“God’s Vision: Telling The Story”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 15, 2019: Advent 3
I feel sorry for John the Baptist in the Gospel lesson we’ve heard today. I feel sorry for John because I hear his question as one of true longing, of true yearning, as a true desire to know if Jesus really is the one who has come to redeem Israel. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Within the circle of interpreters that I consult weekly as I interpret the Scriptures for our community, most come down pretty hard on John the Baptist for being faithless, flippant, even seditious in questioning the validity of Jesus’ ministry. They see John sitting in prison, pompous and propped up on comfy pillows questioning whether or not Jesus is really who says that he is. They see John as an example of what we should strive not to be in our life as Jesus’ followers. Where John has doubt, we should have faith. Where John has questions, we should have trust. Where John wants to know more, we should be satisfied with whatever we receive from God and from Jesus.
But I don’t see it that way and you shouldn’t either. John cannot be in this puffed up and pompous position simply because of his physical location: John is in prison. This is not the type of prison one goes to when one is a millionaire celebrity who gets caught making investments with inside information. This is not a club-med sort of prison with yoga and hot tubs and enrichment activities. John is in a first-century dungeon, wet and damp and dark, sharing the floor with who-knows-what kind of creatures, surviving on whatever food he is given, knowing that no food is guaranteed. John is a political prisoner because he had the nerve to tell someone in power the truth. John is a prisoner, captive and oppressed, and his question should lay on our ears and hearts as the desperate plea of one in need of some sort of good news.
A little more on why John was in prison. John lived during the reign of Herod Antipas who was the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the ruler of Judea when Jesus was born. Herod the Great is the ruler who welcomed the Wise Men from the East who were searching for Jesus and since Herod did not know where Jesus was, he asked the Wise Men to come back and tell him when they found Jesus. He said he wanted this information so that he could go and worship Jesus. But really, Herod wanted Jesus dead because Jesus was a threat to Herod’s political power. When the Wise Men took a different road home from Bethlehem and did not return to tell Herod where Jesus was, Herod the Great ordered his men to kill all the boys in Judea 2 years old and under. Luckily, an angel warned Jesus’ father about the impending slaughter, and the Holy Family escaped to Egypt. This is the family Herod Antipas came from and he didn’t fall too far from the family tree. Herod Antipas had taken a new lover during the time of John the Baptist’s ministry, and this lover happened to be the wife of Herod Antipas’ recently deceased brother. It was a real first-century soap opera. On hearing of Herod Antipas’ questionable relationship choices, John the Baptist advised Herod to choose another, more Godly path. Herod’s choice was to keep his new lover and throw John in prison. Telling the truth to power is a dangerous business indeed.
Now, wallowing away in prison, John is seriously wondering if anything he did in his life really mattered. He was the one who cleared the way for the Messiah. He preached in the wilderness, called the people to repentance, and Jesus in the Jordon. He had straightened a highway in the dessert for the One to come who would make everything right, everything whole, everything new. And that One did come, or so he thought. Sitting in prison, I imagine that doubt and anxiety and fear have a much easier time tearing apart the human soul. In this way, John is like most people who sit in prison today, particularly those who landed there on false convictions, through political power-moves, or because of actions that are now legal and glamorized in many places simply if you have the right card in your wallet. These people, like John, probably wonder if anything in life really matters or if they are simply casualties of a system that rolls along forward no matter how many perish in its path.
We know, also, that prisons are not just structures with bars and guards and visiting hours for family and friends, don’t we? We know now, more than at any other time in human history, that people are locked away in prisons of the mind, of the body, and of the spirit. We walk by people every day whose anxiety and depression lurks behind every corner, just waiting to strike them down. We walk by people every day who are afflicted by the evils of addiction, and we walk by people every day whose lives are affected by the addiction suffered by their family members and friends. We work with people who bear in their bodies the scars of physical and emotional violence. We live in neighborhoods with people who live their lives in guarded, secluded, and scarce ways because they fear what others might say or do if they were authentic, real, or abundant. We worship with people’s whose lives have been touched by trauma, disease, pain, suffering, and shame. All of this bears directly on how our neighbors understand God, how they understand community, how they interact with others, and how they experience hope and love.
Prison bars or not, John is someone we might pass on the street as soon as we leave worship today, and that person might ask the same desperate and searching question. The reality is, John’s question might even come across our lips from time to time—I know I’ve asked it a few times. And the way Jesus answers is perhaps one of the most beautiful moments in the entire Bible. Jesus does not say “Yes” or “No.” In fact, Jesus does not interact directly with John at all. Instead, Jesus sends word through John’s disciples and friends and Jesus tells them to tell John a story. Jesus tells John’s disciples to tell John the story of how Jesus is making things right. Jesus tells them to tell John the story of how the blind are seeing again and the deaf are haring again. Jesus tells them to tell John the story of how the lame are walking again and the lepers are finally going home to their families. Jesus tells them to tell John the story of how the poor are hearing good news, especially the poor who find themselves locked away from the life God intends.
It is through telling the story of God’s miraculous power in Jesus that John’s desperation and searching finds comfort and peace. I don’t fully know what the story meant to John, but I know what it means to a young person when an adult cheers them on and champions them after they’ve been told over and over that they are not good enough. I don’t know fully what the story meant to John, but I know what it means to a widow or widower when they hear that light does come after the darkness of mourning and sorrow. I don’t know how John’s soul was lifted by the good news of Jesus, but I’ve seen it break open icy hearts made cold by hate and indifference. I don’t know how John’s heart felt after hearing the story, but I’ve watched people come back to life after being told that their past does not have to be their future. I don’t know how brightly John’s eyes sparkled on hearing that Jesus was the One, but I’ve seen that sparkle a million times when someone hears and fully believes how much and how unconditionally God loves them. The story of God, the story of Jesus, the story of God’s ongoing renewal and transformation of the world is just that good, just that powerful, just that important.
And so today, on this third Sunday in Advent where we have been searching the Scriptures for God’s vision for us for all of creation, we must take to heart that telling God’s story is an integral and essential part of what it means to follow Jesus. The prisons and prisoners abound in the world in which we live and we have a sacred obligation to tell the story of Jesus setting everything right. When we tell the story, we become like John the Baptist on the bulletin cover today, pointing to our God who has made everything right in Jesus. Because God has. God has set us free from sin and death. God has set us free from being defined by our traumatic pasts and histories. God has set us free from being identified as anything other than beloved children of God. God has set us free to live and work for a better, more just world. How wonderful is it that we have the power, with Jesus, to set captives free just by telling them the good news we know about God? It must be told over and over and over again because it is a matter of life conquering death. It is a matter of hope conquering despair. It is a matter of comfort conquering fear. It is a matter of light triumphing over and over and over against the darkness.
So I want you, my friends, to help me finish my sermon today. And you’re going to do that by turning to your neighbor or neighbors and telling them some good news, some good thing that happened to you this week, something good from the story of God in your life. Tell them where you saw God this week, even if you think it was something small or inconsequential. Tell them how God blessed you this week. Tell them how you felt God’s love in the week that has passed. Tell them what brought you joy in the past few days. Tell them what has made you most happy this past week. Tell them about the joy or faith or hope that keeps you going in this hectic season. God is in all of that, so tell them a story.
We never know who needs to hear the story we have to tell—I think that’s why the hymn commands us to go, tell it on the mountain…everyone will be able to hear it from way up there. But it might be the person sitting next to you in worship or at work or in the coffee shop that needs to hear it. Let’s practice that now—turn to your neighbor and tell them a story, and then keep the story-telling going when you leave this place today until the whole world hears the good news of God.