Sermon Text: Matthew 11:2-11
The Gospel today relates what on the face of it is a strange incident. John the Baptist of course has been arrested and is in jail. Jesus is beginning His ministry. It says He had left the place where He was to teach and preach in the cities after having given instructions to His disciples, the Twelve, as to what they were to be doing.
John still had followers, and in fact, John still has followers. There are still followers of John the Baptist’s teachings who exist in the Middle East today. Now, they get it kind of skewed after this much time, and they get into ritual baptisms, like the Essene Jews did and what have you, but there are still followers . . . through the followers of John the Baptist to this current day, and in fact, some of the odder offshoots of Islam have adopted him as kind of their patron, and mixed some of his teachings with the teachings of Mohammed to a really interesting kind of mix of religious beliefs and practice.
So John, hearing what Jesus is doing, does something which on the face of it seems very strange. He sends two of his several of his followers to Jesus, to ask Him a question. Now, remember, this is the same John the Baptist who, when He saw Jesus coming, after he baptized Jesus, said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Who told his disciples that “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Several of his followers—in fact, probably many of his followers—have already gone over to following Jesus. One would think he was fairly certain of mind what was going on, and he sends some of his followers to ask Jesus the question, “Are you the One we’re looking for, or do we look for somebody else? Is there somebody coming behind You?”
Now if you read some of the fathers, and commentators on the scriptures, they often give what are very acceptable, and I suspect pious, explanations as to what was going on there. You know, some say, “Well, He was trying to teach his disciples who hadn’t gone to Jesus yet, that this was the One they should be following,” or that, “He was, you know, challenging Jesus to begin His own ministry,” and the fact is, it clearly states, Jesus already started teaching in the cities, and as you know, that he knew His disciples had been baptizing at the same time John’s disciples were baptizing.
Now, those are probably very legitimate explanations, but they don’t take into account the fact that at the time, nobody knew what was going to happen, other than God. Nobody knew how all of this was going to work itself out. And also we tend to forget that saints, while they are holy, are not infallible. If you’re looking for infallibility, you need to go somewhere else. And I think personally (and to my knowledge this is not officially condemned as a heresy, so I’m not yet a heretic) John, while holy, was human.
John had spent a lot of time in his life in his ministry. Like Jesus now, at one time, John had people. John had staff. He still had people and staff, ’cause he had staff to send to talk to Jesus. People who were waiting for him to get out of prison, and once he was beheaded, people who went and got his remains and buried him, although keeping his head in one place seemed to be a difficulty. We keep finding it all over the place.
And you know, sitting there, or standing there in his dungeon, preaching to the walls, and occasionally to Herod, who we understand would sneak down to try to listen to him on occasion, it’s entirely possible he began to wonder – I mean if Satan can tempt Jesus, he was certainly capable of tempting John the Baptist, and saying, “You know, you’ve really blown it this time.’Cause he was your cousin, you got all excited, you know, and you thought he was the One, and you thought you heard a voice, for crying out loud, and maybe you saw something that looked like a bird, and man, you have really messed up God’s plan.” And I think he might have been ripe for something like that at that point, and, you know, muttering to himself, “God, what if I got this wrong? I’ve led all kinds of people in the wrong direction, into the wrong way, and I’ve gotta find out what’s going on,” you know.
So whatever his temporary moment of weakness was, he sent his followers basically to confirm for himself that he did the right thing. As someone who leads people, I understand how that could happen. There are lots of times when you’re absolutely convinced you’re doing the right thing and then the doubt begins to seep in. If our Lord, on the night before His betrayal, could be so overcome by what was going on that He sweated drops of blood, I suspect we can grant John the Baptist the possibility of a momentary lapse, a momentary weakness.
So they come and they ask this question to Him, “Are You the One whose coming was foretold, or are we yet waiting for someone else?” And Jesus responds. He responds to them to tell back to John, that what is going on is what’s supposed to happen when the Messiah comes. He says, “Go and tell John what your own ears and eyes have witnessed: that the blind see, the lame walk, how the lepers are made clean, and the deaf hear, how the dead are raised to life and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” And then His little zinger: “Blessed is the man who does not lose confidence in me.”
Now you go back to the thirty-fifth chapter of the book of Isaiah . . . that’s the description of what’s supposed to happen when the Messiah comes: healings, restoration of sight, care for the poor, all of those things were for faithful Jews who had read the prophets, and heard the prophets read to them in the synagogues all their lives, signs that God was acting — signs that the Messianic Kingdom which had been promised to them, this kingdom of freedom from oppression, of freedom from disease and want, all these things had been promised to them by God, were finally going to take place, that God was intervening in their history, and since most of them desperately wanted the Romans gone, wanted the occupying power out of there, wanted someone, probably to get rid of Herod, whom they had as little respect for as they did Rome. This was very good news, to see these things happen, to participate in them. So, they went back to John and presumably John was satisfied with the explanation and said, “Of course, yeah, what am I thinking? You know, He’s it. It’s okay. . . . Go ahead and behead me, it’s alright, I can go.”
But after they leave, Jesus continues to talk. He says of John to the multitudes, and He asked them questions. He’s been questioned so he asked them questions. “What was it,” He asked, “that you expected to see when you went out into the wilderness?”, that is, to hear John preach. Vast numbers of people had gone out into the desert and into the wilderness where John was, to listen to his message. And what was John’s message? It was the same thing that Jesus preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Sometimes he went further than that. You know, He told soldiers, “Be content with your pay,” don’t whine about your pay grade, save your money, you know, to others, other things, but the fact was the basic message was you have to prepare yourself for God’s coming, and the way in which you do that is to repent, and his baptism, while not forgiving in itself, was a recognition of people’s repentance and their desire to be cleansed. And at the time, was all they actually could get, but he was wildly successful, from all accounts. There were vast numbers of people who came out to hear.
