The Message: Reassurance During Difficult Times. There is comfort for us when someone like John the Baptist balks at Jesus. Matthew 11:2-6

Sermon:          Reassurance During Difficult Times
Scripture:       Matthew 11.2-6
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:        First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                December 11, 2016, Third Sunday of Advent Year A

You may listen to the sermon here.

Matthew 11:2-6

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”[1]

Have you ever met anyone who was so cocksure in their Christian beliefs and then something comes along and rocks those beliefs to their core?  These are the people who speak of their dogma with definitives like, “The Bible clearly says this!” or “Jesus obviously meant that!” but then their life rises like a wave and rocks their circumstances.  Perhaps there is a significant change in health, family, job or finances and suddenly that once over-confident faith has cracks in it.  Now they look heavenward and wonder out loud to God with a spirit of doubt and uncertainty.  “God, I clearly heard you say such-and-such but now this happened!  Did I hear you wrong?  Did you even hear me?  God, are you even there?

I am two-thirds through a book by Mark McHargue entitled, Finding God in the Waves – How I Lost My Faith and Found it Again through Science[2].  McHargue grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, was a Deacon and Sunday school teacher and even baptized his own daughter.  The crisis came for him as his very scientific mind began raising questions about the Bible’s validity such as reconciling the difference that the Bible says the earth and the heaven were created some 7,000 years ago while science has fossils that date back millions of years.  He totally lost his faith and became a practicing “Christian Atheist”; in other words, he still went to church, taught Sunday school and did all the churchey things but he could not reconcile his faith with scientific scrutiny.  He attended a small gathering of Christian thinkers one weekend and the leader challenged him to change the type of questions he was asking and begin to look at faith a different way.  So, McHargue was challenged to change his questions from faith versus logic and science to begin looking at his belief as a scientist would and see with openness how faith and science com complement and explain the other. This allowed him to re-approach his dogmatic assumptions about God and look anew at how quantum physics, Biblical narrative and theology shine light on the other.

Our text today from Matthew 11.2-6 is a story whereby one of the biblical giants is being asked by Jesus to change his perspective and questions.  You see John the Baptist had certain expectations of who the Christ should be and how the Christ should act.  The problem was, Jesus wasn’t living into those expectations.

Scholar Mark Yurs writes how John the Baptist in Matthew 3 last week was so sure of the Christ but now seven chapters into the narrative he asks Jesus, “Are you really the one we’ve been waiting for?”  Dr. Yurs asks, “What has happened?  For one thing, a prison has happened.  John has been arrested and jailed as a political enemy of King Herod.  Prison can put doubt in anyone’s heart.  It is easy to believe in God in the bright sunlight when all is joyful and free, but let the iron doors of difficulty slam shut, and doubt is there in the darkness.” [3]

John the Baptist had one understanding of the Christ and what the Christ would do; Jesus has an entirely different understanding and view of the Messiah’s mission. John expected that the Davidic ruler and King would have prevented him from being in King Herod’s prison cell!   Jesus’ kingship was not in executing power over others but is expressed with compassion and love for all with the lowliest of the kingdom’s subjects.  Jesus’ kingship wouldn’t occur through the overt toppling of the powers-that-be; instead, Jesus Messianic evolution would inaugurate with a revolution from below, i.e. from the deaf, that lame, and the poor.  His revolution would topple the Herods and Ceasars of the world with organic, grass-roots expression of love which will eventually batter down the ramparts of Power’s Stronghold.  He was not John the Baptist’s understanding of Messiah and when he did not live into that understanding John in his dire circumstances began to have doubt.  As Mark Yurs goes on to say, “Jesus is not acting the way John thought a Savior would act.  The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world was not taking Herod’s sin away.  Jesus was not fitting John’s theology.  So, John wondered.”[4]  Beloved, there is comfort in the idea that a biblical giant like John the Baptist is capable of sincere doubt like yours and mine.

