December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:4-9, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
A few years ago I am watching on TV a soccer match in the English Premier League, and the referee makes several terrible calls—seeing a penalty where there is none and not seeing a penalty where a player gets totally destroyed. Then the announcer says, “It looks like the referee has “lost the plot”.” That is, the referee has forgotten the story he is in and his role in it. He has lost the plot. John the Baptizer is languishing in Herod’s prison. He gets locked up for announcing that Herod should not be married to his brother’s ex-wife and even worse, John tells the world that God is showing up as King and therefore Herod will be out of a job. John goes to prison hopeful, however, because his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, will be the Messiah to bring about God’s return to liberate his people. But now, after some time in prison, John suspects that Jesus has lost the plot. John expects the messiah to be another Elijah, that 8th century hero who calls down fire on the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah in a showdown on Mount Carmel. Elijah takes on the corrupt king Ahab and Queen Jezebel who support the pagan prophets, and who have Naboth unjustly killed just so Ahab can have Naboth’s vineyard. Elijah takes them on and triumphs.
But now John hears Jesus is not mounting a campaign to throw out Herod and the Romans and establish God as King—rather Jesus is hanging around with sinners and tax collectors. At this rate John will never get out of prison. This is not the story John is expecting. Jesus has lost the plot to overthrow the enemies of God, foreign and domestic, who oppress the people of God.
So John sends word by his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus says his model is not Elijah—John is the new Elijah—Jesus’ model comes from the prophet scholars call Second Isaiah, which presents another story for how God will become King on earth as in heaven.
This story is in the reading today from Isaiah 35: the story of God saving his people from their exile in Babylon in modern day Iraq, bringing them home through a transformed desert in which “waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert…”
And the people of God will also be transformed: The blind, the lame, and the deaf will be healed, physically and spiritually, as they follow their liberating God on the way back to Jerusalem.
Isaiah proclaims that God has forgiven their sins and therefore their time of exile is ending. God will lead them back to Jerusalem as a shepherd leads his sheep.
Jesus sees in this passage and others the template for his vocation from his heavenly Father. He is God’s man leading the people—all the people— back to God through the forgiveness of their sins, through the overcoming of the power of Sin and Death, and through their new birth into the New Creation.
Jesus bears witness to his vision of God through his healings and a community built not on judging your neighbors but on forgiving them. Jesus’ messianic mission—through his life, cross, resurrection, and ascension is built not on violence but on mercy. God’s kingdom is built, not for the super-religious, the morally bullet-proof, but for those who know their need of God, sinners in constant need of forgiveness and healing.
Jesus answers John’s question by claiming Isaiah 35 is coming true in and through himself, so he says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus has not lost the plot, but rather he is God’s plot to redeem the world from the terrible powers of Sin and Death. He is God’s Way and he calls his apprentices to be the way with him.
“Is Jesus the one or should we follow another?”
This is the fundamental question….and we can have trouble answering this question because we, like John, are caught in a different story with a different plot. Our story is about rugged individualists who have no need of anyone’s help, because we are enslaved to no one. We are masters of our own destiny. We are free.
If there is a god, his job is to assist us in getting more money, success, health, and popularity, so that we can do whatever our heart desires.
Of course one of the many problems with this story is it falsely assumes we are mature and well enough to have the kind of desires that bring us happiness, and not despair.
I remember as a child curling up with the Sears Christmas Catalogue and falling in love with all those pictures of happy children playing with toys surrounded by a luminous blue light. In that moment I was not the master of my desires, rather I was a slave to the desires others wanted me to have.
We’re older now but the problem remains the same: our desires are brought to us by people selling gizmos, gadgets, and getaways, science fiction 50 years ago couldn’t imagine. Therefore, the saviors many cling to are the Powers that Be who promise to meet all their disordered desires.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this clearly in 1930’s Germany when National Socialism convinced many in the churches to trade in the Jesus of the Bible for the Jesus of the Nazi Party.
Today, however, many Christians no longer read the Bible and therefore are defenseless against the saviors proclaimed by the culture. They blindly accept a so-called Christian lifestyle that is filled with what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace”. He said, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” The Cost of Discipleship
Costly grace, on the other hand, he said is “costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a [person their] life, and it is grace because it gives…the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
It is easy to lose the plot and fall into another story, like the story of the violent god or the indulgent god or the “us versus them” god or even the story of “I don’t need god because I will never die.”
“Are you the one, Jesus, or should we seek another?”
When we’re afraid that we’ve lost the plot this is an important question to ask him. And it is equally important to listen for his answer, because the one the Romans killed 2000 years ago continues to work in this world so that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are transformed, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
And he invites us to recover the plot of our lives in him, so that in our own experience his story comes true.