Are you Qualified, Jesus?

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 5, 2016.
Taken from Luke 7:19-23

John in Prison

An elderly man lay in his upstairs bedroom, awaiting death.  The doctors had done all they could, until it finally was obvious there was nothing more to be done.  The man and his wife agreed he would be more comfortable at home, in his own bed, for his final days on earth, which seemed to be few, at this point.

As the man lay there, at death’s door, he could hear his wife busy downstairs in the kitchen.  Soon there came wafting up the stairs the aroma of the fresh baked brownies that his wife had just baked and taken out of the oven.  Throughout these last years, the man had been on a very strict diet.  He could not remember the last time he had enjoyed a fresh baked brownie.  He thought, “What the heck, what’s it matter now?  I’m going to get me a brownie.”

So, the man pulls himself up out of his bed.  He steadies himself, and then bracing himself, he stumbles over to a chair, where he stops.  He holds onto the chair as again he steadies himself.  He then makes it over to the bedroom door, where once again, he leans and catches his breath.  And, on he goes, out into the hallway, pulling himself along until he reaches the top of the stairs.

Honestly, he thinks, “This may be it…this may take every last bit of life left in me, but I’m going to make it at least long enough for one last bite of a hot, fresh baked brownie.”  So, he sits himself down on the top step and slowly, ever so slowly, eases himself down, step by step by step.  Along the way, he stops to listen for his wife.  He doesn’t want to alarm her or frighten his sweet wife who’s been taking such pains to care for him.

The man finally reaches the bottom step where he can look into the kitchen.  Sure enough, there on the counter, sit the brownies, cut in nice large squares that she’s laid out on a serving platter.  He looks and listens; no sign of his wife, she’s gone somewhere else in the house.  Now’s his chance; for him, it is literally now or never to enjoy one last brownie.

Somehow, he pulls himself up to standing, he stumbles across the hallway and through the kitchen door.  He dare not stop until he’s at the kitchen counter, where he leans and catches perhaps his last breath on this earth.  He picks up that warm square of chocolate deliciousness and opens his mouth to shove it in.

Suddenly, his wife is by his side.  She reaches out and smacks his hand but hard.  “Put that brownie down this instant!  I made those for the funeral!”

John the Baptist is facing down his own death.  Not from the comfort of his bed, mind you, but from a barren cell in King Herod’s prison. (Luke 3:19-20).  While John the Baptist awaits the inevitable moment when Herod will indeed execute him, John considers his cousin, Jesus.  Like our poor husband craving for one last brownie, John the Baptist desperately wants a sign from Jesus.1

Jesus, whom John himself baptized, whom John realized was the Anointed One of God and the One to whom John has directed his own followers; Jesus, for whom John did his fiercest preaching to prepare the people to follow Jesus:

“You nest of snakes!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit that proves your repentance….Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the tree!  Bear good fruit or you’ll be chopped down and thrown into the fire!”  (Matthew 3:7-10)

“I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is on his way…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand; he’s here, to clear his threshing floor…to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16-17)

It is so going to be a “turn or burn” spectacle now that Jesus, God’s Anointed has shown up!  John had expected a holy blood-bath of epic proportions.

How John, so near death, craved at least one last sign that Jesus was indeed that Anointed One of God!  Had he gotten it right; that he’d pointed his followers to the true righteous teacher of God.  But, had he?  Had John given up his own fierce firebrand that burned with righteous rage, handing it over to the wrong man?

Amidst all the signs that Jesus performed, John wants just this one last sweet, burning bite, to reassure him that Jesus is qualified to wear the mantle of God’s Anointed.  So, he sends two of his own disciples to find Jesus and to ask him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Twice, Luke lays that question out for us to contemplate.  Word for word, Luke gives it to us, from the mouth of John to his disciples and then immediately from the mouths of his disciples to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  (Verses 19 & 20)

That’s an awkward question to ask of Jesus.  But, apparently, according to Luke, that is the question we each need to ask and answer for ourselves.  That’s why he records it not once, but twice for us his readers:  has Jesus turned out to be something other than what you expected?  Has your faith that Jesus is the one…your Savior, your Lord, the fulfillment of what you expected of God…has that turned out to be correct, or should you look elsewhere?

It’s a shocking thing to consider, I’ll grant you.  Even Jesus understands the shock value of John’s question.  In verse 23, Jesus turns to all who are there, and to us, because now we are there, too.  Jesus says, “…blessed is whoever who is not scandalized in me.”  Our English word, “scandalize”, comes straight over from the Greek word that Luke reports Jesus saying.  To be scandalized, to be shocked at, to be deeply offended by.2

“Has Jesus turned out to be someone or something other than what you’d hoped for, and, if so, should you look elsewhere?”  Apparently, for many a baptized believer in Jesus, the answer is “yes.”  And, they have turned to look somewhere else for whatever it was that first drew them in faith to Jesus.  They made a start with Jesus, but they have since turned away from following Jesus.

