A sermon preached on Matthew 11:2-10 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on the third Sunday of Advent, 2019.
Opening: The Unexpected Soloist
“Imagine,” writes N.T. Wright, “that we are going to a huge concert hall, packed to the doors with eager and excited music-lovers. We all have our programmes in hand, waiting for the thunderous music to begin. We know what it ought to sound like. This will be music for a battle, for a victory, thunder and lightning and explosions of wonderful noise. The concert manager comes on stage and declares in ringing tones that the famous musician has arrived. He gets us all on our feet, to welcome with an ovation the man who is going to fulfill all our expectations.
As we stand there eagerly, a small figure comes on the stage. He doesn’t look at all like what we expected. He is carrying, not a conductor’s baton, to bring the orchestra to life, but a small flute. As we watch, shocked into silence, he plays, gently and softly, a tune quite different to what we had imagined. But, as we listen we start to hear familiar themes played in a new way. The music is haunting and fragile, winding its way into our imaginations and hopes and transforming them. And, as it reaches its close, as though at a signal, the orchestra responds with a new version of the music we had been expecting all along.
Now listen to John as the concert manager, whipping us into excitement at the soloist who is going to appear. “He’s coming! He’s more powerful than me! He will give you God’s wind and God’s fire, not just water! He’ll sort you out – he’ll clear out the mess – he’ll clean up God’s farm so that only the good wheat is left!” We are on our feet, expecting a great leader, perhaps the living God himself, sweeping into the hall with a great explosion, a blaze of light and colour, transforming everything in a single blow.
And instead we get Jesus. A Jesus who seems to be identifying himself, not with a God who sweeps all before him in judgment, but with the people who are themselves facing that judgment and needing to repent.” (Matthew For Everyone by N.T. Wright, pgs. 20-21)
This morning, in Matthew 11, Jesus is the unexpected Soloist, prompting a question from John and, in return, a stunning answer from Jesus.
John’s Question (vs. 2-3)
Looking at verses 2 and 3, it’s very interesting – because the question seems to entertain doubt about the identity of Jesus, the early church fathers almost unanimously held that John’s disciples asked the question rather than John himself. Let me pose the question to you: what do you think – did the John ask the question, or not?
Well, we have to say that grammatically, the question comes from John, the reply is given to John, and the promised blessing pronounced is in the singular to John. And we should also remember this: to be a prophet of the Living God does not mean never knowing discouragement or doubt. Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah (to name a few) all had similar experiences.
Think about it: John the Baptizer is in prison (spoiler alert: he’s going to die) and, instead of bringing immediate judgment on those responsible, Jesus is off…doing what? Restoring the sight of the blind, cleansing lepers, raising the dead and preaching the Gospel to the poor (and being called a friend of tax collectors and sinners because of it!). Do you see the dissonance here for John? George Beasley-Murray puts it this way: “Where was the thunder of judgment? Where was the rebuke of the wicked? Why this use of power over demons but not over evil men? Why did Jesus consort with them in their feasting? Why did he allow the prophet of God’s righteous wrath against sin to rot in Herod’s Jail without a word of protest? Could this possibly be the Messiah?” (Jesus and the Kingdom of God, pg. 81) But, to understand how this is, we must look to Jesus’ answer in verses 4 to 6.
Jesus Answer (vs. 4-6)
On the one hand, Jesus answers John’s question with a resounding, “Yes!” Jesus clearly identifies himself as the Messiah (By the way, Jesus also clearly identifies as God in v.10 by taking Malachi’s prophecy and changing the last pronoun in the verse to “you”).
On the other hand, as God’s kingdom breaks in, God’s gracious purposes of healing, restoration and forgiveness now come front and center in Jesus. Yes, with Jesus the reign of God has come and with it comes the invitation for all to be reconciled to Him (and we need to say, there also comes with it the responsibility to respond to it – see verses 16 and 17). God in Christ will overthrow and vanquish all evil – but that time is not now. Jeffrey Gibbs writes, “Jesus’ ministry will have a paradoxical character that can cause one to stumble and fall away without the proper eyes to see and ears to hear…Jesus’ words invite John to accept in faith the strangest of all paradoxes in the history of the world.” (Matthew 11:2-20:3, pg. 555)
Let me ask you this question: who do you identify with in this passage? Where do you see yourself as you meditate on this today? Do you feel as if you’re in an unbearable prison with John (of course, we do well to remember that some of our brothers and sisters are in prison for their faith this day)? Or, are you right up next to Jesus with the disciples, seeing him perform these miracles, listening to his preaching, ministering with him, so full of joy and wonder you’re about to burst? Whether here or there, the point of this passage is that Jesus – the Messiah – has come and the results are more gracious than anyone ever expected and that therefore we ought to rejoice in it!
And this is still true. The day of salvation is now. So now we focus in on what it means for our church to faithfully wait upon Jesus day by day. What does that look like? There are two things you’ve got to hear each Advent. The first is that we ought to be living in earnest expectation of the Lord’s return – praying maranatha! The second is that we ought to rejoice in the patience and mercy of Christ that he has not yet returned. That is the tension we are to live in with Jesus, and that’s what John felt. We ought to rejoice in the fact that God, who was gracious to us and gave us time to repent and come to the knowledge of his Son is now doing that – each new day – for others, many of whom we love and are not prepared to meet Jesus.
You know, there’s a third group in this passage I haven’t mentioned yet. If you know Christ today, then you ought to be able to identify with the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. What does it look like for the church to wait upon Jesus day by day? It means that we joyfully persist in both receiving and in preaching the Gospel of our Lord. It means that we don’t let any other agenda supplant the agenda of the Gospel. It means that we trust the Gospel to bear the fruit we long to see in our midst. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Hear those words spoken to you today. Receive them as your own and know yourself to be within Jesus’ gracious Gospel and then live accordingly.
And so, we give all glory, honor, and praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Amen.