A person in prison has time to think. This is true of John the Baptist when he gets thrown into prison for speaking the truth to power. There in that dark dungeon, John starts to wonder about Jesus. Jesus seems to him a most unlikely messiah. The messiah John had been looking for, that almost all Jews anticipated, would sweep through the holy land with massive force, drive out the Romans, and establish an everlasting throne in Jerusalem, to the applause of his people. But this is not happening with Jesus. The reports John receives in prison never speak of anything of this sort.
John had told the people that the ax was lying at the root ready to chop the unworthy trees down. He had promised them that the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. And here was Jesus, hanging out with the very people who were supposed to be chopped and burned, eating with tax collectors, letting prostitutes wash his feet, pronouncing forgiveness to foreigners.
So John sends his own disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (v. 3)
The one who is to come,” is a phrase for the promised Christ, the Messiah, God’s chosen one who will bring deliverance and salvation to the people. But John is perplexed as to whether that messiah is Jesus or someone yet to appear.
Each of us has expectations about the Messiah we want.
Perhaps some want a fire and brimstone Jesus, scaring people into heaven. Or, maybe a militant Jesus who will defeat our enemies. Sooner or later our ideas about Jesus do not conform to reports of what he is doing either in the Scripture or in the world. And we wonder, is Jesus the one who will deliver us and save us from our sins and from our troubles? Or are we to wait for another?
I invite you to take out your bulletin and turn to our gospel reading. We’re going to read verses 22 and 23. I want us to remember what Jesus says to John’s disciples – verse 22 and 23 of our reading from Luke. Here we go: “And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
I could talk about a part of me that was once blind to God in my life, but now can see; a part of me that was once deaf to God’s word in my life, but now hears. That’s how they know, and how we know, He is the One; by the stirring of the new life in us and in our world. Jesus is working new life in us, even now.
But let’s go deeper, and ask what that new life might look like?
Jesus tells John of miracles he has done. These miracles attest to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the one sent by God. But these miracles are not done simply to show Jesus’ identity, they are also done to advance a mission.
That mission extends far beyond the compassion shown to individuals who are recipients of these miracles. Beyond that, these miracles have universal significance. These miracles reveal the way by which God seeks to transform the world even today.
I’m reading a book titled ‘The Meaning in the Miracles.’ The author of this book, Jeffery John believes that the healing miracles of Jesus need to be seen in contrast to the purity laws found earlier in the Bible.
About these miracles, he writes, “They seem to have been deliberately selected by the gospel writers to show that Jesus heals at least one of every category of persons who, according to the purity laws of Jesus’ time, were specifically excluded from temple worship and labeled unclean.”
Among the groups excluded were: Women, lepers, Samaritans, Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers, children, people with various handicaps, and the dead. These people were excluded from worship, or at least, restricted in their worship, and their opportunities for social interaction in the community were severely limited.
Jeffrey John goes on to speak of the universal significance of these miracles, which is “the overturning of religious and social barriers; and Jesus’ declaration of God’s love and compassion for everyone, expressed in the systematic inclusion of each class of the previously excluded or marginalized.”
Some people, in Jesus’ day, rejoice at this, others are bewildered, still others turn against Jesus and plot his death. Jesus turns out to be the messiah, but not in the way anyone expected.
So, what does this all mean for us?
Following his resurrection, Jesus intended his presence to be apparent through those of us who belong to his body. That’s us – we are the body of Christ. He looks to us to fulfill his mission here in this world, here in this city.
And a part of his mission is this theme of the healing miracles, namely “Including the Excluded.” And it requires us to ask ourselves, ‘who then are the excluded today in our world, or in our midst?
I am reminded of the words of the civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
I think that statement could be expanded in a way that would also be consistent with Jesus ministry – a dream of a community where people are not judged by their nationality, or gender, or immigrant status, or poverty, or disability, or sexual orientation.
This correcting of misjudgments, this welcoming, this including, this call to be a caring, compassionate presence, then, becomes part of our mission as followers of Jesus.
Our reading from James, a letter from the Apostle James to the church, addresses this issue rather directly. James tells us that discrimination, or what he calls “acts of favoritism,” has found its way into the church’s fellowship. Certain people are being ignored in worship and at the coffee hour. The royal law, the command of Jesus, is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And James challenges us to see that, where there is discrimination, or favoritism, the church is not living the faith that it proclaims.
The response that I think James is looking for, and the response that our Lord Jesus invites from us, is one of confession. It is to acknowledge, before God, in the words of our confession today, that, “we have spoken or acted too quickly; that we have hurt those we have yet to know.” Because, until we know people, until we have listened to their story and their struggle, it is all too easy to misjudge and to mischaracterize. I know, I’ve been there and done it.
We come forward this morning for communion. In this bread and wine we receive the assurance that God has set his heart on us, that we are forgiven, and that we are his beloved children.
When you depart from the communion table this morning, you are invited to take a chocolate heart from the basket next to the basket where you deposit your wine cup. And you are invited to remember God’s heart of love for you, and you are invited to remember our Lord’s calling to go and be a reflection of his heart to others.
We go, in the power of the one who is present with us, to be his disciples, to carry out his mission, to be his heart in the world, and to shine his light.