Jesus and John (Luke 7.18-35) [Sermon 2-12-17]

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February 10, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2017. From our ongoing series at Central Church of Christ, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”

Readings for Sunday are Psalm 146.5-10 and Luke 7.18-35.

Resources I used for this sermon include:

Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 83-86.

Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 99-101.

Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 294-305.

Beth Kreitzer, ed. New Testament III: Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 156-61.

A rough audio is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.

Should we look for someone else?

John’s disciples informed him about all these things. That’s how our Gospel lesson today began. So that raises the question. What things had John’s disciples informed him about?

Earlier in his Gospel, Luke had told us: Herod the ruler had been criticized harshly by John because of Herodias, Herod’s brother’s wife, and because of all the evil he had done. He added this to the list of his evil deeds: he locked John up in prison (Luke 3.19-20). Among a laundry list of corruption, dishonesty, and violence, Herod had stolen his brother’s wife. This was more than just family drama that you might see on daytime television, or hear in a country song. It was a gross violation of God’s law. The Torah was very clear about this: Don’t have sex with your brother’s wife; that would violate your brother … If a man marries his brother’s wife, it’s a defilement. He has shamed his brother (Lev. 18.16; 20.21 MSG).

We can guess, from what Luke has shared about the tone of John the Baptist’s preaching, that John didn’t just politely suggest to Herod that he’d committed a spiritual faux pas. [1] Probably there were angry threats of fiery judgment. John the Baptist was a preacher who called his own congregants a brood of vipers (Luke 3.7). I’m sure he could think of a worse name to call somebody he didn’t like. Like Herod.

Well, Herod wasn’t going to take any lip or opposition off anyone—not even a prophet from God. John had to be hushed up, so Herod had him locked away in prison.

So while Jesus’ star was rising, John was rotting in the darkness of Herod’s dungeon. While he’s been locked up, Jesus has been spreading the Good News of God’s salvation: healing fevers and paralysis; touching lepers and cleansing them; delivering boatloads of fish to local fishermen; even raising a widow’s son from the dead! There were other things Jesus was doing, too, that may have raised John’s eyebrows: like stretching the Sabbath to the point that the local religious authorities accused him of outright breaking it. And crossing enemy lines to heal the servant of a Roman centurion. It was all those things John’s disciples would have informed him about as our lesson today began.

John had preached an urgent message of fiery judgment and the need for repentance. When he was born, his father had sung about how God had brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us (Luke 1.71). Showing mercy to the enemies of God’s people while breaking the Sabbath was probably not the revolution John had in mind.

And still—at the end of last week’s lesson, we overheard the crowds saying: A great prophet has appeared among us; and, God has come to help his people (Luke 7.16). The people were starting to believe Jesus was the one John meant when he said: the one who is more powerful than me is coming (Luke 3.16).

And so he sent two of his followers to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?

[Slide 2] What you have seen and heard

Jesus had begun his ministry by promising release to prisoners (Luke 4.18). And now John the Baptist is a prisoner.

Will Jesus, the one more powerful than John, come to rescue his cousin from prison somehow? Is Jesus really the deliverer John had prophesied? The one who would bring God’s salvation? Or was John wrong about him? Should he and the people look for someone else to save them?

So two of John’s disciples go and ask Jesus John’s question: Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?

Jesus doesn’t answer them at first. Not with words, at least. Luke says: Right then, Jesus healed many of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he gave sight to a number of blind people. His reply was to keep doing what he was doing. Only then did he turn to John’s disciples and speak: Go, report to John what you have seen and heard. Those who were blind are able to see. That was part of his agenda, from day one—when he read from Isaiah 61 to the synagogue at Nazareth, and said:

Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it (Luke 4.18-21).

Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Now Jesus is throwing Isa. 35.5 into the mix: Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.

Those who were dead are raised up. That’s from Isa. 26.19: Your dead will live, their corpses will rise.

And good news is preached to the poor. That’s back to Isaiah 61 again. That’s been Jesus’ mission statement all along: to bring the Good News of God’s salvation to the poor. That means the actual, literal, hungry and can’t-pay-their bills poor folk among God’s people. But Jesus also meant everyone who felt defeated or pushed to the margins. Frustrated fishermen. Lepers. Widows who’d just lost their only child. Even strangers in a strange land, like Roman centurions. Anyone who’s lost and alone and desperate.

