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 John 1:29-34 (The VOICE) 

 

This week we are completing the upgrade to our Spiritual GPS, otherwise known as a Global Positioning System. We’ve been comparing those times on a trip when our GPS is recalculating, and when God seems to  be doing some recalculating in our lives as we journey with him. We started off seeing the arrogance of someone  making future plans without taking God into consideration, presuming that they were in command of all the variables. All the variables? We don’t even know what all the variables are. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow! It is far better to put it into God’s hands, the one who can see everything. When we are planning something, we should be praying to God for wisdom and discernment, to re-calibrate our GPS. 

 

Then, we spent time with Paul, Silas, and Timothy on Paul’s second missionary journey when they were wandering around in the deserts of Western Turkey and were prevented from going to the places they intended. Sometimes we need that time of wandering to give us time to reflect, give us time for internal growth, time to ponder and consider before we jump into the next thing. It’s important that we follow God’s leading here, or we won’t be in the right place and prepared for what God has for us next. What might even seem good, right, and God glorifying may not be what  God has in mind for us right now. 

 

Last week, we learned that sometimes the route God wants us on is painful. There can be spines, thorns, and prickles.  God can be putting us through a time of purification and preparation. Like the time with Peter on the night of Jesus’  arrest. Purification is painful, but it is for our benefit. Like when silver is refined, God may have us over the fire to burn away our impurities, but he is watching us every second. He knows when to take us out of the fire, when we are the reflection of God. 

 

This week we are with John the Baptist. We heard earlier as John heralded the arrival of Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Son of God. He was so certain, but life had changed quite a lot since he was baptizing people in the Jordan River and calling out the brood of vipers on its bank. He called out King Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s ex-wife and his lavish lifestyle. The King rewarded him by throwing John in prison. He was given an opportunity to reflect and consider where God’s GPS had sent him. We are in the book of Matthew 11:2-6. 

 

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples
3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is 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 cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 

 

Few of us would envy the life that John the Baptist had on the Jordan River. Rough uncomfortable clothes with a rough leather belt, eating only locust and wild honey, but it was a life that suited him. He was very direct in his speech, and he spoke with urgency. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” (Mt 3:2) He encouraged people to rededicate themselves to God. He said, “After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (vs. 11) He called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who came to spy on him, calling them a brood of vipers. He reminded many of the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament who was very bold in calling out King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah angered them so much that he had to flee for his life. (cf. 1 Kings 19:1-14) He was discouraged, and we can imagine John was discouraged. Like Elijah, he had challenged the ruling authority, King Herod Antipas, which eventually got him arrested. Now, he is cut off from his ministry, sitting in prison.  

 

When John was talking tough to the “brood of vipers,” he never expected to be wasting away in Herod Antipas’ prison. He thought that they were the ones who were going to suffer and be punished, right now! Then, he hears what Jesus is doing, and it doesn’t look like what he expected. When he said that after him was coming one who would be more powerful than him, he thought it was Jesus. He had identified Jesus as the one, but now he is beginning to have second thoughts.

 

If Jesus is the one, why are the brood of vipers still free, and why is he still in in prison? John considers, maybe he was wrong. Maybe it’s supposed to be someone else. So, he sends his disciples, his students, to ask Jesus. Are you really the one, or are we still waiting for someone else?  

 

Jesus’ response is very interesting. He doesn’t say yes, and he doesn’t say no. Since we know the kind of Messiah Jesus is, the suffering servant, who will sacrifice himself for us, Jesus’ response can almost sound sarcastic. It can sound like, “Why are you even asking this question? Can’t you understand that all these things are you hearing about are the marks  of the Messiah?” However, Jesus knows that John has the same expectation of what the Messiah will be as everyone else, a political ruler of this world that will remove the Romans and the people he sees as collaborators and abusers of the people like the Sadducees and Pharisees. Jesus knows this. So, think of Jesus responding to John with compassion and understanding.

 

He is teaching John the true nature of the Messiah, by reminding him of places in Isaiah’s prophecy such where it says in chapter 35, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6) John’s spiritual GPS is … Recalculating. 

 

Then, Jesus says something very important, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” That too can sound very strange. Why would you stumble because of Jesus? There are two things there. First, Jesus not doing it the way that tradition anticipates. The disciples had similar issues. Peter rebuking Jesus when he talks about dying. Pharisees constantly questioning him. Not meeting the traditional expectations of what the Messiah is supposed to look like. Causing doubt even when you suspect it is the truth.  

