December 15, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
LOOK IN THE MANGER
There are four Sundays in Advent. This is already the third one. To talk about the baby Jesus for four Sundays in a row might get a bit tedious and repetitive. So typically at least one of the Sundays in Advent is given to someone who at first glance might not seem to fit into the Christmas story at all. John the Baptist.
We could start with the beginning of his life. That’s where he fits most directly into the Christmas story. The story of the birth of John the Baptist is intertwined with the story of the birth of Jesus early in Luke’s Gospel. But we’re not starting there today. Our scripture comes near the end of his life. John the Baptist is in prison. He will not leave prison alive. And before he dies, there is one question he has to have answered. “Is Jesus the One, or shall we look for another?”
Why would John need an answer to that question? It’s puzzling if you recall the earlier part of his story. Remember, John the Baptist was the one who identified Jesus as the Messiah. John baptized Jesus. This is at the beginning of his public ministry. Jesus is 30. John, like an Old Testament prophet had been announcing that the Messiah was coming. He was saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” But until the moment of the baptism in the Jordan River, the identity of the Messiah was unclear. Now it is crystal clear, at least to John. He had his answer. Jesus is the One.
Which makes it odd that he is no longer so sure. And he needs to know for sure before he dies. So he sends his disciples (yes, John the Baptist had disciples, too) to ask Jesus, “Are you the One, or do we look for another?” At one time he believed. Now he is not so sure. Now he needs help believing.
Someone is probably wondering, if John the Baptist is a good man, what is he doing in prison? I would remind you that history is filled with examples of men and women who went to prison, not because they did anything wrong but because they refused to back down from doing what they knew to be right. Nelson Mandela is on that honored list. And so is John the Baptist. His crime was that he criticized Herod. Now, this is not the same Herod who is part of the Christmas story, the Herod who ordered all those babies killed. This is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. He was one of the sons lucky enough to not have been killed by his own father. Now he is king over Galilee.
The trouble involving John the Baptist began when Herod divorced his wife to marry Herodias. The divorce was less of a problem than the fact that Herodias was already married to Herod’s brother and also that Herodias was Herod’s niece. So we have adultery and we have incest. John the Baptist publicly denounced Herod for his sleazy behavior. Herod responded by arresting John the Baptist and imprisoning him in the basement of his palace.
John had time in prison to think. Lots of time. Herod was superstitious enough that he was afraid to put him to death. But John must have known that his days were numbered. Sure enough, on Herod’s birthday, Herodias had her daughter, Salome get Herod to grant her wish if she would dance for him. Her wish, as it turned out, was the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
John didn’t know the specifics, but he knew they were going to kill him. It was just a matter of time. So while there was still time, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask the question, “Are you the One, or do we look for another?”
There was a time when John wouldn’t have asked that question. There was a time when he was sure Jesus was the One. But now he is not so sure. So what made the difference?
The difference is in the circumstances. His world has changed. Things look different from behind prison walls. His whole world had come crashing down. He knew he was going to die.
Before, at the Jordan River, John was in his prime. He was an important person. The whole nation was talking about him. He had enormous respect and popularity. Jesus himself said of him, and it’s right there in the passage we read today, “Among those born of women, there is none greater than John.”
That’s the way it was in the days when things were going well. When the believing was easy. When you could be confident about what you believe. Now his confidence had been shaken. Now his world had fallen apart.
That’s going to affect the way you believe. To believe in God is to believe that God is in charge. There are times when believing is easy. There are other times when believing is an act of courage. There are times when everything seems to declare the glory of God. There are other times when everything seems to deny God. There are times when “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.” There are other times when nothing seems right with the world and God seems absent.
So John is no longer so sure. He needs to be talked into believing. He sends his disciples to go find out and let him know. “Are you the One or do we look for another?”
There’s a detail in the way this story is told that fascinates me. The disciples get the evidence that John is after. Now they know that Jesus is the One. But we are never told about them bringing this news back to John. We don’t get John’s reaction. We are left to wonder what happened next. Maybe John died before his disciples could get back to him. We just don’t know.
And I think Matthew tells the story this way on purpose. I think this is what he is saying to us: If we don’t know how John responded to his question, “Are you the One?” it must mean the response has to come from us. John can’t decide for us. So the decision is up to us. Up to you. Up to me. Is Jesus the One? No one else can answer that question for us. Each one of us needs to answer it for ourselves.
The evidence is there. I was on jury duty recently. We were given the evidence. But in the end, the decision was ours. It’s like that with Jesus. We are given the evidence. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.” What he’s saying is that the prophecy in Isaiah 35 of what the Messiah would do, of how to recognize the Messiah when he comes, had been fulfilled. That’s the evidence. Now the case goes to the jury. You are the jury. You decide.
The evidence is overwhelming but, in fairness, the attorney representing the other side would have a case, too. Because there are other Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Lions lying down with lambs, no more sorrow or sighing, no more war. It can feel silly at times to hold on to the Christian hope when there is so much in this world that is not at all the way God promises it one day will be.
Sherwood Anderson said, “If you say that Jesus gathers up all the stray lambs and carries them home in his bosom, I’ll show you some lambs that Jesus missed.”
