Blessed or Offended? — Life and death question

Third Sunday of Advent

The world is about to turn! Rejoice! God’s justice breaks forth

  • Isaiah 35:1-10 “Here is your God”
  • Luke 1:47-55 Mary’s Song
  • Matthew 11:2-11 “Are you the one? Blessed is anyone who takes no offense”

Life and Death Questions for a Turning World – Salvation comes

We are told by prison chaplains that a person on death row asks life and death questions. Being confronted with death can make one acutely aware of real life and death matters.

Advent confronts us with life and death questions to prepare for God’s breaking into the world in Jesus.

John the Baptist is on death row at Herod’s hands and asks such a question of Jesus in the Gospel we hear on this third Sunday in Advent. Before we turn to the Gospel and John’s life and death question to let it turn us and the world around, let us turn to Isaiah on this Advent Sunday.

Isaiah’s Prophesy and a Turning World

The prophet Isaiah speaks of Israel’s return home in Zion from exile in Babylon. For Jews six- and-a-half centuries before Jesus’ birth, the return to Zion meant “salvation.”

God was turning their world around by bringing them home from Babylon. Salvation or a savior is a key word in Advent scriptures. God is preparing the world for salvation in Jesus the savior. God’s salvation is a big event.

In chapter 35, Isaiah paints the scene of salvation as a renewal of the earth: the desert will bloom and blossom, nature will sing and celebrate, God’s people will see God’s glory and proclaim to those with feeble knees and fearful hearts: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…who will come and save you!” Signs of God’s glorious salvation breaking in to renew the world will be seen: blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears will hear, the lame will leap like deer, the speechless will sing for joy, and water will flow in the desert.

Oh that we would hear Isaiah’s prophetic word today and see God turning the world and our lives around! Here is our God who comes with judgment that is divine justice to save us. Do we believe it? Can we see it?

Matthew’s Gospel and a Transforming World – Hard Questions

In this divine milieu we hear Matthew’s gospel on this Advent Sunday that strives mightily to prepare us and save us today. Hear again the Gospel as Stuart and I tell it.

[……….Stuart and I tell the Gospel………3 pages plus our telling]

John the Baptist – what an interesting character? John is no vacillating crowd pleaser. He is no charismatic television evangelist of the desert seeking fame and fortune. He is not a wet-fingered politician testing the winds of religious popularity as a “reed that blows in the wind.” John is so wholly dedicated to preparing the way of the Lord that he winds up on the wrong side of Herod and in prison awaiting Herod’s death sentence. He would lose his head but never his heart.

John the Baptist’s absolute commitment was to the Messiah, the Coming One. From behind prison walls he had to know whether he had been right to stake his life on Jesus as the Messiah.

Perhaps John, like we are prone to do, was looking for a messiah who would liberate them from the oppressive hand of the Roman empire like Israel was released from Babylonian captivity in Isaiah’s time. In his prison cell he had to know: Was this the Messiah he was looking for? So John asked a life and death question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Is it not our question today? Who do we see in Jesus today, even with the advantage of hindsight looking back 2000 years?

Jesus often answers a question with a question. Jesus knows that we have to ask the right question to get the right answer. Jesus’ answer is in affect to ask the question, “What kind of Messiah are you looking for?” This time, however, he holds the question to first give an answer. But even his answer is so typical of Jesus who rarely responds directly to a question. So often he responds to a question with another question or by telling a story or, as in this situation, by calling attention to what has been taking place. Jesus isn’t one to cite creed or debate doctrine.

In this situation, Jesus’ answer is directed to the disciples John sent to question him. But it is also meant for all who have ears to hear. Jesus, like Isaiah, calls them to be alert and attentive to what is already taking place.

Go and tell John what you hear and see:
The blind receive their sight,
The lame walk,
The lepers are cleansed,
And the poor have good news preached to them .

Open your eyes and ears and heart. Look for the signs of God’s Incarnation. Watch for the evidence of God turning the world around.

Then Jesus adds a curious word directed more to the crowds then to John’s departing disciples. What does Jesus say next? “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Where have we heard words like that before? Yes, the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon!

They are powerful words! Could taking offence be the one of our greatest sins?

After saying, “Look and see” — not unlike saying “Come and see” another time and place – Jesus inserts this key Beatitude and then asks questions for everyone. Jesus asks them three sets of two questions with a rhetorical revelation each time.

What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A reed blowing in the wind?
You won’t see John as a reed blowing in the wind.

What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?
You won’t see John in soft robes. Soft robes are worn in royal palaces.

What then did you go out to see? A prophet?
Yes, I tell you and more than a prophet. This is what the prophet Isaiah told you.
A messenger will be sent to prepare the way for the Messiah.

It is an Advent call to watch and wait, be alert and attentive, be made ready for God is coming into the world in Jesus. God is turning the world around and turning us around. God’s kingdom is even now breaking into the world.

This week I pondered Jesus’ message to “Look and see” what is taking place. I also read messages from Peggy Gish and Cliff Kindy and their two Christian Peacemaker Team members in Iraq. In the intersection of Jesus’ words and Peggy and Cliff’s words, I was taken back to the Iraqi desert of March 2003. Jesus’ question, “What did you go out to the desert to see?” took on new meaning. We had gone out into the desert to “get in the way of war” and we saw war.

In that surreal desert journey it was sometimes hard to keep in focus that we had gone out to see and be God’s kingdom people. We had not gone out into the desert to see someone dressed in fine clothes although we saw empire’s finest clothes of military fatigues. We had not gone out to see a reed shaking in the wind but we saw an Iraqi doctor become Good Samaritan who was willing to save our lives.

While traveling across the desert in a dust storm, CPTer Leah Wilson Hartgrove asked Jim Douglass if the dust would keep bombers from spotting us. Jim answered simply, “They can find us if they want to.” Then seeing Leah’s anxiety, he added with a twinkle in his eye, “Remember, God is our shield and will protect us. God will take care of us.” We shared nervous laughter but with a renewed sense of God’s Real Presence. (Personal experience and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, To Baghdad and Beyond , 47 & 54).

With John we ask, “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” Jesus tells us to “Look and see.” How we see Jesus makes all the difference in the world. We go out to the desert not to see empire’s war but Messiah’s revolution, the revolutionary presence of Jesus in the world and God’s reign already begun. The lowly are lifted up and the mighty brought down, the last shall be first and the first last, the oppressed are set free, and whoever would loose their life will save it. It is an upside down kingdom. And blessed are they who are not offended by Jesus’ upside down revolution but see it and join Jesus in God’s kingdom building word and world.