 

Second, it has to do with this word “stumble.” In the Greek, it is the word skandalizo. Let me say that word again, skandalizo. What English word does that sound like? It is where we get the word “scandal.” There are various English words we can use to define the Greek one. Our Pew Bibles, the New International Version, translated it as stumble. The New Revised Standard Bible translates it as “offend.” As in many found the idea of Jesus as Messiah as offensive. These words can give the impression that it really isn’t a big deal. You stumble. You’re a little off balance for a little bit. You get your bearings, and you’re back walking smoothly again. But there’s stumbling, and then there’s stumbling. What if you stumble? You fall, and you break your hip? That can be very serious. It can be something that is in the front of our minds when it is icy like it is right now. What if you’re hiking in the mountains, and you are near a drop off. You stumble, and you fall right over the edge. You could even die. When you see stumble or stumbling block in the Bible it is almost always this word skandalizo. It should be a neon light blinking “Pay Attention.” It is warning you of something that can be deadly. The literal meaning is of a trap, not like these no kill traps that we can get today  to catch a pack rat, a raccoon, or even a feral cat. No, these were traps that were designed to kill whatever got caught in it.  So, in other words, Jesus is saying blessed is anyone who does not allow their preconceived ideas of what the Messiah is supposed to do and look like to trap them and keep them from life.   

 

But, why would this information cause John to stumble or be offended? What did John hear in prison that prompted the question? 

    1. That he was in fact in prison. As we looked at earlier, the brood of vipers are able to walk around freely, continuing to cause trouble. People like Herod continuing to cause trouble.Antipas were allowed to continue
      living an immoral lifestyle and collaborate with
      the Romans to oppress the people … which included putting
      people like him in prison.

      2. J
      ohn was a very pious, moral person. He was encouraging people to follow the Law, to repent and be baptized to show their commitment. He could be offended by Jesus for a similar reason as the Pharisees. Jesus was hanging around with all the wrong people, sinners and tax collectors. He was healing and restoring people not asking whether they had repented or anything. Quite the contrary, they were having dinner parties. This doesn’t look too much like repentance to most people. Though at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus says the same as John, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 3:17)  

 

These can be reasons that we may stumble, be offended, or be trapped today. There are those who want power through any means, even violence, and Jesus is meeting and healing people by the side of the road. He is meeting and welcoming those that society shuns or that some have labeled as eternally condemned. The Pharisees often sent people to ask Jesus provocative questions to try to get him in trouble with the people or the authorities, but he also went to their homes for dinner. So, Jesus not only ate with tax collectors but also with Pharisees. In other words, no matter where you are in society and what your position is and who you consider bad, wrong, unacceptable, or your enemy, Jesus is likely going to eat with them. In fairness to everyone, Jesus is willing to anger anyone.  

 

Yes, Jesus is the “coming one” that John announced, but through his ministry he changes the expectations of what that means. Through his arrival he both fulfills the promises of the prophets, but he also is the stumbling block. He changes the expectations of what it means to be the Messiah, the Savior, through the very way he does it, the way he fulfills it. To say that Jesus is the Messiah doesn’t just say something about Jesus, but it changes the meaning of Messiah as well. Our faith is not increased by our comparing Jesus with our criteria. That is making God into our own image, rather than our transformation into God’s image. We have to get past our own ideas of the scandalous nature of what Jesus does and with whom Jesus is willing to be in relationship. We have to accept that none of us is worthy. Once we do that, we can begin to be a disciple, a  student. … Recalculating … 

 

I saw something the other day. It said, “Switch your mentality from ‘I’m not broken and helpless’ to ‘I’m growing and  healing,’ and watch how your life changes for the better.” (We Are Aware, https://www.facebook.com/AwareNS/ , 01/28/2020) I give a provisional yes to that. However, sometimes when we are overwhelmed, when we are cut off and shut up in our prisons, we can feel like the responsibility of the world is on our shoulders, and we are absolute failures. Then, acknowledging that we are broken and helpless allows us to move forward with God who helps us grow and heals us. 

 

So, John asks are you really the one, or are we to wait for another? And, Jesus does not give him a direct answer. Read that response, not with a sarcastic tone, but a compassionate one. “Go back and report to John what you hear and see…” (Mt 11:4) He doesn’t rebuke or reprimand John. God is not opposed to our questions or our wondering. It’s like Jesus is counseling John. In this crazy time in the world, in this difficult time of your life, what do you see. What do you remember from the moments when there was clarity? What are people telling you that they see?  People are being healed. The dead are raised. The good news is proclaimed to the poor. (cf. Mt 11:5) … Recalculating … 

 

The question is what are the prisons in which we are sitting? Are they affecting our vision? Are they affecting our ability to see God at work in the world? In times like these, we can all ask John’s question. It is reasonable to want some reassurance that we have placed our confidence in the right one. 