And just like Jesus meant both the money-poor and the spiritually-poor needed to hear the Good News; I suspect there was also more than one meaning for blind and deaf. He meant both those whose eyes and ears didn’t work because there was something physically wrong with them; and those who suffered from spiritual or emotional blindness and deafness. So I don’t think it’s by accident that Jesus healed the blind and deaf, and then told John’s disciples to go back and tell him what you have seen and heard. He wants John and his disciples not to be blind or deaf to what God is doing in the world through Jesus.

And to put an exclamation point on it all, Jesus adds a new beatitude: Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me. That’s Jesus’ way of saying, Don’t lose faith just because God’s salvation doesn’t sound or look like what you expected it would.

When God’s salvation doesn’t meet our expectations

See, I think that’s what John’s disciples—and perhaps John himself—were struggling with. The Good News of God’s salvation didn’t quite line up with their expectations. That’s a very human problem, even for the most righteous among us. One of the stories we focused on last time was when the prophet Elisha cleansed the Syrian officer Naaman of leprosy. The reality of God’s salvation didn’t match Naaman’s expectations, either. Elisha told him to dip seven times in the Jordan River, and his leprosy would be cleansed. At first Naaman left offended. He said:

I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus … better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean? (2 Kings 5.11-12)

Naaman was only cleansed when he learned to submit to God’s plan of salvation. It seems that John and his disciples were wrestling with the same issue. I think we all do sometimes. I don’t say that to judge John. Jesus goes on in our lesson today to call John a prophet … and more than a prophet. To see him struggle to submit like any of us, and still be so highly  honored in God’s plan of salvation, should make us love John more. And give us all hope.

I suspect the issue may have been that John’s understanding of the scope of God’s salvation was too narrow. Like we’ve already seen, John’s father sang about God saving Israel from our enemies (Luke 1.71). Jesus’ mother Mary sang about how God had come to the aid of … Israel (Luke 1.54). The old prophet Simeon had said Jesus would be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel (Luke 2.34). All of those were true. But it wasn’t the whole truth. They were all thinking of salvation in narrow terms—God saving Israel. But God sent Jesus to save all peoples—including Israel and their enemies—and all creation. Like Paul would later write, God reconciled all things to himself through [Christ]—whether things on earth or in the heavens (Col. 1.20).

I think there’s a lesson here for believers today. I’m afraid many of us have been taught the gospel in ways that are almost exclusively focused on individual salvation, individual spirituality, and a personal relationship with God. I’m not saying those aren’t important, but personal salvation or fulfillment or security isn’t the point of God’s salvation. There’s so much more to it than you or me “going to heaven.” It’s about us being set free from sin and shame and fear to bring heaven to earth. God’s salvation is universal in scope.

So like John and his disciples, we must learn to submit to the Good News of salvation on God’s terms. God famously said through Isaiah: Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are … my plans [higher] than your plans (Isa. 55.9). God’s vision will always be bigger than ours. When God’s ways frustrate us, maybe the problem is our vision is too narrow. God’s plans will always be more than ours—not less. But we may even have to tweak our definitions of more and less to see that.

Acknowledging the justice of God

After John’s disciples depart, Jesus speaks to the crowds who have begun to follow him. He reaffirms for them John’s enduring place in God’s plan of salvation. The angel Gabriel had told John’s father before he was born that John will be great in the Lord’s eyes (Luke 1.15). And nothing—not even his despair in Herod’s prison—will change that.

Jesus tells the crowds John is not some stalk blowing in the wind. John is a prophet … and more than a prophet. Jesus tells them John is the one of whom it’s written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you. The scriptures had foretold John’s ministry—it was part of God’s plan of salvation.

What Jesus said there was a mashup of two scriptures. Exod. 23.20, where God told the Israelites: I’m about to send a messenger in front of you to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place that I’ve made ready. And Mal. 3.1, where God says: Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me. See how Jesus actually blended those two scriptures? They mean something more when they’re mixed together than they meant on their own, separately. In the Malachi passage, someone is going before the Lord to prepare his way. That’s how we usually think of John’s ministry, and that’s certainly correct. But Jesus has also stirred in the Exodus passage, where the Lord goes before the people to prepare their way, so they can get to the place where God is leading them. John came calling for repentance to prepare the people for Jesus. The path he cleared was their very hearts, so they’d be ready to listen to Jesus and follow him. So they would know that Jesus was God’s salvation. That Jesus was who John meant when he said: the one who is more powerful than me is coming.