John was expecting one type of Jesus and his faith quaked and he was thrown into doubt when he was thrown in prison.  John the Prophet had to now become like you and me, i.e. John the disciple.  He is and becomes, as communicator Eugene Boring says, “An object lesson to Christian believers, who must not regard salvation (and unshakeable faith) as a static possession” lest the travails of life come upon us and shades our confidence in God;[5] on the contrary, John reminds us that all disciples must have growing faith that is constantly being renewed and challenged.  All that renewal and challenge helps that faith become more refined and mature.  The gift that comes with maturity is that it produces resilience and it allows our faith’s branches to sway with the hard, cyclonic gales of this world and life and enables us to move back and forth bending into the wind of life’s difficulties.

Our Story has John ask Jesus a question and the Jesus gives an answer back.  One thing we don’t have in our story is how John reacted to Jesus’ answer; Matthew leaves the answer open-ended and you and I get to answer it for ourselves.  You see, John’s struggles with doubt are our struggles with doubt.  John’s uncertainty with who Jesus is represents our own struggles in our understanding of who Jesus is.

Our Advent homework, beloved, is to reflect and respond to Jesus’ answer to John.  We may not know how John responded to what Jesus said but Advent is the time you and I enter the story ourselves and see if we believe what Jesus is telling John.  It is a time when we are asked to hold our expectation and demands of God up to the light of Jesus’ overall purposes and direction.  Maybe like John, you and I are invited to ask Jesus a different set of questions. Maybe like John, we are given the opportunity to mature in our faith as well as we undergo our life’s difficulties.

It’s something to think about. And all God’s people said, Amen!

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
wrisley.org

© 2016 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] Mike McHargue, Finding God in the Waves. How I lost My Faith and Found it Again Through Science (New York: Convergent Publishing, 2016).
[3] Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 2719-2722). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[4] Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 2727-2729). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[5] Eugene Boring, as quoted from The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Leander Keck, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 270

The Message: Do We Live as Though We Live in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Sermon:          Do We Live as Though We Live in the Kingdom of Heaven?
Scripture:        Matthew 3:1-12
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                December 4, 2016, Second Sunday of Advent Year A, Communion

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

Matthew 3:1-12

3.1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His 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.”[1]

 
Many of you are not aware of it but your preacher has a B.S. Degree in Communication from Georgia Southern College.  Now some of you may think most preachers have a B.S. In Communication but mine is bona fide. One of the requirements for graduation for that degree was to pass a typing test of 35 words a minute which one had some two years to take before graduating; it was something I pushed off until the last three weeks of my senior year.

The deal was this:  The student would go to the Department of Communication’s office and ask the secretary, Mrs. Ivey, for the test.  Mrs. Ivey had been in her position for nigh thirty-five years and those tired eyes of hers looked at me and said, “Mr. Wrisley, here is a sheet of paper with several paragraphs on it.  Sit down over there at that typewriter,” pointing to an old IBM Selectric, “and start typing.  I will tell you when to begin and when to stop.”

It sounded easy enough.  I sat down, quickly read the paragraph and the ancient secretary said, “Begin.”  I started hammering away on that old IBM but I kept making mistakes.  I would hit the return button and the machine would white-out my mistakes and I would keep on typing, repeating the process over several times before Mrs. Ivey said, “Stop.” It was the longest minute of my life. I handed her my sheet and she just shook her head.  This process went on for several tries and after thirty minutes of having her precious time interrupted by some procrastinating senior during a very frenetic time of year for her, she finally let out a long sigh and looked at me over her glasses.  “Mr. Wrisley, let’s try this one last time. I’m going to tell you to begin and then I am going to leave to use the bathroom.  You can give me your test when I come back. Begin.” Well, some seven minutes later I gave her my perfectly scored typing test. She took it, signed it and smiled saying, “Congratulations, you get to graduate.” All the math, science, rhetoric, English and history classes I labored over for the last four years meant absolutely nothing if I could not pass that one silly typing test.  If it wasn’t for Mrs. Ivey, I would not have had a chance.  She purposely went to the bathroom that fateful day to give me a reset button on my test and my ability to walk at graduation.

Today, I reflect on her and that experience and I realize her actions towards me back in 1982 were a lovely expression of grace. She gave me all the time I needed to make sure I had thirty-five correct words.

