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Sermon ~ Waiting … or “I have a Dream”

Matthew 11:2-11
Geranium Uniting Church SA
11 December 2016

Our Bible text this morning is the well-known story about John the Baptist in prison, as recounted by Matthew the Evangelist:

When he heard what the Messiah was doing,
he sent word to Jesus by his disciples and asked him,
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11,2-3)

1.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, the Time of Waiting.  As a German, celebrating Christmas in high summer still seems strange to me, even after having lived here in Australia now for just over ten years.  In Europe, summer is the time of life, of going out, celebrating, dancing, swimming in the sea or climbing the mountains.  It’s the time of the beginning of harvest, summer holidays, travels.  It’s the time of freedom …

Advent, Christmas, and New Year is what we in Europe associate with times of darkness, cold weather, snow and ice, a frosty clear night sky, staying home and warm by the fire, preparing for the time to come — Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Sylvester or New Year’s Eve, the New Year.  Waiting — this is what we European Christians do during Advent.  Take the time to reflect upon your life, visualize the next year to come, think about gifts you want to share with your friends and family …

A few days ago I talked with an Australian friend about her visit to Europe.  Not only was she impressed with the cafes, amongst other things, but she was also full of praise for the train system.  Well, as a frequent train traveller myself when in Germany, I also know about its shortcomings.  But what really struck my friend as odd was how people position themselves while waiting for their train to arrive:  spread out over a long platform, to be as close as possible to their particular carriage.  Then the train pulls in, and my friend observed how we Germans would all crowd around the doors or exits, and she said, “it looks as if the last seems to be getting out first, and those furthest out make their way in first, all using their elbows …”.

This comment made me smile, because I like to think we’re not that bad, but I didn’t have much of an opportunity to respond.

Yet, there is some truth in this observation — of course, you try to find a free seat and space for your suitcase before somebody else has taken it.  So, yes, it needs some skill to travel on the European fast speed trains.  But in general, we are not that bad, as Liz, my wife discovered a few weeks ago when travelling in Germany herself:  Many people are happy to help you with your heavy suitcase …

 

Waiting — it has much to do with expectation.  Here in Adelaide City it makes me smile when I am waiting for the afternoon bus home — one of many in a line of people standing side by side, and when the bus pulls in, we all turn and enter the bus through the front door in the order of our arrival at the bus stop … knowing full well that I may have to stand for most of the trip because the bus is full.  Yes, Australians are very polite people …

 

But what is it about people in prison?  In my lifetime, I have spent only one night in jail.  And this was on my very first-ever day in the United States, in Chicago 1977.  I was visiting friends living very close to Lake Michigan.  So we had a pleasant summer evening there at the beach, until way after 11pm — when we were all picked up by police for trespassing the park closure hours … and, virtually, put into cages in the city jail!

I was reminded of this recently when passing the Adelaide jails on Grand Junction Rd in the North-East of Adelaide.  High fences, walls, possibly blocked-out windows.  The young and the old, the men and the women in there, the many Aborigines whose life is the land and the sky — what are they waiting for?  And:  Is somebody waiting for them?

 

Last, but not least:

Driving from Adelaide to Geranium on an almost empty highway — not the loneliest highway I have travelled here in Australia, but when turning off from Tailem Bend, it seems at first as if it’s going nowhere.  Yet I keep pushing on, and so do others.  And then there are these small villages, like pearls on a string, of which yours is one.  People live around here, and have done so for — what? Like more than a hundred years???

Driving on a highway, or travelling in general, is full of expectations, visions, dreams, hopes.  There will be somebody at the other end, somebody to provide shelter, a bed, give me a hug, a cup of tea, take me in and share life with me.

 

2.

Life is a vision, a dreaming.

John the Baptist in prison — a man of visions, of the freedoms of the land and the sky, a man of words and action.  An eccentric.  A prophet and a preacher.  Maybe a bit crazy in the eyes of the “normal” people of his time.  Considered politically dangerous by Herodes Antipas because of his followers.

You all know that his life did not end very happily.  Whatever the historic truth, some-time after our story he is being beheaded as a trophy for Herodes’ dancing daughter.

Yet, locked away in some prison dungeon, he still hears about the early mission of Jesus.  The grapevine of his followers seems to have worked well.  We don’t know what motivated him to pose his question to Jesus:

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11,3)

It could have been the cry for help — free me from my prison cell …  He could have given voice to the political dream of his people — oppressed as they were by the Roman Empire.  We will never know.

Earlier in his mission, John the Baptist had a clear, but very radical vision of Jesus the Prophet he was expecting:

(Mt 3,10) The axe already lies against the roots of the trees.
So every tree that isn’t producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

(11) I am baptizing you with water as a token of repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is stronger than I am,
and I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
It is he who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

(12) His winnowing fork is in his hand.
He will clean up his threshing floor and gather his grain into the barn,
but he will burn the chaff with inextinguishable fire.”

John refers to God’s promise to Moses, of a prophet as his go-between with the people of Israel:

(Dt 18, 15) The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me for you
from among your relatives. You must listen to him.

(16) For this is what you asked from the LORD your God at Horeb …

(17) Then the LORD told me: ‘What they have suggested is good.

(18) I will raise up a prophet like you from among their relatives,
and I will place my words in his mouth
so that he may expound everything that I have commanded to them.

(19) But if someone will not listen to those words that the prophet speaks in my name,
I will hold him accountable.

