Renewing Expectations - We Have Stories to Tell


A sermon on Matthew 11:2-11

(an audio recording of this sermon is available here.)

I wonder what kind of answer John was expecting, when he sent his followers to ask his simple, but heart-breaking question:

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

There is so much pain and fear bound up in that question, as well as – perhaps – a desperate, stubborn hope. I see the pain and fear in John’s implicit doubt, in his back-tracking from the confidence with which he had declared the power of the One who was to come after him, whom he identified as Jesus.

John had been so sure that he knew what was coming: John had expected a baptism of fire. He had expected the ax at the root of the tree – chopping down those who were not bearing the fruit of God’s righteous kingdom. He had expected Jesus to wield his winnowing fork, separating the repentant from those who persisted in their own way.

But that wasn’t happening. Jesus was teaching with authority about righteousness, but he seemed much more focused on healings than on striking down evil-doers.

And striking down evil-doers had become much more personally important to John, since he was directly suffering at their hands. John had been detained, indefinitely, unfairly, in prison. John had called out King Herod’s selfish, immoral abuse of power, and King Herod had struck back. And in the long, lonely hours in his prison cell, John had lost his certainty.

Had he been wrong in his message of the One who was to Come? Had he been wrong to identify Jesus as the promised Messiah? Had John’s whole life work been a delusion? A wasted effort? A failure?

John’s spiral into doubt and disillusion must have been doubly difficult for a man who had always been so driven by the rightness of his vision. But, that’s exactly why I see in his question not just doubt, but also hope.

Because he was willing to ask… he was willing to learn, to be convinced of a new vision about what God was up to in the world… to believe that Jesus WAS the one God had sent into the world, even if Jesus wasn’t doing things the way John had expected.

John’s question of Jesus is a touching combination of desperation and bravery. From his imprisoned position of fear, and doubt, and shattered expectations, John was willing to ask the question “Are you the one?”…

But I still wonder what kind of response he expected.

It would have been reasonable to expect a bit of defensiveness. John might have asked his question in trepidation; braced for an angry backlash at this questioning of Jesus’s authority.

Or maybe he was hoping to inspire a shift in behavior out of Jesus. Maybe a question from the one who had “prepared the way” for him would remind Jesus to get with the program and vindicate John’s proclamation.

Or maybe John was genuinely open to having his expectations changed. Maybe he was expecting Jesus to respond with a clear, declarative teaching that laid open the scriptures and explained what the Messiah was to do.

Whatever he was expecting, I imagine he did at least expect a direct answer. But Jesus didn’t give a yes or no answer to the question. In fact, he didn’t even offer the messengers any words of his own to take back to John.

Instead, he told the messengers to bring their own answer. He told John’s disciples, in essence: “you don’t need me to answer that question, because you can answer it yourselves. You have the witness of your own experiences. Go and tell what YOU hear and see.”

So far, I have been focusing on John’s perspective in this story, because it matters that we make space for his kind of doubt and disappointment when we gather around the story of Jesus. Because some of us might be dealing with the same kinds of doubts.

But I also think the perspective of these disciples is worth attending to. They must have shared – to some degree – the disillusionment of their teacher. Their leader’s imprisonment, as well as his doubt about the one he had proclaimed, must have shaken them as well. John sent them to give voice to his doubt and his fear that everything that he had been working for was all just a delusion, but they also must have longed to know if they had misunderstood what God was doing.

And Jesus’s response is to tell them: “you don’t have to depend on someone else interpreting the signs for you – not on John, and not even on me. Just pay attention. What do you see and hear? You already have the answer to your question – you have the evidence of God at work in the world right in front of you. Just tell the story.”

The clear implication of Jesus’ response is that there was evidence of God’s power in Jesus ministry for the messengers to observe… they just hadn’t been looking for it. They hadn’t thought it was their job to interpret the evidence, or to claim authority as witnesses to God’s work.

But Jesus gave them permission to claim that authority… more than that he commissioned them to “go and tell.” And in case they still felt a little hesitant, a little unsure, he told them what to look for: the blind seeing, the lame walking, the sick and excluded being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised to life, and the poor hearing GOOD news.

That’s all there is to it. “Do you see these things? Then you have a story to tell. You have your OWN witness to the way that God’s kingdom is breaking into the world and bringing the change that John proclaimed ahead of me.”

And if that was true for John followers, then it’s true for us too, isn’t it?

Our world is still asking John’s question: “Who will save us? Do we have to keep waiting?” And it’s our job to “go and tell” the ways that WE see God’s kingdom breaking in and bringing change to our broken and needy world.

Is God bringing new vision? Are people’s eyes being opened to fresh possibilities and new ideas?

- then let’s go and tell the story of God’s work in the world.

Is God bringing movement? Are there people or systems that have been immobile, stuck in one place, but they are learning to move?

- then let’s go and tell the story of God’s work in the world.

Is God bringing healing? is physical, or mental, or social pain being eased, or even fully healed?

- then let’s go and tell the story of God’s work in the world.

Is God opening ears? Are people listening to voices they have ignored, or are new stories being shared?

- then let’s go and tell the story of God’s work in the world.

Is God bringing new life? Is new hope, or new purpose, or new opportunity springing up where there has only been death and despair?

- then let’s go and tell the story of God’s work in the world.

Is God bringing good news to the poor? Are people trapped in poverty getting access to resources to move them into self-sufficiency? Are people who have been disregarded and neglected being valued and helped? Are people whose life stories have been one long series of bad news hearing a story that is actually good news for them?

- then let’s go and tell the story of God’s work in the world.

These stories are all around us. God is at work in the world if we have eyes to see it… if we can be willing to let go of our expectations about what God is supposed to be doing and instead look for the evidence of God’s action.

So, you all have an assignment. When you arrived today, you should have received a paper star. Last Wednesday night we used these stars to record the things that open our hearts to the wonder of God’s work in the world. Today, I want you to write a word or phrase that captures a story of what you have seen and heard – the evidence YOU have experienced of God at work in the world. It could be a story of new vision, or movement, or healing, or hearing, or new life, or good news for those who truly need it. We’ll be collecting these stars during the offering, to decorate our tree with our sign’s that God is active in our lives.

But Jesus didn’t commission us just to recognize these sightings for ourselves. Jesus said to “go and tell.”

Have you ever noticed that our worship always ends with us being sent out into the world, sent to bring our experience of Christ back into the world?

That’s why I speak words of blessing over you every week.

That’s why our announcements of opportunities to serve and to witness are part of our worship.

That’s why we are “SENT” to “go in peace.”

We gather for worship to experience God and to be refreshed in our spirit, but not only for our own benefit. We are always sent back out, to “go and tell.”

But in case all that sounds a bit overwhelming. If, at the moment, you are caught in a moment of grief, or doubt, or you can’t see or hear the ways that God is bringing healing to the world – this gospel offers good news to you as well. No less a person than John the Baptist is keeping you company – trapped in a prison cell; frustrated and fearful; unsure of everything and wondering if his whole life and ministry was a mistake. And he is the one to whom Jesus told the messengers to “go and tell” the stories. Jesus offered John compassion and encouragement, not rebuke. He sent the messengers back with stories of hope.

So, if you can’t come up with your own stories to go and tell today… then your charge is just to listen to the stories of others. Read the stars. Ask a friend to tell you where they are seeing God. It’s OK to ask: “is Jesus really the one?”

We have the evidence of our own lives to respond to you. To say: “Yes. See what God is doing in our world.”

Thanks be to God.

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