| Isaiah 35
|Sun, December 13, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|A question. John sends his disciples with a question. Sitting there in prison, John cannot find out for himself. He can only wonder what is going on outside his tiny cell. Gone are the days when great crowds flocked from Jerusalem and all of Judea to hear John preach and to be cleansed of sin in the Jordan. Now John sits forgotten. Herod knows how to deal with a charismatic populist like John. Lock him up in the clink and throw away the key. No need to execute him. Why create a martyr? No. Just put him away ... for life. So there John sits, in his desert maximum security fortress of a prison. There John sits and wonders: "Did I get it right back at the Jordan? Is this Jesus from Nazareth really the one who was sent to follow in my footsteps?". The reports that he is receiving from his visitors cause John to have his doubts. Gone is the austerity of John's mission. Gone is the fasting ... gone the camel's hair cloak ... gone the baptism in the river ... gone the harsh cry to repent. In its place comes a gracious invitation to repent, to turn, to live a new life. In its place comes feasting and partying for all manner of people. Instead of John's austere piety comes Jesus with such lavish celebration. This really isn't what John had in mind when he first wandered out of the wilderness to speak in the name of the Lord. But he cannot see for himself ... he cannot speak to Jesus person to person ... so he sends his disciples with a question.
A question: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Yes or no? That's all that John wants from Jesus. Are you the Messiah we have been waiting for ... the one I have been preparing for ... or not? Yes or no? You would think that Jesus would have no problem answering in the affirmative. Not if you happen to be channel surfing on a Sunday morning and catch all of those television preachers who are convinced, without a doubt, that he is the one. Not if you happen to walk into any church in the land on Christmas Eve and hear the voices singing: "veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity". Surely Jesus could just say: "Yes. Tell John that, yes, I am the one you have been waiting for." Or, perhaps, he is not. Perhaps he is not the one John had been preparing for. Perhaps he preaches a different gospel ... proclaims a different vision from John. Perhaps Jesus says to John "No ... I am not the one you anticipated when you stood waist deep in the muddy river." At the very least Jesus could answer John's question forthrightly. Yes or no, that is the question.
"Look around". This is Jesus' answer. "Look around me, pay attention to what is going on ... and then tell John what you see and hear." In other words, testify to the evidence that you witness ... then let John make up his own mind. Let him be the judge and jury. Let him answer his own question. But first tell him what you see and hear: "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." Imagine those disciples of John on their next prison visit. Sitting there, talking in hushed tones under the guard's watchful eyes ... and ears. John is eager to hear: "Well ... well ... is it yes or no? Is he the one who we have been waiting for?" And one of the disciples says: "Actually, teacher, we're not sure. He wouldn't say. All we know is what we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears. People are being healed left and right. People are being made whole. People are coming back to life. People are being fed. People who once were lost are now found, those who once were blind can now see. What can it mean?"
We have no record of John's response. We know what Jesus thinks of John. There is not much doubt about that. Sure, Jesus and John practice different methods. Yes, one comes fasting and the other feasting. John comes preaching preparatory warning. Jesus proclaims God's surprising invitation. They seem poles apart. Yet Jesus says "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist". No one has ever been born who is greater than John. Pretty high praise, I'd say, considering the source! But we have no record of John's response to Jesus. Does he say "Yes, that's Messiah alright" or does he instruct his disciples with the admonition "Time to look for someone else"? We don't know ... but we can guess. We can guess that John understands. He understands because he knows the scroll of Isaiah like the back of his hand. He remembers his boyhood lessons in synagogue: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom ... then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy ...". This is the sign of God's kingdom come, God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. Healing. Wholeness. Life. Full bellies. Songs of joy. Parched land and parched throats thirsty no more. The proof is in the pudding. Or, to put it in Jesus' own words, "Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds" (Matthew 11:19).
