December 11, 2016 “Unexpected News” – Matthew 11:2-11
December 11, 2016 – Third Sunday in Advent
A beautiful golden brown roast bird, duck a l’orange, is being set on the table. It’s Christmas at the farmhouse in the movie “Babe.” Farm animals watch through the window in horror as holiday dinner is served. Ferdinand the duck joins then. “If you’re out here,” someone asks, “who’s that in there?” “Her name’s Roseanna,” Ferdinand sobs. “Why Roseanna? She had such a beautiful nature… I can’t take it anymore!”
The old cow tells Ferdinand: “You will never find happiness until you accept that the way things are is the way things are.” But Ferdinand doesn’t believe the cow. He replies, “The way things are stinks! I’m not gonna be a goner. I’m gone.” And he flies away down the road to find a better world.
The duck is right. The cow is a liar. Brave and wise-sounding advice to just accept “the way things are” is not Christianity, it’s Stoicism. The philosopher and statesman Seneca was born the same year as Jesus. He began a Roman school of Stoicism and taught the emperor Marcus Aurelius that the way to happiness is to accept things as they are. But Stoic resignation is not Christian philosophy. The patience James ask for in our epistle lesson today is not resignation or acceptance of the status quo.
Last week we heard John the Baptist preach to crowds in the wilderness that the way things are needs change. “Repent!” He shouted. Become someone new. As you can read in Matthew 14, John delivered that message not just to Pharisees and Sadducees, but to King Herod himself, who threw John in prison. But John could not accept the way things are. He wonders why, if the Messiah is here, he’s in prison. So he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask.
In verse 2 of Matthew 11, John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s an odd question from John. We read in chapter 3 last week how John announced the Messiah. Then Jesus came to be baptized. John saw God’s Spirit descend as a dove on Jesus and heard the voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son.” In John chapter 1, we read how John told his own disciples that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Why is he now questioning Jesus’ identity?
John was in prison, that’s why. The Messiah came to set people free. Why was he still waiting? Why hadn’t Jesus freed him from Herod? Why was he still sitting in the king’s moldy dungeon? Maybe Jesus wasn’t really the one after all.
John was no wimp. Last week we saw him preaching with enough guts to call the leading members of society a bunch of snakes to their faces. He was courageous enough to tell Herod that he was living in sin. But now he’s in prison, awaiting execution, and he’s lost his nerve. Facing bad news, facing death, he’s wondering if it’s all true. Who is this Jesus, anyway? Maybe John bet on the wrong guy, was expecting too much.
You and I react the same way when the news is bad. The doctor reads us a lab report and we hear the word “malignant” and something ending in “oma.” A therapist tells us she can’t take away all the pain. Divorce papers are filed. Employment is terminated. A baby is critically ill. A crucial test is failed. The house is foreclosed. Like John, we wonder if we’ve been expecting too much from Jesus. Maybe He’s not all we thought He was.
It doesn’t even have to be our own bad news. Houses are burned down or flooded or broken into. Young people get shot to death. Another bomb goes off in a public square. People wander our streets homeless. Someone else in government lies or steals or cheats. Where’s Jesus? What’s He up to? Are we expecting too much? That’s John’s question. If you and I are not cows with a Stoic philosophy, then it’s our question too.
Jesus did not rescue John from prison, but He didn’t tell him to accept the way things are either. In verse 4, Jesus told John’s disciples to tell him what they hear and see. Most of the rest of what He told them in verse 5 is quoted from the prophet Isaiah, partly from our reading in Isaiah 35:4-6 this morning, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk… the deaf hear” The part about good news preached to the poor is from Isaiah 61:1. Jesus said to tell John that He was doing exactly what the Messiah was expected to do. They saw the sick being healed. They heard the Gospel being preached. It was all coming true.
Yet John was still in prison. Isaiah 61:1 goes on to talk about “liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” Jesus didn’t include that in the message He sent to John. He didn’t free any prisoners. He left John in jail. The Baptist had good reason to be disappointed. Maybe he would have to accept the way things are. But Jesus added a couple of items to what Isaiah promised, some unexpected news.
