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Year A - Advent 3 : Matthew 11:2-11
Matthew 11:2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" 4 Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 6 Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." 7 As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: " `I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' 11 I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Have you ever wondered if what you are doing is right? Of any importance? Is it worth the effort?
John the Baptists could have been thinking this. He had come to call people to turn back to God to prepare them for the Messiah. His strong opinions about Kind Herod's sin had led him into prison. Now he was there he was wondering if Jesus really was the Messiah. Perhaps he expected Jesus to defeat the Romans and release him from prison. John's disciples go and ask Jesus if he is the Messiah and he answers by telling John what he already knew. That Jesus was healing people, raising the dead and preaching good news. These were references to Isaiah 35:5f & 61:1. Both of these passages look to the judgement of God to come, 35:4, 61:2. So it is as if Jesus was saying to John and others, "God's judgement will come. Do not be put off by any presuppositions you have about the Messiah. Trust in me."
Jesus then uses the Old Testament to show that John came to prepare the way for Jesus. John was steadfast, lived simply, and spoke the words of God. Even though he was unique those who will follow have a greater privilege than him. They will see and know the revelation of God in Jesus. His life, death resurrection and ascension.
At times we might have questioned if being a Christian is worth it. When we know God's revelation in Christ we will be blessed if we do not fall away. We can rejoice in the knowledge of his resurrection power and hope.
I would like you to imagine that you hear a hammering on your front door early one morning. Standing there are three men. Although they are wearing no uniform they claim to be police officers. They tell you that they belong to the drugs squad and have had a tip off that you are growing something suspicious in your greenhouse.
What is the first thing that you do ?
(a) Ask them if they have been washed in the blood of the lamb ?
(b) Refuse them entry, suspecting this is a ploy from your arch-rival Ted Tichmarsh who fears that you will take the 'Best Chrysanthemum' prize at the local show.
(c) Ask them for some proof of identity and a search warrant before you will let them into your premises ?
(d) Invite them in and ask them if they would like to sample one of your home made cigarettes ?
The first part of this passage concerns the answer to the question "Who is Jesus ?" This was posed by John the Baptist. This is an appropriate question as we approach Christmas, because if Jesus was not the Christ, then, like many, we can throw ourselves into the partying , the drinking, the eating to excess without a second thought about it's significance.
John would have known about the miraculous conception of himself and his relative Jesus. He had baptised Jesus in the Jordan thinking that he was the Messiah. He had prophesied that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, bringing God's judgement to the unrepentant ( 3:11-16 ).
Verse 2, John heard in prison what Christ was doing. He had been imprisoned for denouncing the marriage of Herod who had taken his brother Philip's wife for himself (14:3f.). John had heard about the teaching, healings, and miracles of Jesus but was uncertain that this Jesus really was the Christ. Perhaps he expected that Jesus would immediately declare that he was the Messiah, lead a popular uprising to oust the Romans and free him from prison. After all, if he was the Messiah, he would have had all of the power of God at his disposal. Also, Jesus and his disciples didn't fast ( 9:14 ) and mixed with the irreligious ( 9:9ff ), behaviour that you might not expect from the Messsiah. Perhaps John hoped that his question would stir Jesus to come and release him from prison.
I would like you to return to the illustration I started this sermon with. Imagine that you answered (c) Ask them for some proof of identity and a search warrant before you will let them into your premises ?
The alleged officer then says, "Well, yesterday I did some completed some reports about a drugs raid that we did last week. The day before I liaised with Customs officials about a consignment we are expecting from Holland and, in the afternoon met with an informant.
That wouldn't be the response you would have liked or expected, is it ? You would, rightly, have expected him to produce an Identity card and a warrant to search your house.
John probably expected a different response from Jesus. He would have liked Jesus to answer 'Yes', but Jesus did not answer the question so directly. He probably confirmed what John had already been told when he listed what he had done. But the Scriptures foretold each of these things would be done by the Messiah. Often the deeds listed in these passages were accompanied by predictions of the judgment of God.
4 Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
Jesus pointed to his healing and life-restoring miracles. He did not give promises but clearly observable evidence - evidence that reflected the predicted ministry of the Messiah. In Jesus' review of his works, he used an ascending scale of impressive deeds, ending with the dead raised and the good news preached to the poor. In this way, Jesus reminded John that these were the things predicted of the Messiah in the Scriptures. It is almost as if Jesus ticks of the items that were found on the Messiah's job description. Matthew, of course, wrote his gospel for Jews to prove that Jesus is the Christ and refers, directly and indirectly, to the Old Testament more than all the other gospels added together.
From Chapter 4 Matthew has recorded Jesus' teaching, and his healing of all sicknesses including blindness, paralysis, leprosy ( better translated 'skin diseases' ), and deafness. Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, written over 700 years before Jesus.
Isaiah 35 : 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
In Chapter 10:18ff he raised a dead girl to life. This is to fulfil another prophecy of Isaiah. This one includes words about God's judgment.
61:19 But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. 20 Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by. 21 See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer.
