by Daniel Harrell
The last time I preached from this passage there was snow on the ground in Minnesota. I know this because I was here. I was preaching over at the Eden Prairie Presbyterian Church in front of Colonial’s Senior Minister Search Committee. It must have gone OK since here I am. Of course now you’re thinking, wait a minute, the guy hasn’t been here two months and already he’s repeating sermons? Guilty as charged—some of what I’m going to say you may have heard before. I should have devoted more time to sermon preparation this week. Instead I played golf. In my defense it was kind of a church outing. I played in the annual Chicken Open Golf Tournament with a number of you. And according to my honorable playing partners, playing golf is actually good sermon preparation (who knew?). After I stuck a couple of lucky short iron shots, my partners remarked how I now had a couple of sermon illustrations. Which is true if the point you’re trying to illustrate is that miracles still happen. Given my golf game, that I contributed not once, but twice, to the improvement of my team’s score is proof positive of God’s existence.
Here in Matthew 11, John the Baptist is seeking positive proof of Jesus’ existence—or at least of his identity as the Messiah. This is the real reason I’m returning to this passage today. John the Baptist is the topic of our summer sermons. Danielle took us back to John’s birth last Sunday. This week we’re getting closer to his death. Languishing in prison, John’s Elijah-like career had come to a screeching halt. It was one thing for John to call common sinners a brood of vipers. Pagans and Gentiles had that coming. You could even do the same to chosen sinners—prophets had been doing that for centuries. But stick it to the king and you end up in the clink. John berated the current Roman authority in the region, King Herod Antipas for his illicit marriage and a host of other evils. People didn’t do that and live long to tell about it.
Not that John was worried. By preaching from the desert and baptizing with water, John signaled that a deluge of divine judgment was coming. Water was scary stuff—and it still is. Last night’s storms and tornado sirens were enough to put the fear of God into anybody. “I baptize you with water,” John warned, “But one more powerful than I is coming who will baptize you in the Holy Spirit… His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the righteous wheat into his barn, but the wicked chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John had done his job. The way was straight. The highway paved. The table set. All that remained was the coming of the Lord. John had seen the heavens open and the sky tear apart. He saw the Spirit descend. He heard the thundering approval of God. John might be in jail, but he wouldn’t be there long. The Messiah was near with his fork and fire. Justice was just around the corner.
But then came the reports. Reports about how Jesus showed up in his home church to read Scripture—a prophetic passage from Isaiah about the Spirit of the Lord anointing one “to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind….” Reports about how after reading Isaiah, Jesus told the hometown crowd that Isaiah was describing him, and how his friends and neighbors, shocked by such impertinence (since he was Mary’s boy—and everybody knew Joseph wasn’t his daddy), turned on him and ran him out of town. John the Baptist would have never stood for that. He’d have lit into those folks like he lit into the Pharisees. But Jesus didn’t light into anybody. There was no fire, no flaming indignation in response to their rejection. Not even a fiery temper tantrum. John also heard about Jesus’ preaching. Not much fire there either. Mostly some milk-toast about the blessedness of the poor and the meek, and how glad you should be when people insult you. About how you should forgive your enemies and pray for your persecutors and ridiculous stuff like that. No unquenchable fire. Not even quenchable fire.
John started to worry now. He called a couple of his followers and told them to go ask Jesus: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we wait for somebody else?”
John’s followers found Jesus and asked him. Citing that same passage from Isaiah, Jesus told them to relay to the Baptist what they had seen for themselves: the blind receive sight, the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor. John could draw his own conclusions. And then Jesus added, presumably with John in mind: “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” The phrase derives from the Greek word “scandalize” from which we get the English word “scandalize.” In the passive voice, it means: “to have your moral sensitivities insulted.” What an weird thing to say. How could Jesus Christ—the Son of the Living God who knew no sin himself—insult anyone’s moral sensitivities? How could Jesus offend anybody?
Some time ago I hopped a cab in Boston and the cabbie started chatting up the Red Sox and life in Southie where I lived, and eventually got to that moment I regularly dreaded. He asked what I did for a living. In Boston, there was nothing like admitting you were a Christian minister to bring conversations to a drop dead halt. Typically there was first a chuckle of surprise until folks realized you weren’t joking. Then came the cleaning up of the language. Next came the look of curiosity, followed by the pity. And after that, usually, silence. Anticipating all of this tempted me to fudge, you know, to refer to myself as “working for a non-profit organization,” just for the sake of maintaining rapport. But I knew that would probably fall under the category of “being ashamed of the gospel.” So instead I died my little social death, told him what I did, then suffered the predictable silence that filled the cab for the rest of the ride home. Not exactly what I’d call scoring one for the Kingdom.
Not long afterwards a good friend of mine informed me how he’d just returned from a weekend golf trip with some of his work buddies where they celebrated his 40th birthday. They had a blast. Remembering how I’d invited this best friend on a similar outing for one of my birthdays, I was hurt to hear how I’d been left out. “C’mon,” my friend explained, “you know that bunch of heathen knuckleheads where I work! I’d have never heard the end of it if I’d brought a minister along.”
Sometimes this works to my advantage. Dawn and I were in Malawi a few years back purchasing some souvenirs from local street vendors. As many of you who’ve traveled abroad know, these vendors can get pretty persistent. One guy decided he would accompany us all the way back to where we were staying, badgering us the whole way to buy one of his trinkets. After about a mile or so, and several failed attempts to send him on his way, I finally told him how I was a minister and what say we talk about church? And just like that, he did an about-face and headed back toward town. What is it about Christianity that makes people so repulsed by it?