 

We hear the bad news all the time, and the bad news is really bad, no argument. The world is broken and full of sin, so there are going to be bad things. There is corruption. There is violence. There is murder. There are people getting away with murder. There is sickness. There are people taking advantage of the system. There are suffering people who are shut out of the system. But there are signs of the good things of God. One place I encourage you to look is the article “99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2019.” I will put it up on the church’s Facebook page, and it will be linked in the sermon on the church’s website to give you a chance to look at the whole article. I could even print it out for you if you are not a computer person. But, right now, let me give you some highlights in five categories: 

    1. In Conservation:
      a. “Dolphins are breeding in the Potomac River in Washington [D.C.] for the first time since the 1880s, whale populations are exploding off the shores of New York [City], and 100 seal pups have been born on the shores of the Thames River in England], 60 years after the river was declared ‘biologically dead.’ Telegraph

    2. In Global Health:
      a.  Remembering the UMC’s connection with Imagine No Malaria, “Algeria and Argentina officially eliminated malaria this year, and the WHO said that in the last eight years, malaria infections in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam dropped by 76%, and deaths fell by 95%. India also reported a huge reduction in malaria, with 2.6 million fewer cases in 2018 than in 2017. Nature
      b. And a second one because it’s just too good. “Malawi [Ma-la’-wi] eliminated the world’s most common
      infectious eye disease, trachoma, the second African country to do so after Ghana. In 2014 more than eight
      million people were at risk. Today, that number is zero.
      Hippocratic Post
    3. Living Standards
      a. Save the Children’s 2019 Global Childhood Report showing that in the last 20 years, children’s lives have   improved in 173 out of 176 countries. Compared to 2000, today there are:
                  – 4.4 million fewer child deaths per year
                 – 49 million fewer stunted children
                 – 130 million more children in school
                 – 94 million fewer child labourers
                 – 11 million fewer girls forced into marriage or married early
                 – 3 million fewer teen births per year
                 – 12,000 fewer child homicides per year
       Naturally this was front page news everywhere. ”
    4. Peace, Safety, and Human Rights
      a. “The number of people killed in wars around the world reached its lowest level in seven years, and battle fatalities have fallen by 43% since 2014. PRIO
      b. And closely related, “The 2019 Global Terrorism Index revealed that deaths from terrorism decreased by 15.2% last year, the fourth consecutive year of improvement. The overall number of terror attacks fell by a third, deaths halved.”
    5. Energy and Sustainability
      a.  “The US Environmental Protection Agency banned 12 products containing neonicotinoids, a pesticide that is dangerous for bees.”

(From <https://futurecrun.ch/99-good-news-2019> ) 

 

Remember, there are 99 of these reports listed in this end of year story. But, what about our own stories and the ones of the people we love. This week I saw a story about a new chicken house and a family of chickens that will be able to move onto Alder Slope. I heard about a birthday party for someone who turned 90 that included music from the band Homemade Jam! We can cry about the fire at Joseph Charter School, but we can see all of the love, dedication, and … and I don’t know what as people come together as a school, as a community. It’s like a miracle.  We have people being treated for cancer who are surviving. Even if their cancer can’t be cured, their treatment is allowing them to have quality of life. These stories are evidence of God’s faithfulness, even when the world seems to be going crazy.  

 

You know, as John is sitting in prison, sitting in darkness (probably literally), he finds that he is having some trouble with his faith. As we can see throughout the Gospel of Matthew, this is the way of discipleship and faith. It is something that  must constantly be renewed and refreshed, re-calibrated and recalculated. And, that is really what this worship series has been all about. None of us has it all figured out. After all, we are only human. That is why discipleship or a life with Jesus is often referred to as a journey. It is not something where we stay in one place. Until we reach that time of complete purification where God can see his reflection perfectly in us, we are not done with that journey. It is a journey where we are questioning, learning, and recalculating as we move through our lives. As Jesus says in John 15, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers.” (John 15:5-6) 

 

Throughout our lives we need constant refreshment through the Living Water and the Bread of Life, through worship and study of the Word, through showing God’s love by the carrying out of the mission of feeding, clothing, and showing compassion to people. That’s how we keep connecting to God’s Spiritual GPS that allows for Recalculating. 

 

Amen! 

Post Author: Cherie Dearth