The four weeks leading up to Christmas Day comprise the liturgical season of Advent which, for Christians, is a time of waiting–we wait and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our world. We look back and and celebrate Jesus’ coming as a little baby, and we also look forward and prepare ourselves for his glorious return when all of creation will be restored to its original state of wholeness and righteousness. This morning is the third is a 6-part sermon series called “Hope Is On the Way,” during which we will consider how the past and future colliding in the present gives us hope for today. Psalm 33:20 is our theme Scripture: “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.” Today’s theme is allowing hope and joy to increase as we wait for Christ.
Scripture: Matthew 11:2-11
A number of things get better with time. At the top of the list is win—so say the experts. Many people say that cast iron skillets get better the more you use them. How about technology? How many want to go back to the days of this computer? Some will tell you that quality leather gets better with time. And blue jeans. Remember the days when new jeans had to be broken in? It would take months of washing and drying and wearing before they got truly comfortable. Over time, the quality of some things seem to have an upward trajectory.
But how about things having to do with our human experience, like happiness, self-esteem, purpose in life, and the quality of our relationships. IF THE LEFT SIDE OF THIS BAR GRAPH represents the quality of one’s experience and the bottom represents time, do these aforementioned aspects of life exist on a constant upward trajectory as we get older? Is this how our faith looks, that’s it’s always growing and never plateauing or even going down? The answer, of course, is no.
So, if we know our faith journey will never look like that, then maybe the goal is for it to look like a series of ups and downs, but over time it gradually moves in an upward direction. Speaking for myself, I know my faith is stronger today than it was 20 years ago, and by God’s grace it’ll be stronger 20 years from now that it is today.
This morning’s Bible reading from Matthew 11 begins with this fascinating statement: “When John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” (Mt. 2:2-3).
On the surface, that seems like a normal question. But given the fact that it was John the Baptist asking the question, one wonders why this particular question? If you recall from last week, he’s the one who said of Jesus, “The one coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” He himself baptized Jesus, and personally witnessed the Holy Spirit come upon him in the form of a dove while an audible voice boomed from heaven, “You are my Son whom I dearly love.” John’s the one who pointed directly at Jesus and said to the men was standing with him, “Look, the Lamb of God,” meaning, the Messiah. It seems to be clear to the reader that John knew who Jesus was.
However, now he seems to be wavering somewhat in his evaluation of Jesus. He knew all about what Jesus was doing over the course of his ministry, but for some reason—at least as Matthew presents him—it seems he now wants clarification. And so he instructs his disciples to go and ask him, “Are you the Messiah, or should we be looking for someone else?” It sounds to me that even the great John the Baptist was prone to experiencing times of doubt. For as great as he was—and Jesus said that no one born to this world was greater than him—in this way he was no different from us.
For just a moment let’s consider his situation. We’re told he made this inquiry while he was in prison. He was in prison for daring to confront Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. After his father died, Herod the son was made ruler of Galilee. It was he who threw John in Prison when John rebuked him over his sin of taking his brother’s wife for himself (see Luke 3:19-20). How long he was imprisoned we don’t know. It could have been months or years. Regardless, though, it was no doubt a time of suffering and waiting. And suffering and waiting can produce doubt. Even those with strong faith can fall into deep doubt when it feels like God’s turned his back and walked away. Why? How can this be? Where’s God in all of this? These are questions any of us would ask if we were in his shoes. So maybe John had reached a point where he was starting to doubt what he’d always believed about Jesus, and so he needed some reassurances. Maybe his hope was waning, and he was looking for a boost to his morale.
How about you – is there anything going on in your own life right now about which you’re feeling a little less hopeful than you have in the past?
- Maybe it’s taking a lot longer to find employment than you thought it would, and planned for. Maybe that big project you’ve been working on is taking longer and costing more than you’d originally thought.
- Maybe these things are creating some tension in your relationships, and you’re even wondering if you’ll ever finish it.
- Maybe it’s taking longer to finish that college degree than you thought it would.
- Or you keep getting passed over for that promotion.
- Or taking care of your aging parents is taking more out of you than you thought it would.
- Or that you’re ready to go and be with Jesus, but your body keeps going and going and going.
There’s probably something going on in each one of our lives that’s a kind of parallel to John the Baptist’s situation in prison.
