Sermon prepared by Rev. Leonard Batterink, First CRC, Rocky Mountain House, AB
A novel by Jill Paton Walsh, Knowledge of Angels, tells about a mysterious stranger who comes drifting in a small boat to a Mediterranean island. This happens in the Middle Ages, and there are laws at the time that all visitors coming to this island declare their religion. Normally this is a routine thing, but this stranger creates a scandal by saying that he is an atheist. "I have no religion to declare," he says, "because I do not believe in God.”
The island is governed by a cardinal-prince, and when the cardinal-prince hears about this stranger, he resolves to make the man into a believer. He calls for help from a famous monk. He calls the monk from his monastery and says, "Give this man your proofs for the existence of God." So the monk spends the next few months trying to convince this atheist castaway that there is a God. He uses all the best arguments, from Anselm, from Thomas Aquinas, from other church fathers.
But nothing works. Argument after argument fails. The man is unmoved. The monk becomes scared. His own faith begins to weaken. What if the atheist is right? He’s defeated all the best proofs. Could they be wrong? In the end, the monk feels like all is lost. His faith has been ruined. "I have not converted the atheist," he says. "The atheist has converted me." The monk gives up his efforts. He goes off to live as a hermit and tries to rebuild his faith.
The monk wanted to help someone else believe and instead he saw his own belief fall apart. Something ate into his confidence. Everything that seemed sure seemed doubtful now.
In our Bible reading today, something like this happens to John the Baptist. John came to prepare the way for Jesus. At the time of his circumcision--a religious ritual for his family, on the eighth day after his birth--his father say that he would be called "a prophet of the Most High," that he would "go before the Lord to prepare the way for him" (Lk 1:76). John did that. He helped people believe in Jesus and follow him.
But something happened along the way. Jesus didn't turn out exactly like John expected. John found himself struggling with disappointment and doubt. And in the end John the Baptist, who came to prepare everyone else for Jesus, was now himself asking, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?"
It's a scary question, really. We can appreciate how hard it was to ask. What if Jesus is not "the way, the truth and the life"? What if we should follow some other way and believe some other truth? Does Jesus really reconcile the world to God? Or has everyone been fooled into believing that--you know, peer pressure and all? Would it be better if we joined some other religion? Or quit religion altogether?
You might not like questions like these. We don't ask them very often. They seem dangerous. Should we even take them seriously? What if Jesus is not the one? What if believing in him turns out to be a mistake? Then all the things that Christian people have done through the ages--the great cathedrals, the Crusades, the Reformation, the missionaries we sent to make disciples of all the nations and teach them everything that Jesus commanded, the Christian schools and the Christian colleges--they all turn out to be wasted effort. Do we dare to even consider the possibility? Do we dare the ask if Jesus is or is not the one?
John the Baptist was asking a serious question. So, if you've had a time of doubt too and wondered if this whole Christianity thing is maybe a mistake, then listen to the answer Jesus gives here. It should be helpful. You might hear and believe and find yourself saying, “Jesus is “’my Lord and my God.’”
John was wondering about Jesus because things weren't turning out the way he had announced. When John came, he said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." He told people that they should be baptized into repentance. And he said that someone would come after him and be more powerful than him. He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Then, said John, there will be a time of wrath. "The ax is already laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." John talked about someone who would come with a winnowing fork in his hand. "He will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Lk 3:9, 17). That's what John promised. He frightened people with his predictions. They came from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region to the Jordan to hear him and tremble and confess their sins and be baptized.
And now Jesus had come, and there was no wrath. At least, none that John could see. There was no angry judge, no fire of judgement. Eventually John found himself in prison. In prison you have a lot of time to think, and John began to doubt. Maybe someone else would bring the wrath and the fire.
We can appreciate his frustration. John is like a lot of us. He looks at a world that's gone ugly. There’s greed everywhere and he’s tired of looking at it. He can't stand a world where little people get robbed and justice gets trampled into the ground. He's sick of crime that doesn't get punished. He's sick of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor. And he's really sick of a world that doesn't care and doesn’t get better. It was supposed to be purified with fire by now. Why can't things improve? What good are promises of a better world if they don't come true? Is Jesus the one or should we be waiting for someone else? Or should we quit waiting altogether?
So here we have John’s question. Now let's listen in, because Jesus has a wonderful answer. He doesn't talk about judgement or unquenchable fire. Those things are in the prophecies, and they will come, but something else is happening now, and it should make you believe. Jesus says, "Go back and report what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor."
What we have now, says Jesus, is not a time of wrath but a time for healing and a time for hope. That comes first, before the judgement. Let that persuade you. Before the judgement, God shows his power in a gentle way. He shows his power in Jesus. And Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mt 11:28).
This was promised by the prophets too. Isaiah told about a time when the deaf would hear the voice of God, and the blind would see. He told about a time when the lame would leap like a deer and the mute tongue would shout for joy. He told about a time when God would send someone to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. He promised a day when people will have a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (35:5-6; 61:1, 3). Those promises, said Jesus, are coming true now.