In addition to the blind, lame and deaf predicted by Isaiah, Jesus healed lepers, the outcasts and forgotten of society. But the really big addition, the truly unexpected news in the list of verse 5 is the next-to-last item. It’s not clearly foreseen by Isaiah at all. Jesus added an unexpected game-changer, “the dead are raised.” That awesome, unexpected news changes everything, for John and for us. The dead are raised. The cow is a liar. The way things are is not the way things will be. The dead are raised.
John expected the Messiah to come and get him out of jail. What he never expected was that after Herod cut his head off, the Messiah would raise him up and paste his head back on. That was the unexpected news Jesus sent him. The dead are raised. John didn’t expect it and you and I may not, not really.
In verse 6 Jesus said, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” literally, “who does not stumble because of me.” “The dead are raised” is amazingly wonderful unexpected news. It’s good news, but it’s not easy news. It can be a major disappointment, even offensive to those who are suffering. John wasn’t expecting Jesus to raise him from the dead. He was expecting Jesus to keep him from dying. You and I often have the same mistaken expectation.
We stand and repeat the creed and say we believe it, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” But then we turn around and fight with all our being to stay alive and hang on to the people and the things we love. Like John, we’re disappointed when it doesn’t happen. The death of those we love brings despair. And the prospect of our own dying brings fear and dismay. Even loss of income or property devastates us. Like John, we begin to doubt, to wonder if Jesus is really who He says He is. But Jesus came to raise the dead. You can’t be raised until you die.
What’s looming in the background here is the Cross. For all its joy, Christmas looks forward to the Cross. No blessed joy of birth without the bleak prospect of dying. And the good news of Easter looks backwards to the Cross. No joyful news of resurrection without the painful experience of death. No rising without dying.
The cow’s a liar, but the duck is wrong too. Ferdinand can fly down the road as far as he likes and he still won’t find a world where ducks are not eaten. Wing it all the way to China and there he’ll find a family sitting down to crisp Beijing duck dipped in plum sauce. We won’t be happy just accepting the way things are, but we can’t escape the way things are. The Bible says you and I have an appointment with death. We can’t fly away from it.
The good news, the unexpected news Jesus sent John is that, while we can’t escape death, we can hope beyond it, we can see through it, we can even rejoice in it. Because the dead are raised. The way things are is not the way they will always be.
In the meantime, it’s not an absolute disaster to be a cow or a duck, to think the only options are either dismal resignation or bitter resistance to the way things are, to meekly accept death or to fight it tooth and nail. Jesus did not reject or criticize John for his doubts. Just the opposite, in verses 7-10, Jesus gave John the highest praise a man ever received.
After verse 6, after Jesus blessed those who don’t take offense, who don’t lose their faith like John, people might have thought him a failure. They might think the great baptizing prophet was a spiritual weakling. He may preach bold sermons, but under pressure he gave up. But Jesus turned John’s doubts into a lesson for us all.
John was no weakling. Jesus explains this with irony in verses 7 and 8. When the crowds went out to the desert to see a man shouting God’s Word in the hot sun, did they think they were looking at some tender reed blowing in the wind? Not at all. John was an oak tree, rooted and immovable in his conviction. Did they think God’s man would be dressed in soft clothing like those who live in royal style? No, they went out to listen to a man wearing the rough linen and leather belt of hardy life in the wilderness. John is no wimp, Jesus says, he is a prophet, “and more than a prophet,” in verse 9.
In verse 10 Jesus tells them John is the prophet about whom the prophets prophesied. He’s the messenger coming before the Messiah, preparing the way. And in verse 11, “no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” He’s the penultimate figure in history, the greatest to that point. And John, the greatest of us all so far, got the blues and doubted his faith.
