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April 3: Tell John what You Have Seen

Matthew 11:2-19

Luke 7:36-50

The last time we met John, he was certain – but now, it seems, he's not so sure. It was just a few weeks ago – the first Sunday in March, which was also the first Sunday in Lent, when we met Jesus in the wilderness, at the Jordan River, as he was being baptized by John. When they met then, at the beginning of Jesus's public ministry, John was sure – sure about who Jesus was, sure about what was happening. John pointed to Jesus, said that this Jesus was God's chosen one, the one who was sent to save God's people. And, then, God did something to make John even more confident in that pronouncement – the heavens were torn open, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and John heard the voice of God declaring that Jesus is the beloved son of the Eternal Father.

John knew it. He was sure. This Jesus was the One – the one he'd been waiting for.

But, now, he's not so sure. He wants confirmation. And, maybe you can't blame him. John, you see, is sitting in prison. He's been there for a while – because he spoke out against someone powerful. He accused the local strongman, King Herod, of sin – more accurately, he was honest about the sin that everyone could see from a mile away. And when you speak truth to power – when you point out the abuses of the rich and powerful, when you call them out for trampling on the poor, for ignoring the demands of justice, for saying one thing and doing another – when you remind the powerful that they are human, just like everyone else, that they are no better than those who are below them on the social ladder – when you do that, the powerful generally don't take it too kindly. So, Herod has had John arrested, threw him in prison – and will eventually have him put to death.

But, John wonders, isn't Jesus the messiah? Isn't he the savior? And isn't the messiah supposed to set the captives free, and overthrow unjust rulers, and put an end to all of this sin and violence and hatred? If Jesus is the Messiah, shouldn't he be gathering an army, and driving out King Herod, and liberating me, the prophet who God called to prepare his way, to announce the arrival of this new King?

So, John sends messengers to Jesus. They ask "Jesus, are you the One who we have been expecting, are you the One who was promised, or should we keep waiting for someone else?" And, it's implied, if you're really the Messiah, what does that mean for people like John, who are locked up in prison? Shouldn't you be setting him free, breaking those chains?

Jesus, as Jesus is prone to do, does not give a straight answer. He doesn't say "yes, I'm the Messiah." Nor does he say, "No, I'm not." Instead he says, "Go and tell John what you see and hear: Those who were blind are now able to see, those who were crippled are now walking, people with skin diseases have been cleansed, those who were deaf can now hear, those who were dead have been raised up, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.”

In other words, Jesus isn't exactly the kind of Messiah who John seems to have been expecting. The evidence Jesus points to is dramatic – healing the sick and restoring sight and raising the dead – that's unimaginable. The poor receiving Good News in a world that is built to exploit and crush them is, itself, a radical thing. But it's also not the kind of thing John was expecting – the powerful still sit in their palaces, the forces of evil still seem to be on the loose, Jesus hasn't gathered a holy army and doesn't seem to be plotting the overthrow of an evil government.

Jesus isn't doing what John expected. He's not doing the kind of thing that we want him to do.

Jesus is something different. Jesus tells us, shows us, that God is not a "means justify the ends" kind of God. Jesus isn't interested in becoming "just like King Herod, or just like Caesar, only good." Instead of a golden throne, Jesus rules from a wooden cross. Instead of a mighty warhorse, Jesus rides to victory on a humble donkey. Instead of surrounding himself with pomp and circumstance, with soldiers and functionaries – instead of all that, Jesus is surrounded with the lost, the lonely, the poor, the hungry, and the downtrodden.

In other words, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Jesus brings us, is upside down. In God's Kingdom, the honorable and dishonorable mix together. As we saw in the second passage we read, God's kingdom is a place where the religious elites share a table with prostitutes and notorious sinners– and, Jesus says, the religious elites better learn to get used to it, otherwise it's going to be rough for them.

Adam Hamilton, in the book we are reading as a church this Lent, Hamilton refers to the people who surrounded Jesus as "sinners, outcasts, and the poor." People who are excluded from polite society – whether because they don't follow the right rules or fit into the right social categories, or because they have some condition – physical disease, mental illness, emotional challenges – some condition that causes people to exclude them. It's the people who the religious rule-enforcers want to keep out, so that the community can be holy. It's the people who have been stepped on, trampled, by the rich and powerful. It's folks who don't have enough food to eat, who are judged and rejected, who are sick and struggling, who are lost and overwhelmed and don't quite fit in.