Reset buttons.  More of us are familiar with the concept of rebooting than resetting.  Whether it’s your computer or smart phone that freezes up, you learn the first thing you do is try to reboot the system which wipes everything clean and you start fresh.

John the Baptist is our Mrs. Ivey in the biblical Story today. John does not hit the reset button himself; rather, John is simply telling folks that now is the time to do it. Have you ever seen a Windows PC get the blue screen of death where everything locks up and the computer starts running hot?  John is announcing to the people that their way of living and treating God and one another was akin to the blue screen of death. It’s time to hit the reboot button in order to keep from burning out your spiritual hard drive.

John quotes Isaiah 40.3 when he tells the people to get ready and prepare the way for the Lord. We forget that this was Good News to the people of John’s day as it describes a time when the prophet Isaiah said God is near at hand and was about to bring people back from exile in Babylon.  We are to make straight the highways because we want to come home as soon as possible.  The common person heard John quote Isaiah and thought, “Wow!  A new day is about to break!”  Not everyone was so thrilled to hear it.

Verses 7 through 10 show how there were some in the crowds who were not too keen on John’s news. The established religious leaders of the day – those elders, deacons, preachers and the like – kind of liked the way things were.  Everyone knew the rules and the rules kept everyone in their place.  The rich people hung out with the rich and the poor people scrambled to eek out a living amongst themselves the best they could.  Everyone had to shut up and tolerate the Roman rulers and soldiers. The Pharisees and Sadducees represent the religious status quo; in other words, they were quite happy with the same old same old way of doing things.  Why wouldn’t they?  They had the cultural and spiritual power and authority over their fellow Jews. Now this prophet who appears on society’s margins is saying things are about to change. Those in control are not too thrilled for a new day to emerge because it is going to cost them something; specifically, it was going to cost them their spiritual death grip around the throats of their fellow Jews. Verse 7 has a fun word play we miss in our Bibles.  It can be read, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came out for baptism” or it can also be read as, “The Pharisees and Sadducees came out against baptism.”  They didn’t want the people to repent, i.e. to reboot their spiritual and cultural life because elders, deacons, preachers and Church Boards of the day didn’t want change. They didn’t want some guy in the wilderness with a vegan diet rocking their boat.  The deal is, though, they completely missed the point.  John did not want to simply rock the boat; his call for repentance was a call to burn them and then rebuild!

Sadly, we hear John’s words today and hear them as bad news.  We hear these words and we make a rushed conclusion that we are to repent or else we will suffer the consequences of the veiled threat about being tossed into the fire as described in verses 10 and 12.  The repentance being called for here is not to “turn or burn” like many Christians try to convey today; rather, they are to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  Beloved, this is Good News indeed! We reboot our lives because the very realm and rule of God is among us.  As pastor Kayla McClurg of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC says, “God sends a messenger crying out. “Rethink what you think! Turn around and walk in a different way.”[2]

During this time of Advent preparation, John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we think we know and understand God.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we understand what it means to hold power over others.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we relate with and use the Creation God has blessed us with.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we relate with and respond to those who are homeless or poor among us.  John is asking us to reboot, rethink the way we are preparing for Christ’s birth; in other words, are our preparations an orgy of self-fulfillment with food and stuff or is it our living simply, humbly, justly, and lovingly as we await the baby to come home to his bassinet? We live in a world whereby folks are more apt to tell children, “Don’t be naughty or Santa will not come” versus, “Let’s see how we as a family can imitate what it means to live as though Jesus lived in our house and the Kingdom of God was at hand.”

Brothers and sisters, this morning we are invited to the Table of our Lord.  It is a good time to reflect on how you in your life, how you and your family, how me and mine, need to reboot, rethink what it is like to live in the presence of God in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It’s not out of fear that we do this; we do it because we cannot wait to bring the baby home!  And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pastor@fpcdstaff.org

© 2016 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Kayla McClurg, Disturbed by God, for Sunday, December 4, 2016, Matthew 3:1-12, Inward/Outward e-zine.  See www.inwardoutward.org.