A sermon based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 preached on December 11th, 2016
On the cover of our bulletin this morning, there is a collage of many different renderings of Jesus that have come from many different countries and many different times.
You might recognize some of these renderings. There’s a few from 8th Century Coptic artists, some from the European Renaissance (those are the ones with a pasty-white Jesus). There are some from Africa.
The most recent of renderings comes from the movie Dogma, that’s the one on the top line, second in from the right. The movie refers to that depiction as Buddy Jesus. The rendering on the bottom left corner is a white English Jesus from the movie Jesus of Nazareth. And in the middle row, second in from the right, is an archeologist’s computer rendering of the historical Jesus—what he most likely looked like: dark olive skin, black hair with tight curls, a prominent jaw line and bulbous nose. Certainly, for every one of these depictions of Jesus, we could find thousands more that imagine someone completely different looking. I bet we all could take a guess about where in the world each of these interpretations of Jesus came from—what the artist looked like.
See, whether we’re artists or not, we all like to paint Jesus in our own image. We all have a notion of who He was and is now—and that notion is an amalgamation of many different things: the Jesus our parents prayed to, what we’ve heard in church from one Sunday to the next and one year to the next, those in our lives who have taught us about Jesus and reflected His care through their presence in our lives. The images thrown at us about Jesus by voices in our culture—and it doesn’t much matter whether those images are accurate or completely off the mark, they still stick. Sometimes we’d be much happier with a version of Jesus that was something other than the Christ we encounter in the Gospel.
There’s a statue of Jesus on the cross in South Korea that’s become quite the internet sensation.
He’s got muscles for miles. Twenty-four-pack abs, colossal shoulders. His upper arms are bigger than my waist.
This version of Jesus drank a protein shake at the Last Supper. His face is distorted in a wince—not one that portrays the pain of crucifixion, but one that makes it seem like he’s about to break the cross He’s hung on into splinters by just the sheer force of his strength. Why portray Jesus in such an absurd way? What was this South Korean sculptor thinking? I wonder if that’s the sort of Jesus that gains his attention and adoration: Jesus as Mr. Universe?
Maybe if we had our way, we’d all worship the Jesus that we want rather than the Jesus we were given. That’s where we find John the Baptist in our passage this morning—at a crisis of faith, really. A cross roads. In this moment, behind the bars of a prison cell, John paces back and forth with anxiety—his mind full of questions. John has been arrested for treason—for preaching a doctrine that threatens the reign and power of both the Jewish and the Roman empires.
John is used to being in trouble. From the very first moment he began baptizing in the Jordan River, he’s been in confrontation with the powerbrokers of his day. This may not even be the first time he’s been thrown in jail. But this time—this imprisonment is different. John has always been a fireball of a prophet. A leader the people flocked to because there was never an ounce of doubt or uncertainty in him. His voice never shook. He always stood tall and confident, and that’s what drew the thousands to his side. But prison does funny things to a man. The silence of a cell haunted John the Baptist. Thoughts arose inside of his head that began to plague him with doubts. The metal of those bars not only held his body, it also held captive his Spirit.
John’s followers came often to visit. They reported to him all that was happening on the outside. They must have brought a few reports about Jesus—what he was up to, what he was saying, doing. And John was concerned. This Jesus was supposed to be the Long-Awaited One—the Messiah who would rise up against the powerful people of the day.
Jesus, if He is indeed the kind of Messiah John expected him to be, was to confront the Empires in place, to raise up a rebellion among His people—the forgotten and dismissed among Him, and topple all of it with the power of God. That’s what everyone expected out of the coming Messiah. A big, broad-shouldered fighter who would gather an army of discontents together. They would depose every Emperor and every King in their wake until the government belonged not to the rich and haughty, but to the commoner. So far, Jesus wasn’t fitting the bill.
John was a wrecking ball of a man; Jesus… well, He just wasn’t. The words Jesus preached were much too soft. His eyes too compassionate. His physical presence not dominating enough. He didn’t intimidate. Left to his own thoughts, John wondered—did he get this wrong? He was so sure Jesus was the One that he gave his entire life to clearing a way for Him. Was it all a waste? A hoax? Is this the way a Savior acts?!
John sends word by his disciples a question for Jesus. And it’s the most anxious and heartbreaking question in all of scripture:
Are you the One who is to come, or should we expect another?
Friends. this is the question that haunts all of us. John was the first to ask it, but how many thousands or millions throughout history have had the same question, maybe not ever asked aloud, but rattling like a pinball way down in the depths of their hearts and minds.
Are you the One who is to come, or should we expected another? Is this a Messiah I can live with?
And let’s look at how Jesus responds. Verses 4-6:
The blind see, the crippled walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised to life. The poor are comforted with Good News.
What kind of answer is that?! Those are all excellent things, Jesus, but what do they have to do with anything! John the Baptist, in the cold and echo of his prison cell, must answer his own question because Jesus refuses to. Jesus, in his trademark clever way, turns John’s question right back at him, forcing him to discern all these things for himself.
We know the feeling. Advent is a time packed tight with these sorts of questions, these longing, searching, soul-shaking questions. Jesus, who are you really? Why have you come? What did you accomplish, Jesus? Anything? What are you still accomplishing? Isn’t the world just as dark as it’s ever been? Maybe even getting darker by the day?What gives!?
And who am I, Jesus? We ask that, too, don’t we? Just like John the Baptist must have. What am I for? What’s my purpose? All these questions, you see, are tied together. If we don’t know who Jesus is, we don’t know who we are.
Whether he knew it or not, all those times when John the Baptist looked Jesus in the eyes, he was staring into the very face of God his Creator—the One who shaped him and every one of us into our being. Advent is a time of Divine encounter. A time to search our identity, every aspect of our lives, inside and out. To ask these questions and search for these answers.
God, who are you, really? And, who am I? The answer to that second question depends on the answer to the first. We do not look to ourselves to find out who God is. That’s backwards. We don’t get to shape Jesus in our own image! That’s the mistake John the Baptist made. It’s the mistake we all make, and we make it all the time. If we want to do this right, we start with Jesus, and from careful focus on who He is, we find out who we are!
God, who are you, really? And in light of who you are, who am I?
There was another man thrown behind bars who asked himself such questions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. Hitler’s dictatorship demanded the public’s unconditional obedience, and it tolerated no criticism or dissent. All organizations and individuals refusing to conform with Nazi ideologies were destroyed. Even Christian churches openly supported Hitler’s regime. But not Bonhoeffer. He took to the radio and spoke against the rise of the Nazi Party. He was arrested and held captive for his public dissent. It was in prison where he, like John the Baptist, was forced to look deeply inside of himself. Ask all those haunting questions the busyness of our lives does a great job of distracting us from.
Bonhoeffer kept a diary while he was imprisoned. He wrote letters to his wife. Prayers and papers and poems. One of his poems, entitled Who Am I? is regarded his best, certainly his most famous. He wrote it late in his imprisonment, knowing he would be executed by the Nazis.
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Bonhoeffer achieved a strange victory, one not easily recognized by the world’s standards. John the Baptist would not escape death either. Jesus did not, either through brute force or the through the power God within Him, reduce the cross to a pile of splinters. In his own strange victory, he died upon it instead. Jesus refuses to be whoever we want him to be. Instead, this Advent, we ready ourselves to be reshaped by Him.
Who are you expecting this Christmas?
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!