It’s a really complex thing to answer, “Why have baptized believers started off with Jesus but have since turned away from him?”  Maybe if they were in the very presence of Jesus it wouldn’t be that way.  We’re there with Jesus, because Luke calls us as his readers in our religious imaginations to put ourselves there and to hear this twice-asked question.

But, we’re not really there, are we?  We aren’t in the bodily presence of Jesus.  So, did these folks have an advantage over us in answering John’s question because they were physically with Jesus?  Doesn’t seem so; John had been with Jesus, had observed Jesus’ ministry, but it doesn’t allay John’s doubts.

So, this question weighs on John’s conscience.  It’s weighing on the consciences of those people there, whom John baptized and who are following Jesus because John told them that’s what they should do (see verse 29).

Now, Luke wants this question to weigh on our consciences, too, in concern for our fellow professed Christians, certainly, but first in concern for ourselves…how has Jesus, if not scandalizing us, how has he at least disappointed us so that he no longer qualifies to hold the preeminent place in our love?

For John the Baptist, it is not the fact that he is facing imminent martyrdom that upsets him.  What upsets him is the thought that he is about to give his life for the wrong cause and for the wrong person.  John wants to know this from Jesus:  while there is still time, dear cousin, before I lay my head on the executioner’s chopping block, should I point my disciples in a different direction?

Well, Jesus does not let John the Baptist off so easily.  He does not give John the quick satisfaction of a clear “yes” or “no”.  What Jesus expects of John the Baptist is exactly the same thing Jesus expects of you and me.  Jesus tells John to consider Jesus’ Gospel, to measure Jesus’ deeds, and to answer the question for himself as we must for ourselves: is Jesus still for me the right one of God, the one preeminent in my love, the one for whom I offer my life’s witness.

That is the literal meaning of the word “martyr”.  The word “martyr” means “witness”:  will I continue to give witness of Jesus and his Gospel, by word, by action, by dedicating myself as a living witness.  Would I be a witness of Jesus even to the point, as John will soon do, as Luke’s first readers sometimes were called on to do, to witness of Jesus by dying the martyr’s death.

Man, that turned dark in a hurry, didn’t it?  So, let’s just catch our breath and back away from the frightening specter of martyrdom.  That’s not really where Jesus was headed with this anyway.  Instead, Jesus moved everyone along by this interesting thing he does next.

Jesus doesn’t bash John the Baptist there to the crowd because of John’s question.  Jesus in no way feels the need to diminish John the Baptist at all.  Instead, he lifts up John the Baptist before the people.  He invites them to consider the heart of John’s message.  Then, in verse 28, Jesus makes a crucial pivot by saying this:  “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John…”

Notice how Jesus set this up:  “among those born of women”.  Well, that pretty well covers the whole of humanity, doesn’t it?  After all, how else does one go about getting born?

We also may get born of the Holy Spirit, don’t we, if we enter the kingdom of God?  It’s that whole conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus; that the Gospel of John records for us in John chapter three. (John 3:1-8)

Back to Luke 7:28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John, yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”  We have come into the kingdom of God, this unseen yet eternal community of God’s beloved children. Jesus’ Gospel is all about being part of that community, entering it, living it, anticipating its fulfillment.

John the Baptist was right about Jesus; he just didn’t know exactly how he was right about Jesus.  John was looking at his own works, his own fiery message, and he couldn’t get them to line up with Jesus’ works and message, and it confused him.

Perhaps we’ve wondered about Jesus and our allegiance to Jesus and whether to keep going in active witness of Jesus.  Whatever the cause of our bewilderment:  we were right about Jesus, even if we don’t really know exactly how we were right.

This “kingdom of God business” is not easy always to understand, if ever.  But, the weakest among us in any way—whether in faith, knowledge, obedience—we still are so greatly valued and esteemed in God’s love.

The takeaway for today is at least this:  Let’s help each other always to grasp this basic truth about the kingdom of God:  the weakest is valued as much, and more, as the strongest.  Let’s help those, our sisters and brothers who’ve grown weak, who’ve somehow forgotten and wandered on to other paths.  Our ministry is not that of fire and threat; ours is the ministry of the Anointed Shepherd of God, come to gather the flock safely into God’s fold, the weak and the strong.

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1Exegetical notes are from Joseph A. Fitzmyer, ­The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28, Double Day & Co., 1982.

2 BAG, skandalizo, p. 760a.