Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10 Matthew 11:2-11
It has always fascinated me to read the answer that Jesus sent back to John the Baptist in prison.
Clearly, John had doubts about Jesus. Jesus wasn’t fulfilling the image John preached of the Son of Man coming in glory. What Jesus was doing was more gentle, gradual. You might almost call it “underground”. John the Baptist was confrontational, squarely in the tradition of prophets before him and like so many of those prophets, the king took offence and locked him up.
So John asked a question. It is couched in respectful language but it makes it clear that John was having a hard time believing that Jesus was the real deal.
And this is the fascinating part: the answer Jesus sends back contains only a mild rebuke; mostly it is practical and concrete.
Jesus defined his ministry in terms of people helped:
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
It’s like Jesus was saying “look at the good I’m doing; isn’t this obviously God’s work?”
There’s a biblical echo here. Last week I remarked that it was almost like John had memorized Isaiah. So here Jesus claims a list of transformations that is very similar to the list in our Isaiah reading today.
It’s not a direct quote, which is the kind of detail that excites Biblical scholars. Jesus took the blind, the deaf and the lame from the Isaiah reading and he added in those with skin diseases – we used to call them lepers, which more accurately carries the sense of their social standing as total outcasts – and he added the dead and the poor.
Jesus was making a theological point about fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy and expanded the definition of his ministry beyond the kind of salvation imagined by Isaiah. In healing the lepers and bringing good news to the poor, Jesus was updating the vision for God’s ministry to address some of worst problems of his day: the inequity built into society in the law itself which is what excluded anyone with skin conditions, and the inequity created by people as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
And as for raising the dead, well, what could be more remarkable than that? Bringing new life where all life had been lost!
Historians know that Jesus had an amazing reputation as a faith healer. He was shown bringing people back from the edge of death although he would play it down and say things like: “she was only sleeping.”
So resurrections were part of Jesus’ reputation. John would have heard those stories, even in prison, so Jesus was reminding him and challenging John to reflect on what he expected God’s kingdom to really look like: Would it be all glory and power? Or would it be helping others: healing, bringing transformation, binding up what is broken and inspiring new life?
As amazing as John the Baptist was, as legitimate a prophet he was, he still clung to the older vision of traditional power and God doing things by force. Which is why Jesus, while praising John’s greatness said that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John.
That’s how important this change of perspective is: where the first become last and the least become greatest.
It struck me that this message of Jesus to John fits really well with the lighting of the candle of Joy. Joy doesn’t come out of nowhere; often the deepest joy comes out of struggle.
The list of help that Jesus was providing in his ministry is like a list of reasons to be joyful.
Think of all the people being freed from physical limitations: blindness, deafness, mobility issues, what they called leprosy, problems cleared up so people could rejoin their families and communities, people shown a way out of poverty and even people having their lost loved ones restored to them.
The deep joy inspired by this comes, at least in part, because the people involved already know how difficult life can get. Jesus was declaring that this is what defines the true work of God: helping people; making a difference; producing joy by changing lives.
In the coming months we will be considering what vision we have for Knox for the future. I would hope that we consider this Biblical lesson as we seek inspiration for that vision.
We already do this kind of work and like Jesus, we expand the definition of help to address modern problems. Our Outreach committee is involved in a lot of practical ministries here in Ottawa and our Mission and Service donations support practical ministries across Canada and around the world.
Maybe we need to talk about this work more, remind ourselves that this vision of Jesus is still with us and we are still doing that work. We try to be polite, not blow our own horns, so we’re modest about what we do but it’s good to know that we make a difference; it’s good to discuss how we can help. It’s important to be aware of the transformations we can bring.
This is more than Outreach and Mission and Service. It’s part of our whole existence when we teach, when we worship, when we gather for fellowship. We are always hoping to make a difference, to make lives better.
This is so much more than the idea of sharing at Christmas when we try to be aware of the needs of others as a seasonal duty. This is a message that says that really pursuing God’s vision will heal, will restore, will make whole, will bring new life and new hope to the people we connect with in every season.
This is the vision of ministry that Jesus declared to John. This is the vision of ministry that Jesus passed on to us. As the future unfolds before us, let’s embrace that vision and find new ways to reach out and help others.