A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
February 11, 2017
Our text today picks up immediately at the end of the passage from which Deanna so capably preached last week. It was a healing story, where Jesus healed the slave of a Roman Centurion and then brings back to life the dead son of a widow. We are smack dab in the midst of Jesus’ ministry of healing and miracles. At the end of last week’s passage, the crowd says, while seized with fear and glorifying God, “God has looked favorably on God’s people!”
Which is a reprise of Mary’s song in the magnificat, perhaps Luke’s way of reminding us that we knew Jesus was going to be like this before he was even born, as his mother sang about him during her pregnancy.
And the word spread about Jesus throughout Judea and all of the surrounding countryside, which is the same way Luke describes who came to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan.
The same people who are now spreading the news about Jesus evoke the same crowds who were baptized by John, and who were told by John, “…one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit….”
From the earlier passages, one might think John knew exactly who Jesus was, especially when the heavens were torn apart and the Holy Spirit descended on him and that voice from heaven announced “you are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased”.
Yet, here, John is sending his disciples to ask Jesus if he’s the one they’ve been waiting for.
Maybe this is a crisis of faith of sorts for John. He’s in prison, for starters. And he will soon die there. If Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for, the one who will set the captives free, he hasn’t done much to liberate the captive John.
Maybe this is John trying to check his facts, and make sure he’s posting articles to his Facebook page from reputable news sources. “Are the stories we’re hearing credible? Have you actually done the things we’re hearing you did?”
John’s motives are lost to us, but we have Jesus’ response.
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me”.
That seems to be a sufficient answer for John’s disciples, who return with the message.
Then Jesus turns to the crowd.
What did you go to the wilderness to see? What did you come here to see?
When Jesus talks about John, he reminds people to question their sources before they trust them. Is John a prophet? Is the baptism of repentance he preached a life saving message?
As he instructs people to do their own extreme vetting so they can trust their news sources about what they have seen and heard—it occurs to me that Jesus is reminding us that there is no answer he could give to John’s question that would be received by everyone.
At the end of the passage, Jesus points out that when John came along drinking no wine and eating no bread, people called him possessed. When Jesus came along drinking the wine and eating the bread, people called him a glutton and a drunkard. Is there anything that either of them could have done to change those reactions?
It doesn’t matter what you do or say if people already have made up their minds about who you are.
Jesus knows his healings and miracles won’t be the answer for everyone. They aren’t “proof”.
Jesus knows there is not one, clear answer he can give that will settle John’s question once and for all. We live in a world where facts are a matter of interpretation. It may feel particularly pertinent to us at this moment in history where the phrase “fake news” and “alternative facts” are in the news. Yet, it’s an old story, a biblical one.
Perhaps the new twist on it is Jesus wasn’t having to deal with cable and online news sources.
I thought this cartoon from the New Yorker this week was accurate.
Justin and I saw the film Hidden Figures Friday. If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it. It is based on the true story of African American women in segregated Virginia of the 1960s who played a pivotal role in NASA’s success at getting astronauts into space. These women couldn’t use the bathroom in NASA’s Langley main campus, and had to eat in a separate lunch room. They were paid considerably less than their white, male colleagues. One of them, Katherine Johnson is a Presbyterian elder. And as you watch her mathematical genius at work, you see the way her society unable to recognize her talents because of what they thought they knew about race. Nevertheless, she persisted. And because of her contributions to the project, the John Glenn and the Friendship 7 rocket made it back to earth safely.
We see things differently today. But before we get too congratulatory about how much better we are than our 1960s counterparts, I’ll just remind us that unarmed black men are shot at routine traffic stops while open-carry white men, fully loaded, are allowed to walk into police stations or Walmart wearing masks and body armor. We may not have segregated lunch counters today, but racism still infects our country systemically. From educational structures, access to clean drinking water, incarceration rates, and the way news is portrayed, we need to report what we see and hear so we may continue to do better. Hidden Figures offers wisdom to us about our lives today even as the story is told about our lives 50 years ago.
Like the crowds of Judeans following John, and the Pharisees, we are humans with limited vision and perspective. We see things based on what we’ve been told and taught to see, and based on our experience of the world, and even by the way we understand the world. If we believe the world is generally good, we see goodness. If we believe the world is generally evil, we see evil.
John the Baptist and his disciples, the crowds that followed him to the River Jordan, and the religious leaders all had expectations about who the Messiah would be, and how he would interact with the Roman authorities, and how he would save his people.
And Jesus knew there wasn’t one definitive answer he could give to their questions that would satisfy them all. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
All Jesus can do is remind people to “go and tell what you have seen and heard” and then proclaim with faith, “wisdom is vindicated by all her children”.
I confess, at this particular moment in history, that I would like Jesus to be a little more explicit here. I’m glad for wisdom’s vindication and all, but when’s that gonna happen?
Whether we’re asking if Jesus is the Messiah, or wondering how our Christian faith calls us to live and act in the world, Jesus answer to us turns it back to us.
Go and tell what you have seen and heard.
The trick, of course, with going and telling is that we can’t all do it at the same time. It is not a universal and unilateral action. Going requires someone being willing to welcome you. Telling requires someone being willing to listen to what you tell. Going and telling is inherently reciprocal. Some days we are the goers and the tellers. Some days we are the welcomers and the listeners.
Maybe wisdom’s vindication is in the relationship of going and welcoming, telling and listening. There’s a lot of telling out there. And I think often we let go of our role to be tellers, especially of Jesus’ story, because some of the other tellers are too loud and drowning us out. So please hear me say it is important that you go and tell what you have seen and heard about who Jesus is. The world needs to know of your story.
I also hope we’ll commit to being welcomers and listeners too. When I think of the people I have met in my life, whose stories I needed to hear because of how different and yet how similar they were to my story, I’m humbled at the gifts I received by welcoming and listening.
When I think of the people who have welcomed me and listened to me, it’s even more staggering.
In seminary, we were studying the book of Genesis, and my professor wanted us to have a clear sense of what it meant when Genesis describes Abraham as a “sojourner”. He leaves his home and heads off on faith towards God’s promise. My professor invited a woman from Somalia to come visit with our class. Her name is Hodan. She fled Somalia when she was a child. When she came to our class she had a grocery sack in front of her on the table. It contained everything she owned when she left Somalia. A plate. A brush. A picture. A shirt. She became a refugee, another way to translate the Hebrew word our bibles translate as “sojourner”.
She was in her early 20s when we became friends, and she was working in Atlanta, helping resettle other sojourners who were fleeing violence or famine at home, seeking a chance at life.
Welcoming and listening to Hodan changed my life. I will always picture her plastic shopping bag of treasures every time I think of refugees, or read the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis.
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
In a world of competing claims about Jesus, and about what faith requires of us in the world, this question is still worth asking. So, let us go and tell what we have seen and heard. And let us welcome and listen, so others may do the same.