Which One is He? A Sermon

[Gibson “Nibs” Stroupe has served as pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church since 1983, a multiracial church in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of several books, including one co-written with Inez Fleming on the history of Oakhurst Presbyterian, another co-written with Caroline Leach on multicultural ministry, and a collection of sermons. He preached this sermon on 2 October, 2016, from the text of Luke 7:18-23. We repost it with his gracious permission. Estimated read time: 9 minutes.]

John the Baptizer had high expectations of Jesus as the Messiah. For John, the coming of the Messiah meant that Israel would throw off the Roman oppressors, that Israel would be honored rather than persecuted, that the evildoers would be eliminated. When he baptizes Jesus, his hopes leap up high: he believes that the time is at hand: “This is the One!”

And because of his passion and insight and fire, John was a threat to the political powers. Politically, he stirred up the people of Israel to think of throwing off the Roman oppressors and reestablishing justice. Religiously, he saw the leaders of the Temple as corrupt and urged them to reshape their lives – and he began to emphasize that people could get right with God by coming out to get baptized in the Jordan River rather than going to the Temple to sacrifice and to make their financial offerings. And personally, he urged all people to re-examine our lives: share your coats, share your food, don’t cheat or exploit or extort.

So it’s no wonder that in this 7th chapter of Luke, John is in prison. He is a man on fire, he has seen the Messiah in the baptism of Jesus, and that makes him dangerous. When John is arrested, I’m guessing that he doesn’t see it as a setback. Rather, his hopes continue to rise. Now we’re getting to it! Come on, Jesus, lead us on home!

But nothing happens. john-baptistThings remain about the same. The heavens don’t open, the angels don’t come down, Rome remains in charge, the religious leaders are still corrupt. And in prison, the isolation and oppression can wear on one’s humanity. It’s difficult to maintain a balance, and so, in prison, John the Baptizer becomes disillusioned with Jesus, and he questions if Jesus knows what he is doing.

This story in Luke 7 has bad news and good news for us. The bad news is that even someone so close to Jesus like John the Baptizer doesn’t seem to get who Jesus is – and if John can’t get it, then who can? Pretty discouraging. But the good news is that someone so close to Jesus can’t get him, so the hope for us is not so much to get Jesus, as it is to be gotten by Jesus.

From prison, John sends messengers to Jesus, asking: “are you the One? Or are we to look for another?” Because if you’re the One, if you’re the Messiah, then you need to get moving! You need to start challenging Rome. You need to start challenging the Temple. You need to change a lot of structures – get going, if you’re the One!

Jesus gives a two-part answer to John’s question. First: “Go and tell John what you see and hear.” And Jesus basically quotes from Isaiah 61 to this man: “The blind see, those are who crippled are able to walk, the oppressed hear good news.” And then the second part, the more stinging part: “And blessed are those who are not offended by me.”

And, of course, John’s question from prison resonates in us and with us. We too often ask: “are You the One?” Because if you’re the One, if you’re the Messiah, why is this world in such terrible shape?

And so as we join John in asking Jesus this question, as we wonder if Jesus is the One, we should note that there are two different biblical views of who the Messiah is. One biblical view of Jesus as Messiah is that in his coming, the power of love has been unleashed in the universe, and in that, eventually all will be transformed by the powerful love of God seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Paul puts it so eloquently in the 2nd chapter of Philippians: “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” In this view of the Messiah, it is loving that should dominate our lives. Those who knew the earthly Jesus and even Paul himself seemed to believe that this non-violent, tough-loving Jesus was the One; was the Messiah. So for the first generation of Jesus followers, “no killing, only loving” was the mantra.

But there is a 2nd biblical view of the Messiah, stronger in the Old Testament but also picked up a few generations after the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the biblical witness. This idea of Jesus as the Messiah developed and was written under harsh persecution by the state, by the Roman Empire. They saw a different face of the world, and thus a different face of Jesus. They saw an evil so radical that they didn’t think that is could be transformed by just the power of love in the name of God. This radical evil would have to be smashed in the name of God, by the terrible, swift lightning of the sword of God. Here Jesus as Messiah became the conquering Messiah, the One riding out in Revelation 19 with swords coming out of his mouth, to kill the evildoers. That’s the real One, that’s the real Messiah, this view says.