"Is Jesus the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" I wonder where you have heard that question. From your children perhaps. Or from your spouse. From your siblings ... or your parents, even. Maybe you have been asked by a friend ... or a co-worker ... or a neighbour. Could it be that the world's fascination with Christmas is not simply its celebration of consumption and of commerce? Could it be that, when we peel away the tinsel and the glitter, there is that abiding question still this year: "Is he the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?". That's it, isn't it? We come, like John's disciples, asking this same question on behalf of others ... others imprisoned in jails of the world's - or of their own - making. And, if the truth be told, more than a few of us come asking this very question for ourselves. Is he the one ... or are we to wait for another?
Yes or no? Jesus still will not answer yes or no. Instead, he says "Go and tell what you hear and see." Testify. Tell others what you witness with your own two eyes and your own two ears. Let them make up their own minds. Let them be the judge and jury. Just tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God. What will we say? There are no crutches hanging on the walls of this chapel. No wheelchairs stacked up in the corner, no hearing aids or eye glasses, no walkers or empty caskets left behind as evidence. Lacking such physical proof what testimony can we give about the one who has come into our lives? That is for you ... not for me to say. But I can tell what I see and hear. I see a community of the walking wounded who, every Sunday, leap for joy. I hear men who tell me that they see God's world as if for the first time ... and I hear women who say that they see themselves with fresh eyes as one who is beloved by God. I know a congregation which, by all reports, had one foot in the grave ... and now can be seen dancing in the graveyard. I live with a community of people who know what it is to be hungry for the Word of God ... and who have now found a place at God's feasting table. To be perfectly honest, when people used to ask me "Is he the one ... or are we to wait for another?" I hesitated. The evidence was not always all that readily at hand. Not anymore. Now I say, come and see ... come and listen ... and then make up your own mind.
Jesus sends John's disciples home with a checklist of indicators that he is the Messiah: "blind see; deaf hear; lame leap; dead live; hungry full". Some of you have seen the similar checklist of indicators that I brought home from my recent sojourn to Atlanta. Twelve 'empirical indicators of a Missional Church'. Twelve things to look for in a congregation that is more interested in what God is up to in the world than it is in its own self-preservation and self-glorification. Twelve things to look for if you want to see if the Kingdom of God is near to a community of people. Things like: "Acts of self-sacrifice characterize the generosity of the community ... The church is a community that practices reconciliation ... Worship is the central act by which the community celebrates God's presence and God's promised future ... All members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus ... The church practices hospitality ... There is a widely held perception that this church is going somewhere - and that somewhere is more faithfully lived life in the reign of God." That last one is key, isn't it?! If we have the courage to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth we'll have to admit that we're not there yet. God's kingdom has not yet arrived. There are still too many broken people ... too many blinded people ... too many people who are deaf to the grace of God ... too many people who are dead to God and dead to the world ... too many who are hungry and impoverished ... too many in here ... and far, far too many out there. And yet, we cannot deny what we see and hear. Something is up. The Kingdom seems near at hand. There are signs of life ... signs of hope ... signs of the Messiah's arrival in these parts.
That's what Gerald was thinking as he read these passages with me in his hospital bed this week. He was thinking of the signs of hope that Jesus was intending John to see. But not just signs of hope far beyond walls where John sat, imprisoned. Maybe, pondered Gerald, maybe Jesus knew that John would recite Isaiah 35 from memory when he heard the allusions to its cadences. That is what prisoners ... and hospital patients ... do, you know. Maybe Jesus knew that John would recite those ancient verses to himself: "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.". Like the blossoms of the desert crocus ... fragile sign of hope in an arid land ... first sign of beauty unearthed from the parched soil ... like the first robin's song heralding the long awaited spring. Locked in his prison cell, John's question of Jesus is not simply academic. He is not seeking clarification from Jesus in order to write his 'Systematic Theology'. John, like all of the rest, is desperate for hope in a bleak midwinter. And Jesus hints to John that the Kingdom of God is as close as the blooming crocuses that he can see if he will but glimpse out of the cell window. Still today, Jesus opens the eyes of the blind to see the first Christmas in generations when Irish Catholics and Protestants can walk through Belfast's streets without fear. Even now, Jesus opens the ears of the deaf to hear the song of the angels that yet echoes through heaven's skies: "Peace on earth ... good will to all". Do you see? Do you hear? Go and tell.