They're coming true among the poor, the prisoner, the weak, the outcast, the forgotten, the brokenhearted. That's where the work of Jesus begins. If you look in the right places, you'll believe in him.
It might be true that Jesus isn't making headlines for destroying King Herod and his cronies and the military machine that's holding them up. It might be true that he hasn't brought the fire of judgement against the greedy and the powerful. He might not show all the anger of God against the wicked. But watch carefully: Jesus comes for the weak, the weary, the broken. He comes with grace. He comes to forgive. He comes to give people a new beginning.
The day of judgement will come. It's not been cancelled. But now Jesus is gentle. He wants to help you. It's not what John expected, and it's not what we want in our angrier moods. But it's what Jesus brought. The prophets said it would happen. Jesus made it happen. And if you look at him with the right eyes, you'll be filled with joy.
Years ago the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge traveled to India to make a documentary about Mother Teresa. He was still a jaded sort of journalist, with a pretty low view of the world and its people. India did nothing to improve his opinions. He saw awful poverty. At one point he found himself in the emergency room of a local hospital. Injured and dying people lay everywhere, and he could barely stand it.
Then he met Mother Teresa and her sisters of charity. They had been in the city for years. They never thought to leave because… that’s where the suffering is. They poured the hearts and their lives into the poorest of the poor. And so, in a strange way, Muggeridge’s faith was reborn in the middle of desperate poverty—by one of the greatest examples of Christian love.
Jesus’s answer to John was like that, only stronger. Look for signs of the kingdom, for signs of love in this broken world. Let them tell you who I am and why I have come.
Have you ever caught yourself asking what John the Baptist asked? Have you ever wondered if Jesus was really the one? Or have you thought that maybe you should believe in someone else, something else?
Maybe not. Maybe you've always believed, and it's never been a problem. Maybe you were brought up Christian, and you had Christian parents and grandparents, and following Jesus just came natural. Maybe you're like Timothy--Paul wrote him those New Testament letters. He had a "sincere faith" that he learned from his mother and his grandmother (2 Tm 1:5). It just grew on him when he was growing up. Maybe that's you.
Or maybe not. Maybe you struggled to believe. May you once believed and now you wonder. Maybe you wonder because the church hurt you or Christian people disappointed you. Maybe you've been bored to death. Maybe you've been used by the church and you're burned out. Maybe you've seen too many negatives and too much nastiness. Maybe you catch yourself saying, "If that's what it means to be a Christian, then I quit. There's no way I want to be like that!" Maybe, for you, Jesus is a victim of his followers. If they followed him a little better, then you'd believe. Maybe you've bought into that idea--it's around nowadays--that Christianity makes you judgemental, like those people in the news who are always condemning others for not walking their narrow little road. You wonder. You wonder: Is Jesus the one or is something else better?
It might not help to be told that John the Baptist wondered the same thing. I do believe that it helps to hear Jesus' answer. "Look," he says. "Look what I did for people who were broken and weak and blinded and lost. It's something you can believe in. It's a ministry of love, a ministry of kindness. Watch, and listen and believe that I was sent to save the world and not to condemn it."
It might seem better to just accept Jesus without asking hard questions. It might seem better to blindly follow. You can be Christian because that's the normal thing to do. That's what the people you know are doing. And if some day they all follow someone different, if it becomes uncool to follow Jesus, then you'll take another look and maybe make a switch.
We could do that. Or we take a long, thoughtful look at Jesus--his life, his teaching, his works of love, his sacrificial death, his resurrection. We could look at a life spent with the poor, the weak and the outcast. We could see Jesus giving rest to the weary. We could see what a difference he made. If you believe in Jesus because of that, you'll always believe in him, no matter what other people do. Because you'll know that he is the way, the truth and the life.
The time of judgement will come. Now is the time of gentleness and love. Use this time well. Use it to follow Jesus into the Father's kingdom.
Order of Worship
Welcome and Announcements
Gathering Song: “I’ve Come to Tell” (PsH 250)
L: Come, people of God, and worship the Christ.
Once we were separated from him, aliens and strangers who did not belong, without hope and without God in the world.
Once we loved darkness rather than the light.
Once we could not sing the Lord’s song.
P: But now we are joined with Christ,
brought near by his blood, for He is our peace.
He has brought us from darkness into his light.
Now we who could not sing have been given a new song.
All: Let us give thanks to God! Let us worship the Christ!
We Great One Another
All Sing: “We Come, O Christ, to You” (PsH: 238)
Confession & Assurance
Reading: Psalm 32
Prayer of Confession
All Sing: “Your Mercy Flows” (Sing a New Creation 68)
Reading: 1 Timothy 1:15
All Sing: “Lord, be Glorified” (Sing a New Creation 43)
Reading: Luke 7:11-35
Message: Is Jesus the One?
All Sing: “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love” (PsH 601)
The Pastoral Prayers
All Sing: Go, My Children, With My Blessing” (Sing a New Creation 284)