It’s a Scandal
For the Columbia Chapel service, Friday October 14, 2005
Text: Matthew 11:1-6
I thought that this would be a great sermon to start with a video clip, but I couldn’t figure out what movie to show. Not because I couldn’t think of a movie that would fit, but because I could think of too many. It must be one of the most popular plots in the history of movies and television. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen it.
I’d almost bet that as I describe it, not only will each of you recognize it, but most of you will think of a different movie or t.v. show than the people on either side of you.
It goes something like this: the main character is a young teacher, or police officer, or samurai, who comes to a school, police department or small town where things haven’t been going so well and starts doing things differently than they’ve ever been done before.
Soon, all the old guard are up in arms about how you can’t do things that way, no one has ever taught/fought crime/taken on the Yakuza in that way before. And if the new young buck doesn’t straighten up and fly right, there is going to be hell to pay.
We all know how the movie turns out, though, in the end every body sees that the new way was exactly what was needed to turn the school around/catch the mob boss/run the bullies out of town.
You’ve all seen one of those movies, right?
Well, we’ve got what might be the inspiration for all of them in this morning’s text.
Can you imagine the pitch meeting for this film?
Ok, so were in Palestine, year 30. Rome has taken over the place. Sure there is a local king and some high priests, but they’re all working for Rome.
Anyway, the people are all oppressed, by the time they pay their taxes to Rome, they might as well be slaves; and, come on, this is supposed to be their land, I mean: God promised it to them, but now they’ve got Romans everywhere and, really, nothing of their own.
All anybody can talk about is the messiah. The prophets told them that a messiah was going to come and save them: kick out the Romans, put their own kings back in power. When the messiah comes, everything will be put back right.
So, that’s where our movie starts. Our hero is this young guy, maybe 30 years old and he’s a nobody, a carpenter, say. He comes out of nowhere, some small town, like Nazareth, maybe.
Anyway, he shows up and starts preaching to people about the kingdom of God, he keeps telling these stories, these parable things and people start to follow him around to hear what he’s gonna say next.
That would be the end of it, but then he starts doing things, amazing things. He gives blind people their sight back, the lame can walk, lepers are made clean.
So more and more people start to follow him and they are start asking is he the one? Is he the messiah?
But he’s not doing the right stuff. Sure, the deaf can hear again, and he’s saying all these great things to the poor. Hey, he’s even bringing people back from the dead.
But he’s not doing the things that the messiah is supposed to do: he’s not fighting the Romans, he’s not raising an army. He’s even telling people not to fight. He’s got this great line, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Isn’t that wild?
Well some of the people are eating this stuff up, but others are getting really confused, and some are getting really upset. It’s like this big scandal.
You see there are these other little groups that have formed up around other preachers and some of those other groups are trying to figure out if our guy is the messiah or not. One of the groups even sends a couple of people over to ask him flat out: are you the messiah? Are you the one?
That’s where we come in today, one of the other preachers has sent two of his disciples over to ask Jesus the big question: are you the one?
But there’s a twist. A twist that even the pitchman didn’t know.
And it is that twist that really bothered me about the passage.
The twist is that it isn’t just some other preacher that sends his disciples, it’s John the Baptist.
John the Baptist. Seems like at this point, beside Jesus himself there are two people who shouldn’t have to ask this question. Those two people are Mary and John the Baptist.
John was there at the beginning of Jesus ministry. Even before he baptized Jesus, John knew that Jesus was the one. And after the baptism, even if he hadn’t been sure before, he got a pretty big sign: The heavens opened up, the spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from heaven said “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
John knew the score, so I had to keep asking: why would John need to ask this question? What’s going on? It doesn’t make any sense.
Then I remembered one more character from those movies: the old mentor. There is always some old teacher/cop/ sensei who knew the hero back in the day, but who the old guard also know and trust. The character serves as a bridge between the young hero and the people stuck in the old ways.
I think that what is happening in this text is that John is acting as that kind of a bridge.
We don’t know anything about John’s disciples, but we do know a bit about Jesus’ disciples and a lot of what we know is that even though they are right there with Jesus everyday, they are often pretty clueless about what’s going on and what Jesus’ teachings mean.
And if Jesus’ disciples have that little understanding, it doesn’t take much imagination to think that people who were watching from a distance are going to understand even less.
The scene that I imagine is that despite all that John has told them about Jesus and who he is, John’s disciples have been going on and on about how Jesus isn’t saying or doing the things that the messiah is supposed to.
They keep riding John and riding him about what a scandal it is that Jesus is doing all these things and people are saying he’s the messiah and that’s just not right, he’s not doing the right things, how are we ever going to be free of the Romans? What’s going on?
Finally, I imagine, John just gets fed up and he says:
“Fine, you two, go and talk to the man. Go tell Jesus that I sent you and I told you to ask if he’s the messiah. Then come back here and tell me what he says.”
And what does Jesus tell them? He tells them to get over it. To stop looking back to their doctrine and their dogma and to look at results.
God’s kingdom isn’t about whether or not all the proper hoops have been jumped through, God’s kingdom is about caring for the children of God. In the long run the important question to ask is not whether or not the catcher caught the third strike, but whether God’s work is being done.
We don’t know what effect this answer had on the disciples, but when I look at myself, and at the world around me, I’m afraid that it didn’t have much effect at all.
I know that I do and I am afraid that all of us at one time or another behave like those disciples.
We say “that worship is not authentic.” or “those are the wrong kind of songs to sing.”
We say, “she can’t serve,” or “he can’t be ordained.”
We get caught up in our rules and our expectations, and we forget to see how the people are being nourished by that worship we don’t like. Or we get caught up in how we categorize a person and whether that is the sort of person we want to lead our church, and forget to look at the gifts that God has given them for that ministry.
We are too quickly and easily scandalized by what we perceive as other peoples shortcomings, and far to slow at hearing Jesus call to look at results first.
We have a big advantage over those disciples, we don’t have to ask that question. We know, we know, that Jesus is the one, that Jesus is the messiah.
But somehow, even though we know the answer, we keep behaving as if we don’t. We fight amongst ourselves, we bicker, and we snarl. We need to stop, we need to stop being offended, stop being scandalized and we need to learn to look through Jesus eyes.
Is the work getting done? Do the blind receive their sight, do the lame walk, are the lepers are cleansed, do the deaf hear, and do the poor have good news brought to them? If so then everything else is moot. If not, then we need to lay our differences aside and get to work.