December 21, 2018

Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-11

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Our Expectations Fall Short of our Savior’s Excellence

Matthew 11:2-11 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples 3 and said to Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" 4 Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 "The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 "And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me." 7 As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 "But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. 9 "But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 10 "For this is he of whom it is written: `Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.' 11 "Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

A recent study looked at the question of why people quit or change churches. The answers were distilled into four categories. People change or quit churches because:
1.     Sermon quality
2.     Welcoming environment/people
3.     Style of worship
4.     Location

One pastor penned an article about the study and concluded with this thought: “The translation is clear – Americans treat church like a product to consume instead of as a family to belong. When we treat church like a product, we consume until our needs are no longer met.”

Especially at a time like this, around Christmas, this kind of thought resonates because there is so much consumerism among us. It even feels like, at times, the season of Christmas has been overcome by it. So much emphasis is put on getting what we want, meeting our desires, and moving on if we don’t. No wonder the same kind of thinking has affected our church life.

However, this pastor still got it wrong, I think. His definition of church is that it’s a “family to belong.” True, in one sense. Church is a spiritual family. Even the Bible describes our faith as being children of God and members of His heavenly family. But, for the purposes of indicating why people should join or leave a church, is the familial atmosphere really the most important element? The pastor’s explanation falls into the very same pit that he criticizes. He takes a gift from God and makes it all about ourselves. The church is God’s family, but as His home, we need to remember that He is in charge. It is above all other things, the place to hear His voice, as our heavenly Father. It is not about a family in so far as I look for what makes me feel most at home or that I choose what is most familiar to my experiences in life. Church is about listening to my Father. That is our place in the family of God.

The pastor’s criticism of the results of this study led to him to form his own conclusions – the reasons he thought were important enough to leave or join a church. He says,
-        It’s ok to leave for family or marriage. If you can’t find a spouse through your church or you marry someone who attends a different church, go ahead and decide for yourselves which church fits your needs best.
-        It’s ok to leave a church if you live more than 30 minutes away. If that’s the case you can’t reasonably expect to attend regularly or participate in activities.
-        It’s ok to leave a church if you can’t agree with the church’s leadership. If you think things should be done differently then don’t work on it together or even consider adjusting your thinking according to God’s Word, but find a place that does things the way you want.

For a pastor who is critical of people treating church like any other commodity, he sure makes some interesting suggestions that sound very consumer-driven. Only at the very end of the article did he say anything about the content or doctrine of a church and the bearing that has on attending.

Both the study and the article are sad indictments on the American view of church, even from those who recognize the problem! 

According to Jesus, the same criticism could have been given to the people of His day, even to the disciples of John the Baptist. They came to Jesus, early in His ministry, and under the direction of John the Baptist, and asked Him a simple question: "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?"

From their perspective, it was a question that made sense. John the Baptist had worked for his entire life to prepare for the coming Savior. He had deprived himself or life’s luxuries. He had committed every cause to the name of Christ. And what did he have to show for it? He was locked away in Herod’s dungeon. Obviously, this was a disappointment. After how important John’s mission was, with his own father graced by the arrival of an angel, Gabriel who sits in God’s own presence, to announce his birth, it was a selfish little king that held him captive. How disappointing this must have been for John, to not know what was going on outside those prison walls and to not know whether his life’s calling had been to any effect. Yet, John was not without expectation. He still heard of Jesus and so he sent his followers to find out.

This question makes sense in the context, but it was still revealing of a lack of trust. Jesus doesn’t answer with a direct reply, but rather in a way that drove home the bigger point, He points John’s disciples to what He has accomplished.
-        The Blind Receive Sight: Isaiah 29:18, 35:5
-        The Lame Walk: Isaiah 35:6,
-        Lepers are cured: Isaiah 53:4
-        The deaf hear: Isaiah 29:18-19
-        The dead are raised: Isaiah 26:18-19
-        The Good News is proclaimed: Isaiah 61:1

These activities of our Savior were confirming clues that He was the Messiah. John didn’t need to be out of prison to know. John didn’t need to have a private confirmation ceremony with Jesus. There was no formal passing of the torch. Jesus knew that John knew his Old Testament prophecies (the Word of God), and He tells John, “Listen to what I have done.” Each of these things was not only a sign of Jesus’ power as God but a fulfillment of God’s promises of who the Messiah would be. Each one was recorded in the Old Testament, often by Isaiah, as a finger-print identity of God’s chosen Savior. Jesus fit that identity in an undeniable and remarkable way.

