In last week’s Gospel we heard John the Baptist say, regarding our Lord, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. Dr David Knisley, a retired history professor at Mars Hill College and the son of a Baptist preacher remarked coming out of church last week, “John the Baptist would have made a pretty good Baptist preacher.” Isn’t it the truth?
It is no wonder, as John sat in the darkness of his prison cell, that he began to wonder whether Jesus was in fact the Messiah. You see, John had envisioned the Messiah as one who would come among the people and clean house, as the saying goes. In contrast to John’s understanding of the Messiah, Jesus’ ministry was about preaching, teaching and healing and thereby bringing the Kingdom of God among the people. When John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, He saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove from heaven. John had been pretty sure at that time that Jesus must be the long awaited Messiah. But again, rather than crush the wicked and overthrow the Roman oppression, Jesus invited people to come to Him and be made whole. This was way off message from the Messiah as John had imagined the Messiah.
So, John sent his disciples directly to Jesus to ask Jesus point blank if he is the Messiah or were they to look for another. It was a yes or no question. I don’t think that Jesus ever answered a yes or no question with yes or no, and he certainly did not do so this time. Rather, he said, “Go back to John and tell him 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
John’s disciples returned to him with that message. And John, being a student of the Old Testament scriptures would hear from his disciples that Jesus was out there doing the very things that the prophet Isaiah wrote about in today’s Old Testament lesson some 600 or so years earlier. Speaking of the reign of God among God’s people, we heard this from the Prophet Isaiah about God’s reign: “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” In hearing this report from his disciples, surely John would have received his answer. Jesus’ ministry was exactly what the prophet had foretold. He was in fact the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
I read this week that Jesus was not rebuking or fussing at John when Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What that meant was, “Blessed is anyone who does not misunderstand me, blessed is anyone who sees that what I’m doing is of God.
The good news of the Gospel, Beloved, is that Jesus is still doing those things among us today. All we have to do is to receive the wholeness that Jesus brings into our lives by saying, “Yes, Lord. I want to be a part of your new creation.” Then our spiritual blindness will be healed. We, like John the Baptist, will finally be able to see what God is doing in the world around us and how we can join in God’s work.
Our ears will be unstopped and we will be able to hear the truth and receive the life that the truth about God conveys. For example, we will begin to understand that God came to heal the world, not to judge it and destroy it. God came to heal you and me, not to condemn us. With our ears unstopped, we will be able to discern falsehood and lies as well. We will begin to see that selfishness and greed are not the way to life, and that love is more than a new Subaru as we hear them say on television. Jesus wants to show us that it is in serving others that we are served and it is in dying to selfishness that we are born to eternal life. The truth is that heaven, that state of being fully in the presence of God, is available to us in the here and now, not just in the sweet by and by. God is in the transformation business and none of us is too hard a project for God.
There’s a real sense in which that Jesus, as the Savior of the world didn’t come just to get people into heaven when they die, but to bring heaven or the fullness of God’s presence to us in the here and now. By following Jesus, by participating in the spiritual practices of service, worship, and prayer, we can and will and do experience God in our lives now and this is what brings us the abundant life which Jesus promised.
But in order to experience God in the intimate way that we would like, we must learn to walk WITH God each day of our lives. I read someone recently who maintained that the Church has spent too much time in teaching people doctrines and precepts and not enough time teaching people to walk with God, to hear from God and to experience the living God every day of our lives.
My hope for 2014 is to spend more time on learning to walk with God as a community of faith. Brother Lawrence, a monk and Christian writer, wrote a book called The Practice of the Presence of God which became a spiritual classic. Brother Lawrence maintained that he could just as fully experience the presence of God in the kitchen washing pots and pans as he could kneeling in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
I know it has something to do with keeping our hearts open to God. I am reminded of that verse which says, “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” In the Holy Communion part of our service, the Celebrant says, “Lift up your hearts” and the congregation responds, “We lift them (meaning our hearts) to the Lord.” Guarding our hearts, opening our hearts and lifting our hearts to the Lord helps us remain open to what God has for us.
Sometimes I wonder whether I am really experiencing the abundant life that Jesus promised. And often I think that I am not. I wonder if you ever feel like that. I have come to the conclusion that if I am not really walking with God daily or experiencing God regularly, it’s got to be because I am not paying attention. I am distracted. The reason I say this is because all of us know that God delights in loving us and in walking with us and that it is God’s desire and good pleasure Jesus said to give us the Kingdom. But the gift can’t be given if we are not there ready to receive it.
I don’t feel like growing closer to God or walking with God is complicated or particularly difficult. After all, we are following a path that people have followed now for over 2,000 years and there are many who have written about how to more fully experience God in our lives. God has given us these people as our guides so that we can more fully experience God and the Truth of God’s Word. My hope is that we can learn from them and grow closer to God’s heart in the process. In fact, I am excited about it.
When John’s disciples left Jesus to return to John with Jesus’ message to him, Jesus talked to the crowds about John. John was a strange bird, even in his day and time. He dressed in animal skins, like a cave man or an Old Testament prophet. Most likely he was a member of the Essenes, a desert sect of monks who lived as part of the Dead Sea community. As desert dwellers, they lived an austere life, eating foods of the desert, locusts or grasshoppers and wild honey. John had taken a Nazarite vow where he vowed not to cut his hair or drink wine. This is where the present day Baptists got the idea of not participating in the sale, distribution or consumption of alcoholic beverages. With his long hair and dressed in animal skins, and his message of God’s judgment, John was a formidable character.
Jesus asked the people what they went out to see when they went out to see John, a reed shaken by the wind, or someone dressed in fine robes? No, he said, you went out to see a prophet, and more than a prophet. And then Jesus explained what John’s ministry was all about. Jesus told them that John was the one foretold by the prophets who wrote, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
Jesus concluded by making a very interesting statement about John. He said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” What did he mean by saying that the LEAST in the Kingdom of God is greater than he?
Jesus was saying that as great as John was, he did not yet have the full revelation of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was to reveal the full picture in His death and resurrection. Therefore, even the least in the Kingdom has a clearer picture of who God is and what the Messiah came to do than did John, because John died, John was executed before Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What this means, Beloved, is that we are of all people most blessed. For we are Easter people, children of the resurrection, with the knowledge that Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. This is this good news that we have for the world and may God empower us to proclaim it, proclaim Him, to the ends of the earth. AMEN.