Blog Post by Rev. Bill Vincent
Pacific Presbyterian and First Presbyterian Church-Union
Isaiah 35 (Click Here) | Matthew 11:2-11 (Click Here)
We have here in Isaiah a vision of God’s work in returning the people from their time of captivity and exile. A vision of immense joy and healing of the people. So that the blind see and marvel, and the deaf hear and rejoice, and the dumb speak and sing, and the lame leap for joy; all of which are signs that God’s rule and dominion has come.
And in Matthew we hear an echo of Isaiah’s dream.
John the Baptist is in prison because he was doing his job: he had been proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom. He was the forerunner of the coming Messiah who would inaugurate God’s rule over people’s hearts and the whole world.
And John has heard of this Jesus: heard of what Jesus has done and how he has affected people’s lives. But John still has some doubts. So he sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see….”
Jesus answers John’s question by saying, “Look around you and see what is happening, and go tell John what you have beheld.” And what they see is reminiscent of the vision that Isaiah shared: of the blind seeing and the lame walking and the deaf hearing, and the joy that accompanies it all.
It’s like putting two and two together and coming up with four and saying, “Yep, that’s what I thought the answer was, but I had to be sure.” You put Isaiah’s vision together with what is being done by this man Jesus, and the answer is, “Yes, he is the Messiah, the one who is to bring in God’s kingdom. He is indeed the one.”
Or is he?
One can’t help returning to John’s question and wondering still: “Are you the one?”
Remember: John is in prison, trapped behind bars. He knows that salvation and deliverance are central to God’s coming reign and rule: deliverance from physical infirmities and from spiritual infirmities as well; deliverance from all sorts of chains and situations of oppression and distress.
And so John asks, “Are you the one who is to come?” If God’s kingdom means joy and release, deliverance and redemption, are you the one?
We must read between the lines to understand his question. In the words of another,
“If deliverance is truly the heart of the gospel of God then why am I in this wretched prison?” (William B. Oglesby, Jr., “Pastoral Implications,” Lectionary Homiletics, December 17, 1989)
Suddenly we realize that John’s is a very good question and is often our question. For, as David Howell observes,
There is a John who lives in all of us: we are disappointed in God. (David B. Howell, “Sermon Reviews,” Lectionary Homiletics)
We question out of our own experience with pain and suffering and those supposedly “unanswered” prayers. If you are the one, then why do the blind remain without sight? If you are the one, then why do the poor remain powerless? If you are the one, then why is my body overrun with cancer? If you are the one, then why do I suffer so unjustly? If you are the one, then what are we doing behind the bars of suffering and grief and agony?
As one person notes,
It is one thing to believe that the Messiah has come when life is full of promise and hope; it is another thing to believe that news while you are in prison. (David L. Bartlett, “Preaching,” Lectionary Homiletics)
And so we ask, “Are you the one?”
And what does Jesus answer? “Look around you,” he says, “and tell John what you have heard and seen.”
And Yes, we must admit, we have seen some glorious things; we have heard some wonderful things; we have experienced some things that, for lack of a sufficient word to describe them, can only be termed miracles. We have seen families who have been estranged for years finally work out their differences and live together in peace. We have seen people at the threshold of deepest despair bounce back again and regain the vigor of life. We have seen people healed through the miracle of modern medicine and the caring touch of trained professionals and the love and support of family and friends. We have seen those who were blind to their own self-destructive ways gain insight and grab hold of a new lease on life.
Look around you, says Jesus, and tell John – tell others – what you have seen and heard…and tell yourself as well.
The deliverance is there. It is full of promise.
But it is not complete.
As someone has noted,
The answer of Jesus to the disciples of John confirms the fact that the stories of deliverance are real. … The deliverance is evident, but it is not universal. Not everyone in Judea and Galilee was cured. … Every person that Jesus healed did eventually die. (Oglesby)
We can neither kid ourselves nor attempt to fool others. God’s promised deliverance is not yet universal. We look at Isaiah’s vision, we hear of Jesus’ wondrous works, and we ask John’s question; and here, more than anywhere else in this season of Advent, we perceive the paradox between the promise and its completion, the tension between the beginning and the finalizing of the fulfillment.
