Dare to see
Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Date: December 16, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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In the ancient world, as today, desert wilderness consumed much of the Middle East. Around the edges existed sharp contrasts. Lebanon was heavily forested. The mountains of Carmel and Sharon were green and lush. For those who barely survived in the arid regions, the image of verdant vegetation like exists in the Willamette valley seemed a paradise. On the human side, paradise also appeared as communal health, home coming, abundance, security. The prophet Isaiah imaged that holy reality poetically, with words of divine hope, rescue, new beginning. As we read them responsively, using the bulletin insert, listen. Listen to the contrast between old and new. See God's intention, see God's future. Isaiah 35:1-10.
Last week's Matthew reading found scratchy-camel-hair-wearing, locust-eating John the baptizer out in the wilderness, preaching repentance, condemning the privileged, and proclaiming that the One to come would bring judgment and holy fire. Eight chapters later in Matthew, John's situation has changed dramatically. Spitting words of judgment against Herod, the regional ruler, had gotten John thrown into prison. It seems that he condemned Herod, charged him with adultery for marrying his sister-in-law, Herodias. Having spoken truth to power, he suffered the consequences. He should have known, power always protects itself. Today's reading emerges in that context. Listen. Listen for the word of God. Mt. 11:2-11.
"Dare you to do it." "No, I double-dare you to do it." "I hundred times dare you to do it." Remember that game? Usually it was something I was afraid to do, or knew I should not do. Like, pulling that girl's pigtail and running; or, playing a practical joke on someone; or, some physical escapade that was just beyond what we thought we could do, and so we were a bit scared; or, stealing a piece of candy from the corner store; and a little later in elementary school, kissing some girl. Yuk. Daring someone carried with it a challenge, and an implied dishonor if the other person did not do it. It always pushed the boundaries, stretched us into new territory. While we never admitted it, the experience was always filled with doubt, and of course, fear. It seems to me that today's gospel reading contains one of those "dare you to do its."
So there was fiery John, stuck in prison, waiting, and thinking. Some time earlier, Jesus had found himself before John in the wilderness, on the bank of the Jordan River. John had recognized him to be different from all the others who came, had baptized him and witnessed a moment of holy connection for the peasant from Nazareth. How much time had elapsed between that event in freedom and this question from confinement? We have no idea.
Like to Jesus, people attached themselves to John as well. Word reached him, behind bars, about Jesus. In Matthew, two major chunks of material intervene between Jesus' baptism and John's question. Chapters 5-7 contain Jesus' words: the sermon on the mount and other teachings. Chapters 8-10 chronicle Jesus' deeds, healings and such. In response to what he heard, John was surely puzzled. He knew in his heart of hearts that the one to come, the anointed one, would be a fire and brimstone kind of prophet. Yet, nowhere did anyone tell him of Jesus' thundering judgments on the nations. Not once had he learned of Jesus confronting their Roman overlords with God's wrath. Jesus was not separating the wheat from the chaff, nor was he warning of holy fire that would consume the unfaithful. Instead, John's followers reported Jesus to be a teacher with great authority, and a healer with divine power. Deeply troubled, doubting to the core, John had to know. Was this Jesus really the One sent from God, or did they need to wait for a different kind of person?
Poor John. He had been so sure. At least he thought he had. Now, unable to find out for himself, he was forced to send his own disciples for the answer. They found Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the One?"
In typical gospel fashion, this conversation is too short, too abbreviated. Did they sit down to a meal together and engage in a lengthy exchange? Did they discuss the different understandings in Hebrew scripture about who the Messiah would be, what that person would do? Did Jesus inquire about John's well-being? Were the disciples of John and those of Jesus sort of rivals, competitors seeking true spirituality through different teachers? There is nothing in Matthew about Jesus and John being cousins. That relationship is noted only in Luke. The contracted text remains silent here.