That’s the way it always is with faith. The evidence is there. The evidence should convince you. But there is some contrary evidence to be considered as well. And so the evidence alone is not enough. It takes your decision. It takes your faith response.
It’s kind of like Christmas morning. The presents have been opened. The wrappings are all over the living room floor. The children are waiting for their dads to get done playing with their toys so they can get a chance. The women are in the kitchen preparing the meal. The phone rings. It’s a friend of one of the children. The question is, “Did you get what you wanted?” The child says, “Hold on. Let me get to another phone.” Then he says quietly, “Well, not exactly.”
When Jesus came, it was not exactly what was expected. There was plenty of evidence that he was the One. But there were also plenty of expectations that were not met. He didn’t ride in on a white horse with a sword in his hand. He didn’t knock heads together. He didn’t solve every problem. He did a lot of good things, but let’s face it. Things are still a mess.
So, is Jesus the Messiah we were looking for and hoping for? Well, not exactly. God is in charge. Someday God will act to make the world the way God wants it to be. But we’re going to have to wait for that to happen. It’s not that way yet. And maybe the whole point of Christmas is that God is going to be with us while we wait. We can see that when we look into the manger. God isn’t going to just blast away the injustice and the suffering of this world. Not with a baby, he’s not! What he is doing with a baby is taking upon himself all that suffering and sacrifice, all that pain and sorrow, all that desperation and loneliness and anguish. God is taking all that upon himself. That is what a baby means.
The angel had said, “You shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God with us.” That is what we got, Immanuel. We got “God with us.” Not exactly what was expected. Not God setting everything right. Not God swooping down to clean up the place. Instead, we got God moving in with us, to guide us and to strengthen us, while we clean up the place. God didn’t come to give us a brand new world with all the problems solved. God came to be with us in this same old world where so much is so far from the way God wants it to be.
There was a television play a few years ago about a nurse who was tired and bitter and resentful. Her husband had left her some time ago. As a single mom, she had raised three children. The twin girls now were 12 and she had a boy who was 16, going on 21.
It’s almost Christmas when the play took place. She was working overtime in the hospital, partly because she is needed there, but partly because she needs to money to buy presents for her children.
She had the flu at Thanksgiving, but she didn’t let it stop her. She just kept right on working. So now she is still feeling lousy. She’s completely worn out. And everything is going wrong. Her father who lives in a care center in a distant town has fallen and broken his hip. He wants her to come and see him, but she tells him she can’t. She doesn’t have the time or the money. Now she is feeling guilty about that.
She knew what the twins wanted for Christmas. She had saved for it. But now she worried that she wouldn’t have enough money left to buy her son what he wanted. Then one evening she discovered drugs in his bedroom. It was an ugly confrontation. Lots of yelling. Lots of hurt. She was awake most of the night, crying and angry. She didn’t care now if she ever gave him another present.
The next day at work, the usual stress and strain of her job was more than she could handle. She blew up. The first time it was an obnoxious patient. The second time it was an obnoxious nurse. And then, to top it off, a patient that she had really gotten attached to had died. Nothing was going right. She said, “Life is hell.”
On her way home from work that night, she went by an old church. She heard carols coming from that church. She stopped and went inside. It was as if she had been drawn inside. She sat in the back row. It was a children’s Christmas pageant, like the one we had here last week. There was a nativity scene up front, with Mary and Joseph sitting beside the manger.
Then she noticed something. The baby in Mary’s arms was not a doll. It was a real baby. She watched as the baby reached up and grabbed Mary’s nose. Then after more readings and carols, the baby got restless. Try as she might, Mary couldn’t get baby Jesus to stop crying. Then it wasn’t just crying. The baby was screaming. A young woman hurried to the front, no doubt the baby’s mother, and whisked the baby out a side door.
It was a typical children’s pageant. Something always goes wrong. I wasn’t here last week for our pageant. I heard it was wonderful. But I’m guessing a few things went wrong. That’s the way it is when you work with children. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful. In this case the baby Jesus is screaming. Someone probably said, “I told you we shouldn’t use a real baby.”
But for this troubled nurse, nothing went wrong. Everything was perfect. It was exactly what she needed. She said to herself, “It’s a real baby.” Her face lit up. She smiled. Her first smile in a long time. Jesus was a real baby. It wasn’t just a story. He was real. He cried, he wet, he messed, he caused his mother anguish, he broke his mother’s heart. God really cares about real life.
And she slipped out the door of the church into the cold night, buttoning her coat. She was different now. The world wasn’t different, but she was different, because she had seen a real baby in the manger.
It is a real baby in that manger. Thank you, God, that you came to us and that you are with us still, in Jesus. On those days when we aren’t so sure about Jesus, perhaps because we aren’t so sure about life, break through our fog and help us to see. And on those days when it’s all so crystal clear and we are filled with praise and joy, may we never keep that to ourselves. Help us to share it with others. The good news that Jesus in the One. We don’t need to look for another. For Jesus is the good news that changes everything. That changes even the worst of the bad news we deal with in life. We praise you for Immanuel, God with us. Amen.