So we need to face that reality. We need to face up to the fact that we live in an interim period, where we “see through a glass darkly, but not face to face”; where we live by the hopefulness of faith but not by the surety of sight.
We live, then, by hope, and a goodly one at that, for our hope does not disappoint us. For we see examples of God’s deliverance, examples of the reality of God’s kingdom in our midst – but not its fullness, not yet.
So where, then, do we find joy in this interim period? Can we truly rejoice?
We can rejoice, for and with others. I mean, our joy need not be limited to our own situation in life.
What is striking is that Jesus’ response to John is full of promise, but not full of promise for John.
David Bartlett writes. Then Bartlett asks, “Could we risk…rejoicing in the mercy that comes through Jesus Christ even though that mercy may not save each of us from his or her deepest dilemma? Is it possible to have faith in the One who comes even though His coming may not rescue US from whatever imprisons us – to rejoice though we remain behind bars?” (Bartlett)
We can live, and learn to rejoice in the good fortunes of others. We can truly reach beyond ourselves and share in the deliverance experienced and known by family and friends, and even by those whom we don’t know, but whom we know of; for, as Doug Ottati reminds us, to follow Jesus is to share in a life devoted to something greater than self. (Douglas F. Ottati, “Theological Reflections,” Lectionary Homiletics)
So we hear stories and share stories of reconciliation and hope, sharing and love, that broaden our horizons and expand our vision of God’s working in the world: stories that help us reach out beyond ourselves and rejoice in the coming of God’s kingdom as that is seen in the lives of others.
We can also rejoice in the healing that comes even when there is no cure for what ails us.
William Oglesby writes, “The plain fact is that not every situation gets better, at least not on its own terms. We are creatures who are born, live and die. It is here that we are reminded that healing and curing, though often thought of as identical, are not the same.” (Oglesby)
Even though the cancer remains unchecked, even though the cataract blinds the eye, even though reconciliation remains unaffected, there is a healing that we can know.
Paul knew that. In great distress, he besought the Lord that the “thorn in the flesh” be taken away. It never was. But he experienced real healing in discovering the deep meaning of the word of the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor. 12:9)
Oglesby then affirms, at a deeper level, we know that we are channels of the grace of God that brings true healing even when there is no cure whether physical or situational. … The true deliverance is the transformation of all of us…in the healing power of God’s grace which is sufficient for us, [a healing power which] enables [us] by faith to know that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39) (Oglesby)
We can know inner healing, a healing of the spirit that can then soar above the suffering, and know joy and release in the presence of God. Joy that is known in affirming within our heart of hearts that God’s grace is sufficient for us in all times and all situations. And this is a joy that no one and no thing can steal from us.
And we can also rejoice as we affirm together that the time will indeed come when joy and healing will be universal, and God’s reign complete in every heart and every corner of creation: when we all shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The victory is assured. We see that promise in the light of the resurrection. We hear that promise in the news of the birth of a child. We sense that promise in the affirmation that God is indeed with us, now and always.
And so we can rejoice, for even as we weep with those who weep, so too can we rejoice with those who rejoice, demonstrating the solidarity of Christ’s body even now.
We can rejoice, for God’s grace is sufficient for us, even when it comes wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
And we can sing with a joy based on the God of our salvation, a joy that reaches beyond our outward circumstances and grasps hold of the very foundation of our existence.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
“Behold, your God…
…will come and save you.”
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And even before this question was posed to the adult Jesus, the question can be heard spoken to a newborn child, sleeping among the hay in a manger.
Are you the one?
Yes, the angels whisper. Yes, Jesus himself whispers. Yes, we too can whisper in our heart of hearts, in the once dark recesses of our lives where now his light shines.
Yes, he is the one.
And yes, we, too, can know the joy of his coming, the joy of his presence with us. Even though his reign is not complete, even in our own lives.
We know that he is indeed the one. And we can rejoice. And sing out loud, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
Rev. Bill Vincent
Pacific Presbyterian and First Presbyterian Church-Union