I’ll tell you what it is for me. When we began the Vital Church Initiative four-and-a-half years ago, I knew it wasn’t going to be an overnight turnaround, but I also never imagined it would take as long as it seems to be taking. I thought we’d see greater evidence of renewed vitality by this time. I figured there’d be setbacks and slow-downs along the way. I knew there’d be some resistance to change, as well as others who’d be frustrated that things weren’t changing quickly enough. But I really hadn’t anticipated that three-and-a-half years after we starting phase 3 of the VCI process we’d have fewer people in worship. Or that we’d be ending the year only being able to pay half our apportionments through our regular sources of income. Or that we’d have almost no children here for Sunday school every week. If anything, I would have thought that three-and-a-half years into it we’d have more kids here each week, not fewer. This is my John the Baptist-in-prison experience, wondering if things are going to turn out the way I really believed they would.
But let’s notice Jesus’ loving, encouraging response to John’s disciples. In this case he didn’t chide them for their lack of faith, or for John’s need to have his hope boosted. Jesus lovingly tells them to remind John of what he already knows, of what they’ve all seen Jesus do. The blind are receiving their sight. The crippled are walking again. Lepers are healed. Hearing is being restored to the deaf. Even some dead people have been raised to life again! Jesus was refocusing John and his disciples on what was happening, the good things God was doing. Like John, it’s so easy for us to focus on what’s not happening. Or, on the not-so-good things that are happening. A decline in attendance gets our attention. A letter that indicates they’re now going to a difference church gets our attention. A decreased pledge because they’re not happy with the way things are going gets our attention. No children coming to Sunday school gets our attention. And the challenge is to not focus on those things, because to do so is like looking at the vehicle you’re passing on the freeway. What happens when you do that? You unconsciously steer in their direction, possibly creating a very bad situation. So this is why Jesus refocused John and his disciples. Remind him about the wonderful things that God’s doing. So, even as we acknowledge some of the challenges our church is facing these days, how IS God moving amongst us?
- A prayer team was developed a couple of years ago, and apart from any staff leadership it’s not only kept going, but it’s going strong. They’re a small group of people who are praying for our church and staff every single day. It’s through them that we’ve had the opportunity to un-decorate that little tree in the narthex, and in so doing to be in prayer alongside one another for specific needs.
- We have a Congregational Care team who are visiting home-bound church members and sending them cards.
- There’s a group of people who get together to make a whole bunch of meals that are frozen and delivered to church members as needed. Their main audience are those who are the main care-givers to a spouse who is still living at home and requires lots and lots of care. But sometimes these meals get sent to persons who just lost a loved one.
- We’re about to start up a second round of the GriefShare class. Not only is was this a true blessing for those who participated in the class, but it’s being led by trained lay persons, not a staff member.
- We recently had our first party for those in the 90+ Club. It was a wonderful celebration of many wonderful years of life.
- After a couple of false starts, we do have a second worship service up and running, with the music being led by a team of musicians who are finding their groove.
- Last year and this year we participated in the First Friday’s event downtown on the night of the Christmas parade. Both years we gave out about 300 cups of hot chocolate to passersby.
- This morning we’re training a new person how to run the worship projection program.
- I mentioned a few minutes ago the fact that we’ve only been able to pay half of our apportionments this year. But the good news is that God has provided us a source out of which we can cover that shortfall without it negatively affecting our bottom line.
- Five or six weeks ago I shared with you the need for us to pull together a small team of people who will work together to oversee our children’s and youth ministries, and that I believed there were people listening who were being nudged by God to be a part of that team. That week I heard from one person. And then last week I heard from another who said they’d been feeling that nudge ever since that sermon, and so we have our first meeting this week.
- Celeste recently shared with me that she’s been hearing from folks who are wanting more opportunities for spiritual growth, like short-term classes, small groups, and Bible studies.
Friends, there’s a lot of good things happening right now. I hope you can see that God’s at work! From the perspective of those of us on the “inside,” we’re sensing a low rumble these days. It’s like when you stomach rumbles, telling you that you’re hungry. That’s what we’re hearing; a low rumble that’s telling us that there’s a growing hunger. And the truth is, we couldn’t be more excited!
The other morning my wife’s devotion talked about the importance of us letting things in life unfold according to God’s timing, not ours. We want quick healings, quick growth, and quick turnarounds. And maybe sometimes they can happen quickly. But there are other times when God’s time-line for accomplishing his will is slower than what we’d prefer. And it’s when this happens, then it’s good to hear our Lord remind us to focus in on the things he’s doing. I’m sure doing this gave John hope, even when it was hard to see. And doing this has a way of restoring our hope for what’s to come, for what may in fact, be right around the corner. But if it’s not, that’s OK, because we know that God’s timing is ultimately the best timing.
Thanks be to God for sending his Son to be our hope all that lies ahead, even if for the time being it’s not real easy to see.