New Reality

Sermon for Sunday, December 15, 2019 || Advent 3A || Matthew 11:2-11

You’re going to get sick of me saying this, but it has fascinated me for years, so I will say it again. Jesus almost never answers the questions people ask him. I know I started my sermon a few weeks ago with this same thought, but it’s so important for understanding how Jesus related to people in the Gospel. Jesus responds to questions, but he rarely answers them. When we take the time to compare his response to the thing the questioner was looking for, we see more clearly the path Jesus invites us to walk.

Let me say that again in another way. Jesus invites us into a particular worldview that sets our eyes on abundance, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation. Retraining ourselves to see in this way means unlearning another worldview. We might call it the “world’s” worldview of scarcity, fear, dualism, domination, and isolation. When Jesus responds to people’s questions, his goal is often not to answer the query, but to expand the worldview of the questioner. That’s why Jesus speaks in parables, because parables are stories that deepen the further we dive. Jesus resists easy answers and sound bite theology. Even his “easy” answers are deep.

Today’s Gospel lesson begins with a pair of questions from John the Baptist’s disciples, and Jesus’ response fits his pattern of expanding rather than answering. Last week, we heard John’s prediction that one would be coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, one whose sandals John was not worthy to carry. Right after this prediction, Jesus comes and asks John to baptize him. John seems to recognize that this Jesus might be the one he was talking about, but I suppose he’s not sure. So John, who is in prison awaiting Herod’s whims, sends his disciples to Jesus. They ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Notice that these are “Yes/No” questions. John’s disciples are looking for a one-word answer that they can bring back to their teacher.

But Jesus knows so well the most important lesson you learn when training to be a Godly Play storyteller. Never ask a “Yes/No” question. Instead of such binary, “this or that” questions, storytellers invite children to dive deep into stories by asking “wondering questions.” In the story of the parable of the Good Shepherd, we don’t ask, “Did all the sheep make it back to the sheepfold?” (The answer is “Yes,” but that doesn’t necessarily lead to further exploration.) Instead, we say, “I wonder if the seep have names,” and “I wonder if you’ve been to the green grass and the clear water and the dark places.” Such wondering questions give children (and adults) permission to let the story grow inside them in all sorts of ways that we can’t really quantify.

In the same way, when Jesus responds to John’s disciples, he ignores their binary (“Yes/No”) questions and invites them to look around. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” 

With these words, Jesus prompts John’s disciples to do two things. First, Jesus invites them to walk with the same people Jesus walks with, to “hear and see” for themselves the effects of Jesus’ good news. Jesus doesn’t desire for them to stand on the sidelines and observe the game, but to start playing. In effect, Jesus says, “Listen to the stories of the people I have touched and who have touched me.” See the world again for the first time with those who receive their sight. Walk the way with people whose legs can now carry them. Experience renewal with those whose skin is renewed. Hear the good news with those whose ears can now distinguish sounds. Embrace life-giving ways in the midst of death. And understand how Jesus’ solidarity with those who are poor shows that dignity and respect have nothing to do with monetary worth.

John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come, and instead of answering their question, Jesus invites them to enter the new reality that he is proclaiming. This same response often encounters us in our prayer. We ask God questions, and God responds by opening us to new and deeper reality that reveals God’s close and eternal presence.

The second thing Jesus prompts John’s disciples to do is to see this new reality through the wisdom of Holy Scripture. Jesus’ response to their question quotes from today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. “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.” With his words, Jesus points his questioners to the beautiful vision of Isaiah that continues with the desert turning into lush, watered land.

While training ourselves to see and be a part of Jesus’ new reality, we can find wisdom, encouragement, and hope in the experiences of those who have come before us in the faith. The people in the Bible are no different from us, and we can encounter God’s presence in the same ways they did: in comforting ways, in liberating ways, in challenging ways, in any way that enlivens us to live the deeper reality of God’s reconciling love.

Whenever I come across a passage in which Jesus answers a different question than the one that is asked, I like trying to figure out the question Jesus wished had been asked. In this case, I think the question would be: “Jesus, what are the characteristics of the reality you are creating?” As we come closer and closer to our celebration of the Incarnation, I invite you to pray with that question: “What are the characteristics of Jesus’ reality, what we might call the Kingdom of Heaven?” Then ask yourselves some follow-ups: how do you hear and see the reality Jesus is making? And how do you participate in making this reality? Jesus’ reality is built upon abundance, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation. Jesus’ reality is built upon loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus’ reality is the true blueprint of God’s creation. How wonderful – and I mean that, how full of wonder – that we get to help build that reality by walking the path of Jesus.

Photo by Jose A.Thompson on Unsplash.

Check out my new project, the Podcast for Nerdy Christians, available wherever you download your podcasts. The final episode of Season 1 is out today, and it’s all about “Our Nerd Canons.” Carrie and I discuss all the books, movies, TV shows, and games that have formed us, plus a little bit about the biblical canon, too. Check it out here and find the podcast on Facebook. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Check out my new book, The Islands of Shattered Glass, out now on Amazon!

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