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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before December 15, 2013

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Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

What I am Learning:

Last week we read Matthew’s overview of John the Baptist’s message. This message was basically that God was moving to throw off the Roman Empire and its client kings like Herod and establish another way to be human in Palestine. Now I know he doesn’t come right out and say this. Instead he uses literary references of freedom from the Egyptian (being in the wilderness near the Jordan river) and Babylonian Empires (the quote from Isaiah) and how the People of Israel were eventually freed from them to signal that a similar thing was about to happen. People left their homes and went out to listen to John. They saw him preaching a word of hope in a time of deep darkness.

This week we see where that message got him. John is now a political prisoner of Herod the Great. Herod was one of the client kings, basically figureheads, that carried out Rome’s policies. The Romans liked client kings because if the people got too angry about how things were going, the Romans could always blame the client king for being too cruel and install another. Very smart!

Today John sends a message from prison, “Are you the one we are looking for?” John had been preaching that the messiah would come, and would gather the wheat (those obedient to the Reign of God) into the granary and the chaff (those who were not obedient) to be burned.

The messiah’s basic job description in the first century was to

  • Heal the sick (8:2-3)
  • Make the blind to see and the deaf to hear (Isaiah 29:18-19)
  • The lame to walk (Isaiah 35:5-6)
  • Raise the dead for life in the Reign of God (Isaiah 26:19)
  • Preach good news to the poor (Isaiah 61:1)
  • Release to prisoners (Isaiah 61:1-2)
  • The cancelling of debt and restoration of land to people  (Isaiah 61:2)
  • Lead the people as a military general (Isaiah 63: 6)

Nowhere does it say that the messiah is to get people into heaven when we die. Nowhere does it say that God needed to beat up and kill the messiah so that God could forgive human beings.

Instead, the messiah was to lead the people to a new way to live on this earth – he would accomplish this by dramatically re-ordering how people live with each other. The poor and those with disabilities would not be on the bottom of the pile any more. There would be no more pile.

The dead who had never experienced life as it could be would be raised to enjoy life as God intends it.

Now John knows that the lifespan of a political prisoner of Herod was rather short. He want’s Jesus to get going and release the prisoners (him and others) and to kick the Romans and their client kings out – with violence. He knows the grief and doubt of the prisoner, “That it was all for nothing.” He reaches out to see if Jesus is the messiah, if his risk as a public leader was worth it.

When Jesus repeats the list, he leaves out the part of the job description about leading the people to kill their enemies until the mountains are red with their blood.

And then he says, “Blessed are those who take no offense at me.”

Jesus is re-writing the job description of the messiah to exclude the use of violence to end violence.

This does not mean that Jesus want to stand by passively as the Roman Empire continued to crush the 85% on the bottom of the pile. Rather Jesus want’s to invite each person to express her or his God-given power with each other, until the whole society is changed from within.

Nor does this mean that we would not engage in conflict with elected officials and other influencers in the society. There are practical laws and policies that we have in the US that keep poor people poor and disadvantage racial minorities. It is clear to me that Jesus (and indeed the founders of this country!) expects us to identify these and work to change them.

In this passage he says this when he says that  “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John. Instead of focusing all the power on one or two public figures, Jesus seems to be saying that everyone is capable of some kind of public leadership.

Our focus on public leaders can be helpful. Nelson Mandela was a public leader who showed what one person can do. But it is easy for us to look at his story and think that the only leaders are famous or well known. It is easy to mistake public leadership with famous leadership.

Mandela, like John, was a political prisoner. Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He engaged doubt and grief in that cell. We may not live in a cell, but we often struggle with doubt. Not so much doubt about God or Jesus as doubt that our small life can be meaningful and can make a difference. The primary question of our age is about the future of the earth and its peoples. Will the human race survive our thoughtless use of power?

I believe that Jesus is calling each of us to our own form of public (but often not famous) leadership. Jesus is calling people exercise public leadership, orienting ourselves and others to the inbreaking Reign of God so that there are no more poor. Jesus as the messiah was concerned, as Douglas John Hall wrote, “with the real condition of human beings” on this planet.

I envision TCC to be a small part of Jesus messianic movement of active but non-violent leaders taking their part in the inbreaking reign of God and finding meaning and peace as we do.

One example of this is Sister Mary Hodges. She developed half-way houses for people coming out of California prisons. When she started, she didn’t know how to run a house for prisoners. But has now helped hundreds of people to find a new life after prison. You can read more about it in a link on our website or FB page.

As we continue the season of Advent, we prepare not just for our celebration of the birth of the Messiah, but the messiah’s full birth in us; until the full stature of the messiah is expressed in us, flawed and failing though we be.

An article about someone making a difference:

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/2013/1108/Sister-Mary-Sean-Hodges-gives-ex-convicts-a-second-chance

Some blogs I liked this week:

http://biteintheapple.com/forerunners/

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3108

This one is aimed at preachers, but the first 2/3 are good for everyone.

http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1567