Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 11: 7-19
Jesus Praises John the Baptist
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!
‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
Sometimes things from popular culture just stick in my brain. One of them is the character Raymond Holt yelling “Vindication!!” at the end of an episode of the tv show Brooklyn 99. Played by Andre Braugher, Holt, who has been helping decorate for a colleague's wedding, had spent most of the episode being told that the balloon arch that he had been meticulously building was tacky. They removed it from the wedding, which didn’t end up even happening. At the very end of the episode, his colleague, Rosa, who was nearly the bride, knocked on his office door to thank him for his help. She catches sight of the balloon arch by accident and pushes her way into the room, where she sees it in its full glory. Rosa’s face lit up and she said “Oh my God. She is magnificent,” becoming the only person who loves the arch as much as Holt does. Holt, at last assured that he was correct in his choice to create one for the wedding, excitedly yells “Vindicatiooooon!!”
You may not be surprised to note that this storyline had little to do with our reading today, aside from a little shared vocabulary. But, it is a story about someone who made a choice, out of a sense of generosity, that was eventually affirmed as the right one by the intended audience. That’s not exactly the Gospel, but it’s close enough to remind us sometimes a choice that doesn’t seem obviously correct at first ends up being the right one in the long run. Neither John nor Jesus would have been the obvious choice for an emissary from God. And, yet, through their actions, their calling is proven to be true. And, God’s own commitment to following through with covenantal promises is made clear.
Today’s reading comes from the part of Matthew after John has been imprisoned but before he was killed. Jesus has gathered the 12 disciples and begun teaching. Hearing word of this, John sent his own disciples to confirm that Jesus is Messiah whom he’d be preparing the way for. Jesus says to them, in the verses just before our reading, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” In short, he said, my actions will prove who I am. Or, as Elisabeth Johnson says in her commentary on this text, these healings and relationships are signs of God’s kindom drawing near. And, that is exactly what John was preaching about: God’s reign drawing near.
John’s disciples left and Jesus began to teach the rest of the people gathered. That’s where our reading begins. Jesus affirmed the prophecies of John the Baptist. There are some scholars who argue that Jesus’ public ministry is intended to be a direct extension of John’s. Once John was arrested, Jesus was called to continue and expand upon his mission. Others would say that John’s mission was to come first... to make way for Jesus. Either way, it matters for Jesus to affirm that what John was saying was true, despite the fact that he had found himself at odds with the powerful... despite the fact that he had been imprisoned. Then, as now, respectable people don’t always respect you if you’ve been imprisoned. Jesus is clear that John’s imprisonment is not proof that he erred in his teaching. Instead, it is confirmation that people will often misunderstand God’s words, especially when they come from someone deemed strange or marginal or dangerous to the status quo.
John led a rigorous, ascetic lifestyle of fasting and self-denial, and people found that to be a good reason to disregard his words. Jesus would be accused of drinking too much and indulging with sinners, and people would use this as an excuse to disregard his actions of grace and teachings of justice. It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One was too stern, and one was too permissive. Jesus wondered into today’s reading if the people listening would ever find a find a prophet who’s teaching was just right. Or, when asked to really change their ways, realign their behavior according to God’s priorities, would people continue to find reasons why the prophet delivering the message wasn’t holy-seeming enough for them to believe?
Humans have a habit of assuming that the Holy Spirit will always move in ways that they expect and through people that match whatever their current time’s assumption of what makes a person trustworthy. In her commentary on this text, Jennifer T. Kaalund talks about how we often rely on stereotypes as a kind of short cut to discerning what and who is good and dependable. Kaalund reminds us that if any of us were asked we liked being stereotyped, especially those of us with identities that are regularly demonized by the broader community, we’d say we don’t... that stereotypes don’t capture who we are adequately and often do us harm.
If we know that the fullness of our own lives can’t be captured by the stereotypes of people who dislike us, why would we think that God would rely on stereotypes as signs to point us to the “correct” prophets who are bringing us a word from God? In fact, so many people in positions of authority, like pastors and teachers and police officers and coaches and politicians and business owners, misuse the positive stereotypes of them as cover for perpetuating great harm. We must take great care not to mistake our ideas about who does good for actual good actions taken in the world. If God could work through a wild homeless man who lived on bugs and honey and picked fights with kings... if God could come alive in an itinerant preacher who’d opted out of all his responsibilities to his family and spent his free time with drunks and women of ill repute, we better pay attention to actions of the people we run into instead of the ideas that pop into our heads about who they are when we see them. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. May we see God’s work in this world for what it is. And, may we never assume that only one kind of person can do it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
If you want to watch a video compilation of the entire balloon arch storyline:
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14/commentary-on-matthew-1116-19-25-30-2
Jennifer T. Kaalund: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14/commentary-on-matthew-1116-19-25-30
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.