"Lost and Found"
December 13, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Matthew 11:2-11
This morning I found a $1,000 bill on the parking lot. If it belongs to you, please see me later... Now, if you think Iím serious about that, I have a used car Iíd like to sell you. To be honest, Iím not sure Iíve ever seen a $1,000 bill. Iím assuming there is one. Whose picture is on it? Anyone know? If I did find such a bill on our parking lot, how on earth would I be able to identify to whom it belonged? If such an announcement as I made earlier went out over the loudspeakers at a Ravenís game, how many takers do you think there might be? Probably a long line, wouldnít you say?
In some ways, the question John the Baptist asked of Jesus was similar to such an announcement: "Are you the one?" he asked. "We have this priceless prophecy about an expected Messiah. Iíve been holding it in my hand ever since I found it or it found me. Iíve been paving the way for this coming One, waiting to see who would claim it. Now, please tell me. Are you the one, or should we wait for another?"
If you think Jesus was the only one who stood in line to claim this bill, youíre mistaken. There were lots of folks out there waiting for the chance to step up to the line and say, "I am the One." All sorts of false Messiahs walked the roads of Palestine back then. A funny thing about Jesus was that he didnít wait in that line. In fact, he never claimed the title. The closest he came to doing so was when he asked his disciples whom they thought he was.
In response Simon Peter boldly declared, "you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." As Matthew recalls that moment, Jesus then said, "Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church..." (Mt. 16:17-18) I take it thatís a "yes, I am," but notice - he didnít exactly say so. In fact, in practically the next breath he sternly ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
"Are you the one?" John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask of Jesus. John was in prison at the time. He always had been a firebrand, shooting straight from the hip, not mincing words. The latest time he did so would prove to be his last. The puppet King of Israel, Herod, was shuffling the cards of the royal family. He divorced his wife so that he could marry Herodius, who likewise divorced her husband. John did his well-known "repent, for Godís kingdom is very near" routine, only this time he named names. Not a smart thing to do if you want to keep your head attached to your shoulders. Herodius was especially offended, and next thing you know John was in jail.
Itís from prison that Johnís question was asked. "Are you the one?" Now, tell me, how was Jesus supposed to answer that one? There was no heavenly VISA photo I.D., that he "shouldnít have left home without." If he had answered "Yes, Iím the one" back to John, would the Baptist have "cashed his check," so to speak? I mean, there were all sorts of takers out there, persons willing to say the same thing just have their one moment in the spotlight. Would John have believed Jesus if he had said, "Yes, I am the One"?
Of course, if youíre familiar with the story, you know there was previous history between these two, going back to when they were in their mothersí wombs. Luke tells the tale of Mary and Elizabeth getting together before their sons were born, and how John did a flip in his Momís tummy when they met. At least thatís how the story goes. Do such things translate into the world outside the womb?
There was also that episode when John and Jesus met at the Jordan river. John was baptizing and Jesus came to be dunked. John saw something in Jesus. Otherwise, he wouldnít have had reservations about shoving Jesus under the water. "You should be baptizing me," John said on that occasion. Iíve always wondered, did the Baptist hear that voice from heaven when our Lord came up from the water? "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
In spite of this prior experience, John apparently had questions. Jesus wasnít exactly stepping up to claim the lost $1,000 bill. The truth is, Jesus never misplaced the bill, so to speak. He had no need to claim it because it wasnít lost. Neither was he lost on his earthly journey. He knew who he was and where he was headed. His concern was not to find the heavenly crown he had taken off his head and somehow mislaid when he came to walk the highways of earth. His passion was instead for those who had lost their way. He had come to find them for God, and help them find their real treasure - worth far more than any old $1,000 bill.
In this gospel story, it was John who was lost. He had done his job, insofar as it was plain to him. He spoke the truth, no matter how much it hurt. He prepared the "holy way" (Is. 35:8) for Godís Messiah to come, for Godís people to travel. He faithfully did what needed to be done. What more could one ask? And yet he still wondered, "are you the One, or are we to wait for another." We can only read in our own questions, for we know little more of Johnís thoughts.
