makes a good bit of sense. John spent all this time waiting for and hoping for and preaching the coming of the Messiah, who was going to set things right, who was going to cast down those hypocrites and evil doers and install a reign of justice and the people would no longer suffer in waiting. And then Jesus shows up, he’s like, “Yes, finally!” But instead of bringing justice John is thrown into prison for preaching it, and instead of this great moment of vindication he’s rotting away in a cell, waiting for Herod to work up the courage to kill him or set him free.
And so when his disciples come by to bring him something to eat, he says, “Maybe we should make sure that he’s the right guy, you know, just in case we had it wrong.” Things hadn’t gone the way they were supposed to. In fact, everything had gone wrong. They were so much simpler in the beginning, but now everything was more complicated, and John was now imprisoned for the sake of the good news he thought would liberate them all. And that had put doubts in John’s mind. If the Kingdom wasn’t coming the way he thought it was supposed to, was it coming at all?
So he sent his disciples to Jesus, and they said, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or are we supposed to chill for a minute and wait on someone else?” Maybe someone who could at least keep us out of being beaten and thrown into jail.
I think a lot of us know how much easier things can be in the beginning. I used to take kids on mission trips. And if you’ve ever been on a trip like that, a mission trip or a religious conference, a walk to Emmaus. They are times and places where people have powerful spiritual awakenings, mountaintop experiences, experiences that you remember for a lifetime. But the older kids, who had been on trips like this before, would say, “I know we feel like this now, but we’re all going to go back home, and back to school, back to our old friends, and in a few weeks, nothing’s going to be different. How do we make sure we keep this feeling?”
Or think about Moses, coming down from Sinai. He’s just had the most incredible experience. He’d spent a month chilling with God, experiencing his glory, and he was excited to take his people to the Promised Land, and he and God had come up with ten rules that they figure would be enough to keep everyone on the straight and narrow. And then he comes around that last switchback coming down the mountain, and “OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THAT CALF.” He realizes ten commandments aren’t going to be enough, he’s going to need around six hundred more, and even then, his people will still be as stubborn and stiff-necked as ever.
Things are great in the beginning, up on the mountaintop, but when we come down, when we get into the thick of it, walking down the path of discipleship is a lot harder than taking that first step. There’s a reason that Jesus said, if any wish to become my followers, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. He didn’t say if you just want to become my followers, “everything will be sunshine and rainbows from here on out.”
And there are different ways that people handle this realization that discipleship is hard. When our faith isn’t new and shiny anymore, some of us just slide back into whatever we were doing before. Other folks find ways to justify ourselves, ways to sound Christian but still get what we really want. Still others go chasing that mountaintop experience. They want to stay up on the mountaintop the way Peter did when Jesus was transfigured. He said let’s build houses here, and that’s what some folks do, they try to hang on to their experiences instead of trying to do something with it.
There was an old seminary professor at Union named James Muilenberg. And he used to say to people, “Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again.” Having faith on the mountaintop is one thing. But hanging on to it in the trenches is another story altogether.
But what John does when he’s thrown in prison and begins to have doubts shows us what to do when the cross that we carry turns from a gold chain around our neck to an iron one around our ankles. Instead of fading away or trying to “rediscover the magic” of his earlier fervor, he tries to deepen his faith. He turns to Jesus to understand what to do with the suffering that comes with being a follower of Jesus.
And when his disciples get to Jesus, what does Jesus tell them? He says, “Come on, walk with me. what do you see?” The blind are receiving their sight, the unclean are being made clean. The dead are raised, and good news is brought to the poor. It isn’t enough to hear about the kingdom of God. You have to see it to believe it. And the way to see it is to walk with Jesus. It is to go where Jesus would go, and do what Jesus would do, and discover that really and truly when you go out into the world with nothing but love on your agenda and nothing but giving on your mind, you will come back richer.
This is of course, what we await, and what we celebrate this Christmas. 2,000 years ago, our Lord came down to earth, in the flesh. He walked like us, he talked like us, he got frustrated and hurt and heartbroken like us. But where he went, amazing things happened. Broken people were made whole. Hurting people were healed. Traitors were turned into heroes. Sleazeballs turned into saints.
Most of you know that December 25th is not the exact birthday of Christ. The Gospels don’t give an exact date. What you may not know, is that the church fathers chose this date for different reasons, and one of them was theological. They chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus around the time of the winter solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year. Because they know, that it is in those moments of great darkness that Christ’s light shines through most powerfully. In celebrating at this time of year we proclaim that Christ comes into the world in its darkest hour, and reaches out to the darkest places in our world and in our lives, and brings salvation and peace.
We’ve all been through dark places and dark times, we’ve struggled, we’ve been forsaken, we’ve doubted. But John shows us in his doubts what we should do, which is to go back to the source. Go back to Christ, and remember what you see and hear, the miracles that Christ did a long time ago in Palestine and not so long ago in our lives and in our world. Walk with Jesus, experience him in the flesh by putting our flesh where Jesus moves us to go, taking our faith into the trenches and dark places, because when we do, amazing things will happen.