Maybe it is Jesus. (Or maybe it’s me.) But maybe it’s Jesus. After all, following his last supper Jesus on earth, he told his disciples—not guys who were repulsed by him but guys who truly believed and loved him most—he told his disciples: “You will all be offended because of me.” Scandalized. Every idealization they held about the Kingdom of God would get crucified. This was not the way things were supposed to work. The righteous were supposed to be rewarded and their enemies destroyed, not the other way around. Justice demanded Jesus swoop down, his winnowing fork in hand. Justice demanded unquenchable fire. But Jesus didn’t swoop down, he got strung up. Instead of a winnowing fork to eliminate evil, an evil cross eliminated Jesus. There was no fire, only mockery and torture and death. What kind of salvation plan was that? And then to have Jesus utter those outrageous words as he hung to die: “Father forgive them”? Forgive them? That can’t be right. That’s not justice! That’s offensive!
And it is offensive—even to those who believe it. Not the part about Jesus dying on a cross to save us from our sins; I’ve yet to meet a Christian who isn’t thankful that their own sins are forgiven. No, what’s offensive is Jesus’ command to go and do likewise.
I know a woman named Kathryn whose mother coldly abandoned her and her father when Kathryn was in grade school, explaining how she needed to move on to a new phase of her development. She left for another state and missed out on all of the milestones of Kathryn's life, despite Kathryn's invitations for her mother to be there. Her mom missed Kathryn's wedding too; something about having already booked a weekend away with friends months in advance. After years of hurt and rejection, and anger and bitterness and serious self-loathing, Kathryn became pregnant and her mother found out and now wanted to be in touch. She was excited to be a grandmother. Kathryn was furious. The last thing she wanted was her mother to be anywhere near her baby. Wasn’t totally screwing up one person’s life enough? Kathryn came to me as her pastor and asked what she was supposed to do. I felt a little like John the Baptist in prison. At that moment I wished that there was another Messiah out there. But there wasn’t. So I swallowed and said, “you’re supposed to forgive your mother.” To Kathryn's fury I added offense. She refused. Forgiving her mother was one thing she could not do. She said, “That would kill me.”
Which is kind of the point. Jesus did say that to follow him means taking up a cross to do it. Strung up by his own enemies and abusers, Jesus prayed for their pardon. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us. It is while your enemies are still your enemies that Jesus commands you love them. Forgiveness does not wait for the hurt to diminish or the scars to heal. Forgiveness does not wait for repentance or an apology. Repentance, while a precondition for receiving forgiveness, is never the precondition for offering forgiveness. Reconciliation may be a two-way street, but forgiveness runs in one direction. It rises up out of the bitterness and out of the pain, while the hurt throbs and the wounds are raw. Christian forgiveness is scandalous and offensive. It is unfair and unjust and undeserved—which is why the Bible calls it grace.
No wonder the fiery John wondered if Jesus was really the one. For Jesus’ handlers standing nervously among the bewildered throng, this could not look good. Was the popular Baptist withdrawing his endorsement? What would this do to Jesus’ reputation? C’mon Lord, at least seize the opportunity and set John straight. Discipline him for his departure from the script. Publicly reprimand him for his misgivings. Nip it in the bud. Use John as an object lesson and condemn weak faith and doubt outright. Make an example of John the Baptist now and you can avoid that embarrassing, messy little episode with Thomas later.
But Jesus didn’t do any of this. That’s because weak faith has never been a problem for him. As far as Jesus is concerned, his power is made perfect in human weakness. So instead of slapping John on the wrist, Jesus slapped him on the back. Addressing the crowd Jesus asked, “What did you go out into that desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man dressed in soft robes? No, you went out to see a prophet—but John was more than a prophet. He’s the one about whom it was written, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way before you.’” Jesus fused together two passages of Scripture, one from Malachi and another from Exodus. By melding them together, Jesus made plain that the whole of Scripture—the Prophets and the Law—both pointed to John as the one who pointed to the Christ. Jesus announced, “John is the Elijah who was to come.” All of Judaism anxiously awaited the coming of a second Elijah who would usher in the reign of God. Now Jesus announced that Elijah had come and with him, the Kingdom and its King.
But you had to be willing to accept it, Jesus said. And this was scandalous too. Especially for those whose moral sensitivities couldn’t accept an Elijah who looked like John or a King who looked like Jesus. In Matthew 21, Jesus will say to his religious detractors, “John the Baptist came and showed you the way to life, but you weren’t willing to accept it. The tax collectors and the prostitutes did, but even when you saw this happening, you did not change your minds.” Well duh, why would they change their minds? “Tax collectors,” “prostitutes” that’s Biblical code for degenerates and outcasts. Talk about morally offensive. To see such people going for Jesus’ Kingdom only verified for the religious folk that Jesus’ so-called kingdom was not the Kingdom of God. Back here in Matthew 11, Jesus reiterated the greatness of John the Baptist, but then he asserted how the least in the Kingdom—like tax collectors and prostitutes—were even greater than John. It made no sense.
Jesus then adds to the confusion by saying, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” Other translations have Jesus saying, “the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people lay hold of it.” Each is half right, I think. Better to read Jesus saying: “the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it.” And why wouldn’t people attack it? It ran counter to everything they believed a proper kingdom of God should be. They would attack it and kill it and try to bury it out of sight. But we all know how well that worked out. The Kingdom forcefully advanced, rising from the dead; but because it’s also made perfect through weakness, the Kingdom, while forceful, never forces. Its power is the power of grace. And if you’ve ever experienced grace, I mean truly experienced it, then you know that there’s no more powerful force than that. Still, you have to be willing to accept it. And, no offense, but you have to be willing to give it too.
On one of my last days in Boston, Kathryn stopped in to say good by. She didn’t know whether I’d remembered our conversation, but she wanted to tell me that she did it. Kelly forgave her mother. And it killed her to do it. But now her own daughter has a grandmother. And that, as far as she was concerned, was nothing short of a miracle.