If that were me in that prison, I might be discouraged. If I had done all the right things and this was my reward, I might wonder: was it all for nothing? If Jesus was indeed the Messiah, someone who had come to set free the prisoners, why am I still in jail? Why is this happening to me? That is the question of those who live faithfully and yet still face hardship. Why do bad things happen to good people? Itís one thing for the unrepentant to receive their just rewards, but another to experience the injustice of a seemingly undeserved judgement. Thereís not a good answer to that one. We still struggle with it.
Mind you, John was no naive puppy. He knew full well the repercussions of criticizing those in power. If someone doesnít want a road paved across their property and you go ahead and bring in the machinery, youíve got to expect a backlash - even if itís the right thing to do. John knew this. Maybe, however, it was a case of wanting to suffer for a reason. Itís easier to face into the unpleasant events that come our way if we know there is a bigger picture out there. We may not understand all the whyís and wherefores, but knowing that our efforts are not in vain is important.
Like Jews throughout history, John knew about waiting. What else can a people of the promise do when that promise is, as yet, unfulfilled? "Are you the Messiah?" John asked Jesus through his disciples. If not, Iíll jump back into the "wait" mode. I can wait. I know how to do that. I can do it in this prison cell. I just need to know the truth. Iíve been straightforward with people, Jesus, as you well know. Be straightforward with me. "Are you the Messiah?"
Simple question. A "yes" or "no" would suffice. Of course, how does one back up either choice? Thatís the $1,000 dollar question. Did Jesus give a straight answer? Not by how we measure the yardstick. His seeming evasiveness, however, was not for legal reasons - trying to avoid the consequences. He wasnít trying to keep from being tripped up himself. His concern was for those he had come to find, those who were lost - persons like ... John the Baptist, who was just as much in need as anyone else. In the process of finding those who were lost, and helping them discover their way, Jesus was careful that they not trip over him.
Instead of "yes" or "no" to the question "are you the one?" Jesus answered John with an implied question. "Tell John what you hear and see," Jesus said to Johnís disciples. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." The implied question? Based on what youíve heard and seen, is this what you have been waiting for? If so, you have your answer, but you are the one who has to claim it. And then Jesus added, "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
Our Lord was aware that his own words and actions could cause people to stumble, even someone like John. Now you might say that everyone is responsible for their own footsteps, that weíre not to blame for someone else falling flat on their face over something we have said or done, especially if weíve done it for the right reasons, and it was not intended on our part to trip them up. You would be right. If you take offense at something I innocently say or do, I am not responsible for your offense, especially if I didnít do it for the purpose of making you stumble.
Here, however, Jesus was concerned about the negative effects of his positive work. It was a concern the apostle Paul echoed later on in calling those who followed Jesus not to trip up their brothers and sisters in Christ by doing certain things that werenít at all wrong but proved to be a stumbling block to their brethren (Rom. 14:13-23). People can trip over even the good stuff. Itís easy to fall. Gravity sort of pulls us in that direction, doesnít it?
God cares about the fallen, about those who have lost their way, whether they have tripped up over the good stuff, or the bad, whether they have wandered far from home in the backwaters of the Law, or in the depths of sin. Because of this, God sent Jesus. And Jesus continues to come and find us, wherever we have stumbled, however we are lost. I guess he considers us more valuable than any old $1,000 bill. You know, though, like with John, maybe heís not going to barge into whatever prison weíve locked ourselves in, and pronounce "I am the One."
It seems to me that the invitation has always been "look and see, listen and hear, and decide for yourself." Based on what youíve heard and seen, is this what you have been waiting for? If so, you have your answer, but you are the one who has to claim it, in good times or in bad. You are the one who needs to discover your real treasure - worth far more than any old $1,000 bill. Remember that as you "prepare the way" for Christmas this year.
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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