It’s why Christians lift up the Second Coming of Jesus, when the real Messiah will come, when Jesus will return and will be taking names and throwing people and empires into the lake of fire. For centuries, Christians have pounded on Jews for refusing to accept that Jesus is the One, that Jesus is the Messiah. But in many ways, the Jewish skepticism of Jesus as Messiah is duplicated in our Christian tradition which developed the idea of the Second Coming. At that time, our tradition says, the real Messiah will arrive and eradicate the evil that love seems unable to transform. It was ok for Jesus to challenge our idea of the Messiah in his life of love, in his loving death for us, and in his resurrection powered by love. But that’s not the real stuff in the real world. The real Messiah is the conquering, killing Jesus of Revelation 19, called King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

These two views of the Messiah compete in the biblical narrative – and in our hearts. Which one is the One, which one is the real Messiah? And we must admit that in our kind of world, with evil and domination and killing so powerful, the killing (but loving) Messiah often seems to be the only viable solution. And in this kind of climate, especially on this Peacemaking and World Communion Sunday, we must consider in our time Jesus’s answer to John the Baptizer’s question: “are You the One?”

And in his answer to John’s question, Jesus addresses us, too. “Go and tell what you see and hear.” And then that puts it on us, doesn’t it? What if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the real Messiah rather than the dominating and killing One of the Second Coming? What if the loving, healing, demanding, compassionate Jesus is the real Messiah? Can we live with that? Can we live like that? Is that the meaning of our lives? Is that the meaning of life? Loving rather than killing?

Do the gospels really know what they are talking about when they show Jesus as loving and healing rather than killing and dominating? Do they really want us to choose that way over the way of redemptive violence? Is the real stuff of the Messiah what we see and hear in the life and teachings of Jesus?

Turn the other cheek, eating with sinners, sharing with those who are poor, depending on others for life, welcoming outcasts, loving enemies? Is that the real stuff of the Messiah? Or is that just Sunday school stuff, stuff for kids? Stuff that doesn’t seem to work in the real world. And, oh yeah, now it starts to get offensive to us, too, and we join John in saying, “are You the One?”

Because what we see and hear in the real world is explosions in malls, people blown up, the rich crushing the poor, black and Latino men shot down by the police. Oppression, cruelty, destruction, hatred and greed. That’s what we see and hear.

And where we tend to go is the killing Messiah, the power of redemptive violence where loving seems to fail. And if redemptive violence is part of the Messiah, then we can adopt it, too – we can adopt it now, in his name. “Bomb the hell out of them,” as Donald Trump once put it. And we should note his strength in the polls. He speaks from that deep reservoir of fear and pain and revenge that is in all of us. And we dismiss Trump as an isolated lunatic at our own peril. His voice speaks from a deep well in American culture, waiting and even longing to be uncapped after the November election. So please register to vote, get your friends to register, and then vote. There is a deep stream in us that believes that the world is a scary place; that believes in the power of loving is weak, that believes only redemptive violence can win the day.

And the second part of Jesus’s answer to John speaks to us: “Blessed are those who are not offended by me.” Jesus’s answer to John and to us reminds us that Jesus asks us to consider a whole new way of orienting ourselves and of living our lives. What if the point of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is about moving towards loving and moving back from killing?  What if we are being asked to make a decision about this Jesus of Nazareth? Is he the One? Is the loving of his life the real Messiah? Or is the killing one, the King of Kings, the real Messiah?

The Bible agrees that the world is a scary place, but the gospels suggest that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the real Messiah. We see the truth of the life and the truth of our lives. And that truth is that God loves this world with all its messiness and scariness, that God is engaging this world, calling us not to a life of redemptive violence but to a life of loving. That we are being asked to let love dominate our lives rather than fear.

So, like John, we’re asking, we’re loving to know: “are You the One?” And only we can answer it. May God’s spirit guide us as we seek to find and know the answer to this question, are you the One? Again and again and again in our lives and in our journey. May the Spirit of the real Messiah be with us. Amen.