So Jesus asked them, “What were you looking for? What did you expect when you went to hear John? Was it the reed trembling in the wind?” No, not that. It was a strong man. “What was it you went out to see? Was it a man clad in silk?” Well, hardly. Not with the guy with camel and goat skins – camel’s hair. “You must look in kings’ palaces for men who go clad in silk. What was it then that you went out to see? A prophet, yes, and something more, I tell you, than a prophet. This is the man of whom it was written” (and this comes from the book of Malachi), “Behold, I am sending before thee that angel of mine who is to prepare the way for my coming.“
And then He goes on and says, “Believe me, God has raised up no greater son of woman than John the Baptist.” That’s a fairly strong recommendation. As I said to you last night, John was the absolute epitome of faithfulness and obedience to God that history would recall through its entire history. And he was the one who reached it. He was the one who in himself personified what a faithful Jew was supposed to be: focused and dedicated, obedient to God’s will, open to do what God called him to do. We had reached that point.
There were many people throughout the Old Testament—and we sometimes forget this, because we have completely forgotten the Old Testament—who were extremely close to God. Adam and Eve were, and of course they had issues. Moses was. It says in the Bible that God spoke to Moses as if he were His friend, which, again, is a pretty strong recommendation. And when Moses tries to push the envelope on the friendship thing, and asks to be able to see God, God gently reminds him, “You can’t do that and live, guy, you know, I mean I would blast you into nonexistence. I’ll let you do this: I’ll hide you in this rock, and when I pass by, you can look out and see me kind of trailing along ahead of you.” You know, He put it a little bit blunter than that, but, basically it says you can see my back parts as I [pass by], but you cannot see me directly.
All kinds of people through the Old Testament had a close relationship with God. John was at the head of all of them. In the prayers that the sacred ministers and I said before the altar while you were singing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, you mentioned it, “I confess to Blessed God Almighty, to Blessed Mary ever-virgin, to Blessed John the Baptist.” Remember John wasn’t a Christian. He wasn’t baptized. He died before that could happen, before he could be baptized with Christian baptism, and yet we mention him in our prayers. We have icons of him, and of the other Old Testament saints, in our churches and in our confessions which the clergy say, and which you also said in other parts of other services, “I confess to Almighty God, to Blessed Mary ever-virgin, to Blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul,” so he’s right there between the Virgin and the princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, those who sit at the head.
And yet, “Believe me, God has raised up no greater son of woman than John the Baptist, and yet to be least of the Kingdom of heaven is to be greater than he.”
You are greater than John the Baptist, according to Jesus’ teachings, because you belong to the Kingdom of heaven. John had his place, John had his time, John has his remembrance and his glory. He’s the greatest of anyone born of woman, and yet you, and you, and you, and you, and I are regarded as greater in the Kingdom of heaven than he. Moses. Enoch. Elijah. Elisha. Joshua. David. Solomon. The Baptist. None of them had the opportunity for intimacy with God that you and I have been given. None of them. They have icons of themselves and yet they did not have then (they do now, but then) the possibility for closeness with God that you and I are called to.
Their God had yet to be made flesh. Their God had yet to walk among them. Their God had yet to see them and to speak with them, and to be with them, and to live with them. Their God had not yet taken into Himself human flesh, human nature, human emotions, human psychology, and lived their life. Our God has.
They never received communion in their lives. We are offered this opportunity every Sunday and feast day, and if you’re lucky, in some churches, every day, that the Eucharist is offered. They had never received that transforming power of baptism. They never received that transfiguring power of the Holy Spirit. They never received that life-changing energy that comes to us in the Body and Blood of Christ. They never heard the words, “Your sins are forgiven.” They never were touched with oil blessed by God for the healing of their diseases. All things that you and I take for granted as members of Christ’s holy church. All of those things that you and I so loosely prepare ourselves for. So lazily prepare ourselves for.
How many times do we come before his holy altar on Sunday, still muttering about something the husband or wife said to us on the way to church? Or the way in which one of the kids has acted up in the pews during the mass? Or the comment some friend of yours made to you earlier in the week that still makes you get rigid when you think about it on Sunday morning? All of those things that we so blithefully bring with us before God’s altar and expect to receive His Body and Blood without lightning coming down?
None of this did the greatest born of woman have the chance to participate in. You and I do, and that closeness, that intimacy—last month when I was here I told you God calls us to closeness. God calls us to intimacy. The reason for the Incarnation, which we are getting ready to celebrate, is so that you and I can be as close to God as it is possible for human flesh to be without being blasted into nonexistence. Old Testament eyes longed to see this and did not.
So we need to focus a bit more. We need to “serious up” a bit more. Not to become crazy, fanatical, or obsessive. God doesn’t call for that. But to take our life in Him, and therefore our life with each other, as something that can either save or not save us, that can either keep us in the Kingdom or place us outside of it. Because each one of us here today has a closer relationship with God—or is called to that—than the greatest born of woman, of all the faithfulness and holiness that history has been called to. That’s a tremendous gift. That [is] — or should be — a humbling gift.
That is a gift that we open not just at Nativity, but every day that we get out of the bed and make the sign of the cross, and offer our first prayer to God.
May you have a blessed Christmas and Nativity this year. Amen.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, December 16, 2012, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.