Jesus, in his rebuke to John the Baptist, via his disciples, picks up on this visionary man:

(Mt 11:4-6 ISV) “Go and tell John what you hear and observe:
(5) the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,
the dead are raised, and the destitute hear the good news.
(6) How blessed is anyone who is not offended by me!”

In the following part of this chapter Jesus continues with his radical criticism of the times:

(Mt 11:12)”From the days of John the Baptist until the present,
the kingdom from heaven has been forcefully advancing,
and violent people have been attacking it,
(13)  because the Law and all the Prophets prophesied up to the time of John.

 

When thinking about this worship service today and what to say to you, I got the idea to turn the tables.  You are a small worshipping community, you know each other well.  Most of your families may have lived here and been part of this congregation for generations.

  • So, what would you say to me is important to consider in our bible text today?
  • Who would you suggest today as a most radical prophet for your life — a role model of sorts?  And why do you say so?
  • Where are the voices today to which we should listen as the Prophets of Old in our times?
  • Can you think of any such prophets today who have paid for their visions with their lives?  Why?

There is no right or wrong.  Feel free to say what you think, and listen to what others have to say.

 

3.

>>>>>>>> 7+ minutes of sharing (Progressional Dialogue Sermon1 ]) <<<<<<<<<

 

4.

Thank you for sharing with me what you would have said about this sermon text today.  This is why I love preaching:  Writing a sermon is like a mental discourse between you as the listeners, the Word of God, and the people of Old in Israel — all in a particular place and time.  We thus become to each other mediators and interpreters for the Word of God.

In fact, what we did today, as in so many other churches around the world, was to continue writing the Gospel.  We heard it from its own place and time, speaking to us here today in the Geranium Uniting church.  As a worshipping community, we together made it speak to us.  One way or the other, we will spread what we have heard today to the people around us.  Thus, the message in the Word of God, as embedded in our Bible text today, remains a living Word that inspires people time and again.

From its very early days, the Word of God has been a powerful element between God and his faithful, and their enemies.  For most of its time until today, the powerful of the world in which we live have feared it.  John the Baptist was a witness of this fear, Jesus Christ the Messiah himself gave witness to it through his life and then his death and resurrection.

You have mentioned people like ………………………………………………………………………..
who have paid with their lives for standing up for their faith.

There are many others that we can mention, famous people and those widely unknown, people who simply wanted to live their life and found themselves in times of crisis.  For many of us, Jesus has become this model of life and faith that we follow, and the Kingdom of God that we are awaiting through him.

A Uniting Church theologian and preacher, Bruce Prewer, whose Website I consult occasionally for preaching, has summarised the vision of Jesus the Messiah which John the Baptist may have had.  It is a very beautiful picture, albeit a bit lengthy, that Bruce paints for us as Australian Christians2 ]:

Jesus was just another baby,
the product of an unexpected pregnancy by a teenage mother,
yet his birth would shake the gilded thrones of emperors and kings.

He was just another country kid,
brought up in a town where everyone was known by ‘their station in life’,
yet he fitted no category and broke all the bonds of expectation.

He was just another tradesman’s son,
yet he had special skills, greater than any other, and out of scrap material
he could shape things that were unbelievably beautiful.

He was just another young man,
yet when he called disciples
it was as if a new age hovered on the fringes of their vision,
and they forsook all else and followed him.

He was just another wandering evangelist,
yet when he preached the gospel,
the poor knew this really was the good news,
not religious bullying by a pious ponce.

He was just another plain face,
with no special good looks to make people admire him,
yet when he looked into the eyes of others
they glimpsed a bit of heaven.

He was just another one of the common people,
yet when he touched lepers they were healed,
and the blind began to see better than those with twenty-twenty vision.

He was just another lay preacher,
yet when he spoke there was an air of authority,
and his parables have teased and nurtured the mind and spirit
of every generation since.

He was just another common bloke, putting on no airs,
yet when he distributed one boy’s gift of bread and had it distributed,
a whole multitude were fed.

He was just another Galilean,
yet the deaf clearly heard things never spoken before,
and the lame began to walk and leap and dance.

He was just another son of Adam, doomed one day to die,
yet when he prayed
the deranged recovered sanity, and even the dead were raised up.

He was just another persecuted Jew,
yet when he asked forgiveness for his assailants,
the gates of hell were stormed and Satan shivered in dismay.

He was just another human corpse,
laid out and perfumed by weeping women,
yet when he died all bright and loving hopes seemed dead and buried forever.

He was just another pretty memory,
doomed soon to fade as others got on with the real business of life,
yet when the third day came, death lost its sting for evermore.

He was the Easter enigma,
yet when he said a final goodbye
he became more present than sunshine and air, the lungs and the heartbeat,
or even the closest friend.

He is just another historical figure, praised but rarely loved enough,
yet wherever people trust him still,
old chains fall off and the liberated leap up to join his friends.

He was just another creature of earth, classified as homo sapiens,
yet when history is folded up like a scroll in the hands of God,
Jesus will be there laughing with joy.

 

Amen.

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Footnotes

  1. (I say something that causes another person to think something she hadn’t thought before. In response she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn’t normally have made without the benefit of a second person’s statement. In turn I think something I wouldn’t have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So now we’ve all ended up in a place we couldn’t have come to without the input we received from each other. In a real way the conversation has progressed (Pagitt 2005, 24-25). < http://www.biblestudytools.com/pastor-resources/11547018.html> [top]
  2. < http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocA/03advent3.htm > [top]

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