God's judgment will follow. For now people will enjoy his blessing through Jesus. The healings and miracles of Jesus show His compassion and mission. He healed people because he cared about them. He healed people to show that he had come to defeat sin. Sickness and death came into the world as a result of the sin of humankind. Jesus healed and raised people from death to show that he has the power to undo the effects of sin, both physically and spiritually.
When Jesus said, verse 5, and the good news is preached to the poor, this was part of a longer quotation from Isaiah 61: 1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
John would have been aware of this and, perhaps, still hoped that Jesus would set him free. However, Jesus did not mean that he had come to literally let people out of a physical prison. He came to free people from sin, something that can imprison everyone. His mission was to free people from the consequences of their sin by receiving the punishment for the sins of the world as he was crucified. His mission was to free people from the power of sin so that, by His indwelling Spirit believers are free to follow God's ways.
Peter Yakovlevich Vins wrote his family from his Russian prison in 1936. He asked them to pray that Jesus would empower him so he could be a faithful witness for his Lord. Then he concluded with this statement: "It is better to be with him in prison that at liberty without him."
Whilst many of the early church were poor, including numerous slaves, Jesus didn't come to make them and, indeed anyone, materially rich. He came to enrich the lives of those who realize their own spiritual bankruptcy and who approach him in penitence and faith.
Jesus did not want discouragement and doubt to ensnare John so he sought to encourage him. 6 "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." The word translated 'fall away' can mean 'stumble' or 'trip up'. Jesus is saying that John , and everyone should not let their presuppositions get in the way of discovering who he really is. Perhaps that is appropriate this Christmas. Many people might say that they are Christians, even that they believe that Jesus is the 'Son of God', yet they know little about him and will not come to find out more about him. Our duty and our joy is to find out more about Jesus for ourselves, and to share our discovery with others, even when things are difficult. Some of our journey may, like John, involve questioning our faith, even doubting certain things. But if our faith cannot be questioned it cannot be real or true. Indeed the questioning of our faith can strengthen and deepen our trust in Jesus.
The second part of this passage focuses on John the Baptist. Bearing in mind that John's mission was to prepare the way for Jesus, this will lead us back to Jesus, and also people's response to him.
Jesus asked the crowd two rhetorical questions about John, both expecting a negative answer. 7 "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces.
John had been in the wilderness or desert. He was not easily influenced, like a reed blown by the wind. Indeed, he had been so strong in speaking out against Herod's immorality that he had been imprisoned. This is a reminder that the proclamation of God's ways will not be popular or easy. It will not always bring wealth and prosperity. We read this in Matthew 3: 4 John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
It has been said that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. John belonged to the age of the old covenant, which was preparatory to Christ. A prophet is someone who declares the words of God to a particular situation. So, it might be said that good Biblical preaching is prophetic in that it is proclaiming and applying God's will to people today.
9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: " `I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'
Jesus was quoting from Malachi in the Old Testament. When we read the verses that follow it we can see another example of how the coming of the Messiah is linked to judgment...
3 1 "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. 5 "So I will come near to you for judgment...
The Jews believed that a prophet like Elijah would come immediately before the Messiah. This belief came from Malachi 4:5 "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.
John was a great and important prophet. Yet he was last in the line of the prophets of the Old Covenant. This is why Jesus said in Luke 16: 16 "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached....
We have just had the first two rounds of the F.A. Cup when non-league and lower league sides play one another before the bigger clubs join in round 3. I would like you to think of Stan, Stan the poster man, whose job it is to put up posters advertising his non-leagues side's F.A.Cup tie. He travels through all of the town, working hard, putting up posters anywhere he possibly can in all weathers, enduring ridicule as he does so. When his team win their tie and go through to a lucrative match with a Premiership side, who gets the recognition ? Stan, who advertised the tie or John, who played at centre forward and scored the winning goal ?
John stood on the threshold of the new order as it's herald without entering into it. This is why Jesus said 11 I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Jesus was saying it is greater to participate in God's kingdom than to announce it.
'Least in the kingdom' reminds us that we have to humble ourselves like a little child (18:4) to enter into God's kingdom. Yet even the least in the kingdom has advantages over John the Baptist. John could only call people to repent and point them to the fact that a Saviour was coming. He could and did not die for their sins or give the Holy Spirit.
In contrast every Christian, by definition, knows of what Jesus has done, has received His Spirit and can proclaim this to others in a fuller way than John the Baptist.
Isaiah, Malachi, John the Baptist and all the other prophets of the Old Covenant desperately looked forward to the New Covenant that Jesus brought in. As those who have received this New Covenant through God's undeserved favour we should be bowled over with gratitude and excitement because, in God's eyes, we have a greater status. Not because we are better people than John was, but because God sees Jesus in us with all his beauty and perfection.
5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
Jesus whom we celebrate this Christmas, and, indeed every day, is the Messiah, God and man. A baby sent to earth to die in our place on a cross. We are enormously privileged to have had our eyes opened by Jesus, to be enabled to walk in God's way, to have heard the good news, to have been raised from spiritual death to life lived in a right relationship with God. Let us respond to that free gift by following Jesus and telling others about His good news.