In response to their urgent inquiry, Jesus cited the prophet Isaiah, the part we read: tell John what you hear and see,
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear...
and then he added to it:
the dead are raised, and the poor, those unable to maintain their honor status, have good news brought to them.
Notice what Jesus did not say. He did not claim that he gave sight to the blind, or healed the lame, or cleansed the lepers, or restored hearing to the deaf, or raised anyone who had died, or even that he proclaimed good news to those in desperate need. He did not grab for himself, to himself, any of that power, that status, that huge honor. Instead, he challenged them, "I dare you to see what is taking place and to decide."
In our quick hearing, our glance at the text, I suspect most of us do not actually see the people he lists in his answer. Look more closely. All were outsiders, denied place, excluded from belonging. In that society, not to be part of community meant not to have a life, not to have a future. Theirs would be a desperate existence without hope. In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus pointed to God's redemptive, restorative action on behalf of those very people in terrible need, people pushed to the margins. Those were the only ones mentioned. He pointed to God's radical inbreaking grace on their behalf.
Again, notice what Jesus did not say. He did not tell John's disciples, "Put John's fears at rest. I am the One." He did not even come close to saying that. He only directed their attention, and dared them to see, to see new, differently. The list of God's inbreaking was not proof that Jesus was the One. Even those who heard his words and viewed his deeds firsthand did not agree. Some believed, and some did not. But those who really saw glimpsed God's dynamic presence in our yet unfinished world through him.
Jesus concluded his conversation with a beatitude, a blessing. In Matthew's fifth chapter, Jesus pronounces a series of what we call beatitudes: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted..." and all the rest. Well, here is another: "Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized (Gk) at me, who does not stumble (Gk) over me." Blessed is anyone who does not get hung up, who is not offended by me. Already in Matthew, people were lining up, for and against Jesus. We know that eventually, those who were hung up, most scandalized, most threatened by him, those who looked but did not see, did him in.
Jesus let all of that ambiguity just hang out there, just remain for John. And so he does for us as well. Darn him. We still have to see.
Late last year, our nation was shocked at the slaughter of several children in a Amish community in Pennsylvania. Most of us, I suspect, have viewed the Amish as a bit odd, with their old fashioned clothing and their refusal in so many ways to enter the modern world. They are a tourist attraction. Except for beautiful hand crafted furniture and other goods, their way of life seems out of touch, irrelevant. Then came that tragedy, that hideous crime. We watched their response in awe and disbelief. News people did not know what to do. In the midst of anguished grieving, even as they buried several of their own schoolchildren, they astonished us. These strange Christians, these believers in the Prince of Peace, sent community members to the widow and family of the one who had done the slaughtering. They reached out to her, to them compassionately, and even offered financial support. They were given strength to do the impossible, humanly speaking. They looked that horrific sin and tragedy straight in the face, that event which had so shattered their world. As we watched, we simultaneously wondered how we would have reacted had it happened in our own community, to our own children. Astonishingly, to that outcast, marginalized widow and her children, they returned nothing but love for dastardly evil. They extended healing and redemption even in their brokenness. For so many in our land, the Amish response made no sense. Unrealistic. In denial. Out of touch with how the world works. Quaint, even.
But for those who could see, we were awestruck at the power of Christ's inbreaking. Our faith was put to shame, as they embraced and were held in holy light shining in their deep darkness. Even that horrific darkness could not overcome it.
"I dare you to see," says Jesus. This season we love to look at the lights: Zoo Lights, Peacock Lane, Pioneer Courthouse Square, the palm tree and polar bear on my neighbors' lawn. Jesus says, "Don't just look. I dare you to see beyond the lights to God's inbreaking light." Do I want to take him up on his dare, to risk actually seeing, or seeing something new? Perhaps to be disturbed or changed by God, whatever my age? Or am I too busy preparing for the holidays? Or simply enjoying my own comfort? In gracious love, Jesus says, "It is advent. Be open to see. I dare you."