When those messengers from John show up and ask if Jesus is the savior, Jesus points to how God is turning the world upside down, points to the new community of hope and welcome and love that is forming around him, and he says "take a look at this. This is what God is doing." In other words, "Yes, I'm the Messiah. Just not quite the Messiah who you expected."

And then, as the messengers return to John, Jesus tells the crowds that greatness looks different in God's Kingdom. John is perhaps the greatest man ever to be born, says Jesus – John is a prophet, but he was also predicted in prophecy, the one who was foretold who would "prepare the way of the Lord" – get the people ready for Jesus. John's a big deal. But, says Jesus "even the least in the Kingdom of God is greater that John." And that's not, I think, about putting John down. It's not about saying that John's bad or not good enough. No, instead, what Jesus is saying is that, in God's kingdom, greatness resides not with the charismatic or powerful or the ones who we are told to think of as "great." Greatness, in God's Kingdom, belongs to the little ones, to the lost ones, to the sinners, and the outcasts, and the poor.

Jesus identifies with the poor. He is born, lives, and dies, as one of the poor – the death he dies is the death of a criminal, of an outsider, of someone who has been labeled "an enemy of the people." He feeds the hungry and breaks bread with the unwanted and has compassion on the hurting and offers hope to the hopeless. And he shows us that, in his Kingdom, the guestlist isn't what we might expect, it's not who we might pick if we were setting the table for a King. In God's Kingdom, the guestless includes everybody, always. The only people who Jesus condemns are those – particularly the powerful – who are unwilling to welcome others. When Simon, the religious leader in our second story, refuses to welcome the prostitute who shows up looking for Jesus, Jesus takes sides with the prostitute against Simon. When churches today try to exclude people – because they don’t behave like we think they should behave, because they don't act like we want them to act – Jesus takes the side of the excluded, of the outcast, of the rejected. Whenever we build a wall to keep people out, Jesus goes outside the walls and joins the people who are gathered there. Whenever we lock the doors to keep out the undesirables, we also lock out Jesus, who spent his time with undesirables. Jesus makes his home, sets his table, right where we least expect it.

The thing is – and this is what gets Jesus in trouble, this is what John didn't get – Jesus isn't the kind of Messiah who sets up his kingdom through a violent revolution. Jesus is the kind of Messiah whose kingdom looks like a table where everyone is welcome. It's not just like any other political system, except using the word "God" a lot. That's often what we tend to do when we claim to be doing God's work – politicians do it all the time – we just do whatever we already want to do, whatever is good for us, and then we say "God Bless America," as if invoking the name of God somehow makes our selfishness and self-centeredness holy. Jesus wasn't just some new king like all the other kings except using God's name as part of his political platform. No, Jesus is a king whose kingdom looks like a feast where the poor and hungry and outcast are given seats of honor. His kingdom is a community of love and mercy and grace and forgiveness. His people are a people of peace, where all are welcome.

That's the kind of king Jesus is. That's the kind of people – outcasts, the hurting, those who were down and out and who had no place left to go – folks like that are the kind of people with whom he spent his time. And, that means that we, his church, are invited to do the same thing – we are invited to set a table in the midst of the world and proclaim loudly and proudly that everyone is welcome, no matter what. As we here at Haymarket Church put it in our statement of welcoming and inclusion, "at Haymarket Church, all people are welcome, and all means all. We believe that all people are created in the image of God, that all people are of sacred worth, and that Christ died for all people. We believe that God’s radically inclusive love excludes no one. We welcome everyone without exception, regardless of age, race, ethnic background, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, family or socioeconomic status, educational background, political affiliation, physical or mental ability, faith history or life experience. We believe that the diversity of God’s creation is part of what makes it beautiful."

Those are big words – and just saying them isn't enough, we are called to practice what we preach. But, my point is, that's who Jesus is, that's what Jesus invites us to do. He invites us to join him in setting a table where everyone is welcome – especially outcasts, so-called sinners, and the poor.

And, here's the Good News: because everyone is welcome at Jesus's table, that means that we are welcome too. When we feel excluded, or not good enough, or unholy or unclean, Jesus welcomes us. When we are like John, stuck in a prison, unsure of where to turn, maybe with some misguided ideas about who God is or what Jesus should do, Jesus welcomes us. When we fail to be loving, when we fail to welcome others, Jesus still welcomes us. God's love is for everybody, always. And that means it's for the person who you find most distasteful, and it's also for you.

So, may we set a table – here at our church, and every day of our lives – may our lives be a table that is set with room for everyone. The poor, the broken, the lonely, the left out – and even sinners like us. Jesus is with the downtrodden. Jesus is with us. Thanks be to God.

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