It’s likely that John knew the real answer – of course Jesus was the one. What John probably meant was, what is your plan? Jesus was not exactly fitting John’s expectation about how this would all go. As John taught and proclaimed repentance and the immediacy of the kingdom of heaven, it’s hard to imagine that he thought he’d be rotting away in prison when Jesus came on the scene. John was looking for His Savior, but looking according to his own expectations. And so, he doubted, if only for a brief moment.

That doubt is encapsulated in one word – offend. Jesus’ final parting message to John’s disciples was, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” Giving offense is a common transgression in our culture, perhaps more so than at any point in human history. Much is said today about avoiding triggering language and being cautious not to say politically incorrect things. Half-hearted apologies are given all the time by notable figures and celebrities on Twitter or at staged press conferences. Offense is a big deal, but it’s a much different type of offense.

You get a taste of that in the meaning of the Biblical word. The type of offense Jesus warns about is something that causes a person to no longer believe, or causes them to sin. It’s where our English word “scandal” comes from. In this immediate context it was being offended at the authority of Jesus as the Savior and therefore, not believing it. This type of offense is completely dangerous to a person’s faith. But, it’s a far cry from what offense typically means today. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary states that the word offend historically means “to violate or transgress the divine law or to do wrong.” This is very much the same as the Biblical concept. However, the same dictionary also says the modern understanding of offense means “to cause (a person or group) to feel hurt, angry, or upset by something said or done.” This is quite a change.

Jesus was scandalous to the people, perhaps even to John the Baptist and his disciples, because Jesus had difference expectations. As the Lord and Savior, His methods and plans would not always fit in the prism of their logic. The same trend unfolded throughout Jesus’ ministry, in His interactions with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the people of the regions, and even His twelve disciples. Jesus operated on a different level of wisdom and intuition and shattered the expectations of those around Him.

This is something that John the Baptist should have been well aware of, for it was the same calling card of his ministry. Once John’s disciples departed, Jesus asked the remaining crowds, three times, “What did you go out to see?” He was referring to John’s ministry, as it took place in the wilderness. John was an intriguing figure. People saw that he spoke with authority. They recognized his knowledge of the Scriptures. They could sense the sincerity and truth of his message. Yet, John didn’t fit into the image that most people had of a famous prophet – as the Forerunner of the Messiah. He was kind of an odd duck. Even he shattered expectations. And because of that some were offended, literally unbelieving, at his message.
Despite the unusual nature of John’s ministry, Jesus validated it at the end of our text. But, if you notice, in doing so Jesus also validated His own uniqueness. "Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." What a compliment to John, that of those born among women there was no one greater! But, that compliment only served to set the stage for the most important point – the lowliest in the kingdom of heaven is even greater than John.

That verse is a wonderful summation of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. What had the people gone out to see with John? Not someone easily intimated. Not one who would willingly back down. Not a person who was rich and luxurious. What was John? A prophet, and as a prophet his primary purpose was to point to Jesus. John defied expectations, but with a reason. The more important question is, What have you come out to see from Jesus?

-        Do you want a sermon that makes you feel inspired or sounds relevant?
-        Do you want Jesus to be close to where you’re at in life?
-        Do you want a Savior who won’t get in the way with your family life, or one who won’t ask you to change anything in your life?
-        Are you okay with Jesus if He says something offensive or harsh, or if He challenges the status quo in your heart?  

Be cautious and wise with what you wish for from Jesus, because it’s all too easy to treat your faith like a mere commodity – to be consumed when you want or how you want. Take the good, discard the bad. Accept what I want, leave when there’s something I don’t want. Our expectations always fall short of our Savior’s excellence – and thanks be to God for it. Because Jesus is a unique Savior, calling sinners to repentance, building a kingdom in heaven, redeeming us by free grace, exalting the lowly over the great, and so many more expectation-shattering things – I can have hope that He is my Savior.

Today, I don’t have to seek Jesus on my terms. I don’t have to make His house all about what I want. I don’t have to fear when He admonishes me or calls me to change part of my life, because I know He has my best interests, even the interests I need that I don’t even know I need yet. That is Jesus, abundantly different than any of god of this world, just like John the Baptist was a different prophet.

What do you come out to see? Another way to ask that question is, why do you go to church? Jesus gives you more than product, a faith much more valuable than gold, silver, or any other commodity. His righteousness by faith. And His shed blood for your forgiveness. And thanks be to God for it. May that always be your priority and your expectation. Amen.

And thanks be to God that it is so. Amen.

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