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Sermon: Pointing to the Light

December 14, 2010

Matthew 11:2-11

Once upon a time there was a young woman at the university.  We’ll call her Julianne.  Julianne was a diligent student.  At the beginning of the semester of her European history class, she carefully checked over the class requirements.  There was one comprehensive textbook and a number of additional readings, and there were weekly quizzes from materials in the readings and lectures.  The final project was a detailed paper.  Class attendance and quizzes were 50% of the grade, and the final paper was 50%.

Julianne attended every lecture, even on the days she wasn’t feeling well.  She kept up with the reading.  She did well on the quizzes.  In the final weeks of the semester, Julianne prepared a solid outline of her final paper, selected her sources and poured through them, making a large stack of notecards.  Julianne worked hard, and she did well.

On the last day of the semester, during the professor’s office hours, Julianne appeared at his door.   “Good morning, Ms. Thomas.  It’s good to see you.  You’ve done such a great job in my class all year; I can’t wait to see your paper.”

Julianne looked down at the floor.  She said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have a paper to give you.”

“What?”

“I don’t have a paper.  The thing is, I didn’t write it.”

“Well, I’m sorry, too,” said the professor.  “You fail the class.”

*     *     *     *     *

People who are blunt, who say what is on their minds without sugar coating it, often get into trouble.  And so John the Baptist found himself in jail.  Not only had he called the religious elite a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7-10), but he offended Herod by telling him it was not lawful for Herod to marry his half-brother’s wife (Matthew 14:1-5).  John was in prison when he sent some of his disciples to learn a little more about Jesus.  In particular, John wanted to know if Jesus was the real deal.  “Are you the one we are all waiting for, the one sent by God to fulfill our hopes and dreams as a people?”

Are you the one?  Really, that’s a yes-or-no question.  Either you are the one or you are not, Jesus.  Which is it?  Instead of answering simply, of course, Jesus said, “Tell John he must decide for himself.  Go tell him what you see—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news.  Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus did not answer John’s question directly, but instead said, “Look at what is happening.  There are real, concrete things happening because I am here.  These are not just promises, but results—healing, encouragement, resurrection.  Do not trust what I tell you.  Trust what I do.”

Then Jesus spent a few moments talking to the crowd about John.  He said, “John wasn’t a celebrity walking on the red carpet, wearing the finest clothes and sporting a $300 haircut.  You didn’t line the streets to watch him go by as if he were the Pope or the President.  No, you had to go out into the wilderness to see a hard, rough man proclaiming a hard, tough message—repent!  You went to see a prophet.”

Jesus said, “John is the messenger of the Messiah.  He is a prophet.  Malachi wrote about John: ‘I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’  John is great because he has made himself little for the sake of his mission.”

John went out to the wilderness, lived a life devoid of any luxury and preached a difficult message because he knew he had one calling: to prepare the way of the Messiah.  He was not the Messiah, and he freely admitted that.  His one sole purpose in life was to prepare for the Messiah’s coming.  He did not act in order to draw attention to himself, but to point to the one who was coming.  John pointed to Jesus.

The legendary 20th Century theologian Karl Barth was known to have a reproduction of a famous painting of the crucifixion of Jesus hanging over his desk.  In the painting, you can see John the Baptist standing to the right of the cross.  There are words there in Latin that read “He must increase, and I must decrease.”  As Jesus came onto the scene, the role of John, becomes less and less, until ultimately, John disappeared altogether, executed by Herod.

It is said that was Karl Barth’s own personal motto: he must increase, and I must decrease.  But Barth also believed that this picture, from a painting designed for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim—a town in the northeast of France—describes the proper role of the Church of Jesus Christ.  You can see in the painting that John is pointing directly to Jesus on the cross.  Our role as the Church is the role of John the Baptist.  We point to Jesus.  The Church does not exist for itself, or even for the members who are the church.  Our purpose is not to grow larger and more grand and more magnificent, but to recede into the background so that Jesus can come to the front.  Our job is to say to the world, here is the one whom God has sent.  Some would say that is our one mission.

There are a lot of people in our world, our nation, our town, our neighborhoods, who know of Jesus.  They know that Jesus is important to some religious people.  They may know some of the stories about Jesus.  They may even have been to Sunday School or Vacation Bible School or some church camp.  But they don’t really care about Jesus.  And in all honesty, why should they?

That is a legitimate question.  Why should any one of us care about Jesus?  He was a poor man who lived two millennia ago and died the death of a criminal.  Many of the people who claim to represent Jesus on television are later found to have embezzled or cheated or abused their position of trust.  Many of the churches who worship Jesus have little or no connection with the people who live right next door.  Frankly, we disciples of Jesus do not always do a good job of pointing to Jesus.

Why should anyone care about Jesus?  Unless…unless we could perhaps say to people, “What do you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.  What is it that you see: those who are hungry have received a hot meal, a hot cup of coffee and a place to relax, those who have sinned have found mercy and a non-judgmental support system, those who are sick have discovered there are people who will watch out for them and visit them in the hospital, those who grieve have discovered there are people who will cry with them, children are taught and encouraged, older adults are given respect, and everyone has a home here.”  People will not care about Jesus because of the things we say, but they might care because of the things we do.  That is the way the Church points to Jesus Christ.

You remember Julianne.  She did all the right prep work.  She went to the lectures.  She did her reading.  She aced the quizzes.  She planned a careful, well-reasoned research paper.  But she didn’t write the paper.  Sometimes that is the Church.  Sometimes we spend hours decorating and preparing the home, but then we don’t invite any guests.  Sometimes we spend hours worshipping the Creator, but we don’t love his children.  Sometimes we study the life of Jesus, but we neglect to live it ourselves.

And then other times, we do.  We do feed those who are hungry.  We do share a helping hand with destitute young women in India.  We do assist the children of wounded servants of this nation.  We do visit one another in the hospital and check in on those who have a hard time getting around.  We do act like family.

We do it because we have one job, to point to Jesus.  And you can’t point with your words.  We have to do it with our actions.

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