Here’s the lesson: If the greatest prophet ever born got down in the dumps, how can you and I expect to be different? If the prospect of death challenged John’s faith, we should expect it to challenge ours. He was better and stronger and more in tune with God than you and I will ever be. John was the greatest prophet. If the greatest of all questioned his faith in Jesus, how can we expect not to? What hope have we to be anything but doubting weaklings, giving up whenever life gets hard?
Our hope is in the second half of verse 11. There’s been no one greater than John the Baptist, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” It’s not easy to understand. A number of interpreters say that “the least in the kingdom” is Jesus. If John is the greatest, only God’s own Son could be greater. So they try to make “least” translate as “youngest.” Jesus was six months younger than John. But it doesn’t work. The word is “least,” not “youngest.” And other, younger people were coming into God’s kingdom.
No, the only good interpretation is that even the least of everyone else coming into the kingdom, the least of the disciples, of all those who would believe in Jesus, even the least of you and me, is greater than John. But how can that be? He was a spiritual giant. We are pitiful babes in comparison.
Isaac Newton had one of the greatest, if not the greatest scientific intellect, the world has ever seen. He single-handedly sorted out in beautiful mathematical formulas how gravity moves our world and all the planets in predictable orbits. He made great discoveries in optics and explained how the moon causes tides. Perhaps more than anyone else Newton uncovered the workings of the natural world. Alexander Pope the poet wrote:
Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.
You could argue that Newton was the greatest scientist that ever lived. Yet any high school science student knows more than Newton. Newton was a giant, but the C student in Physics 101 is greater. Why? Because that student knows about Einstein, about his unexpected discovery of relativity. The incredible genius of Einstein gathered up and explained Newton’s laws as simply a special case of larger laws of relativity. The high school student is greater than Newton because she had the luck to be born after Einstein.
You or I, the least in the kingdom of heaven, know more than John did. Coming after John, we have heard the unexpected news that the Son of God died on the Cross and rose from the dead. We are greater than John because we have received the grace to be born after Jesus came and to be born again into the new life He gives.
It was unexpected news. “The dead are raised.” John didn’t know it yet. That news has been handed down to us in fulfillment of what Jesus quoted from Isaiah, “the poor have good news brought to them.” The spiritually poor dying in despair and the literally poor dying in hunger and disease hear unexpected good news: “The dead are raised.” Yes, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, but greatest of all, “the dead are raised.” “Don’t lose your head, John, because even after losing your head, there is hope. The dead are raised.” “Be patient,” says James 5:7, “until the coming of the Lord,” because the Lord is coming to raise the dead.
Resurrection from the dead is our good news. Jesus sent that news to John and He sends it to you and me. Pain may be haunting you. Memory might be fading. Employment could be elusive. Hopes and dreams may be dim, for yourself, for those you love, even for Christianity in our country. But the unexpected good news is that the dead are raised.
A Russian novelist wrote to his mother to console her after his father’s death:
Three years have gone – and every trifle relating to father is still as alive as ever inside me. I am so certain… that we will see him again, in an unexpected but completely natural heaven, in a realm where all is radiance and delight. He will come toward us in our shared bright eternity, slightly raising his shoulders as he used to do, and we will kiss the birthmark on his hand without surprise. You must live in expectation of that tender hour…, and never give in to the temptation of despair. Everything will return.*
The duck is a fool. You can’t fly away from death. It will always find you. The duck is a fool, but the cow is a liar. The way things are is not the way things will be. The dead are raised. Never give into the temptation of despair. The way things are is not the way they will be. Believe that and let your life be transformed by hope. Share that hope, tell that good news, and transform the lives of those around you.
Near his death, the great evangelist Dwight Moody said, “One day soon you will hear that I am dead. Do not believe it. I will then be alive as never before.” Moody changed the world with his preaching. You and I can change our community with our own hope, our own sharing of the good news. Christmas is only partly a celebration of the past, of a Birth long ago. Even more, it’s a celebration of a future yet to come, of all the new births, of all the resurrections made possible by the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christ has come, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. And, unexpectedly, the dead will be raised. That’s the good news.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
* Vladimir Nabakov quoted in Books and Culture, December 1995.