Jesus said, no greater human being has ever been born than John. But then he turned right around and said: Yet whoever is least in God’s kingdom is greater than John. That’s because God’s salvation through Jesus brings a new reality, a new order of things, a new world. In this new reality, God has lifted up the lowly, as Mary sang (Luke 1.52). The poor, the disabled, the lepers, the widows, and even the hated tax collectors have been lifted up by Jesus into God’s kingdom.

Luke says that everyone who listened to John, repented, and was baptized, including the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice. That means their transformed lives proved God was right to raise up the poor and disabled and lepers and widows and tax collectors. John’s ministry prepared them for God’s salvation, which is God’s justice because it reconciles all people to God—even tax collectors and Gentiles. On the other hand, Luke says the Pharisees and legal experts rejected God’s will for themselves because they hadn’t been baptized by John. By refusing John’s baptism, they were saying: We don’t need to repent. We’re happy the way things are.

This raises question for followers of Jesus today—and indeed, the entire church: Do our lives acknowledge God’s justice? Or are we content with the status quo, like the Pharisees who rejected the Good News of God’s salvation?

Time to cry, or dance?

God sent John to clear a path through rough, uneven terrain, full of obstacles: the stubborn hearts of humans. To raise the valleys, lower the hills, and straighten the crooked ways of resistance to the Good News of God’s salvation. The tax collectors and sinners and all sorts of other hard-living outsiders had listened to John, and now were being drawn to Jesus. But the Pharisees and legal experts—the upstanding citizens and “good guys” of that day—had rejected John, and were now also opposing Jesus.

And Jesus has something to say about that: “To what will I compare the people of this generation?” Jesus asked. “What are they like?” The people of this generation means people like the Pharisees and scribes—not the poor folks, tax collectors, and sinners who’d been baptized by John, and were now following Jesus. They were already on an Exodus out of that generation, into the kingdom of God.

Jesus says those of this generation—those happy with the status quo, who see no need to repent—are like children sitting in the marketplace calling out to each other, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t cry.’ When John called for weeping and repentance, the Pharisees and scribes said, He has a demon. But now Jesus has come eating and drinking—joyfully celebrating God’s salvation—and the Pharisees and scribes call Jesus a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. There’s no getting them to play along. At the same time, they put down John and Jesus for refusing to play along with their games.

Jesus says that the Pharisees and scribes are only playing games with people. But wisdom, Jesus says, is proved to be right by all her descendants. This wisdom is God’s plan of salvation. How God is reaching out through Jesus to tax collectors and sinners; to the poor and the sick; even across enemy lines to folks like the Roman centurion we met last week. Those who live in and live out the Good News of God’s salvation are the descendants of God’s wisdom. And when Jesus says wisdom is proved to be right, he uses the same word that was translated acknowledged God’s justice earlier. Those who wept with John now dance with Jesus. Those who have been ignored, forgotten, or pushed away by the Pharisees and legal experts and their games; have been drawn to God’s salvation by John and now Jesus. Again, their transformed lives prove God’s wisdom. They demonstrate that God is right, and John and now Jesus are his true representatives. Not the Pharisees and scribes.

Well, that’s where the lesson ends this time. John came calling the people to cry, and he was right. Jesus came calling the people to dance, and he was right, too. The Pharisees and scribes thought John was demonic and Jesus was a drunk. And they were wrong. You know what that means? It means there are times and seasons when we need to hear a call like John’s to weep over our sins and repent. But Jesus also calls us to joyful celebration, to acknowledge God’s justice, and feast on God’s love.

Children of wisdom will know when it’s time to cry, and when it’s time to dance.

[1] I nicked this phrase, spiritual faux pas, from a line in a Jacob’s Trouble song, “Church of Do What You Want To“: They ain’t sins no more / they’re more like spiritual faux pas. From the album “Door Into Summer,” Alarma Records, 1989.


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