What Are You Looking For?


MATTHEW 11:1-19



  1. It was a hard year for Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer. Dreyfus was a decorated soldier. But he was also the only officer of Jewish decent in the French military. Around that time the French army discovered that someone within their ranks had been selling state secrets to the Germans.  And since the French army at the time was highly anti-Semitic suspicion immediately fell upon Dreyfus. And despite the lack of evidence, which in the minds of many only confirmed how conniving Jewish Dreyfus was, Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on the aptly named Devil’s Island.

For ten years Dreyfus languished in prison. He constantly wrote letters to the French government, proclaiming his innocence, and begging them to reopen the case. But even his friends assumed that Dreyfus was guilty. Not because of the evidence but because of the narrative of anti-Semitism around the case.

Only one man believed Dreyfus. His name was Colonel George Picquart. Like many in the French Army he had the same biases and prejudices against Jews. But unlike many Picquart had a commitment to the Truth. After Dreyfus was locked away Picquart noticed that the spying continued.  Despite his own biases Picquart worked for ten years and finally exonerated Dreyfus. The Dreyfus case has become symbolic in history as an example of injustice and bias.

Julia Galef is a scholar who studies such bias and why it is so hard for people to see things from another’s perspective. In her TED Radio Hour Talk, “Are We Wrong to Think We are Right?” she uses the story of the Dreyfus to illustrate the phenomenon of motivated reasoning. To quote Galef motivated reasoning is the, “ phenomenon in which our unconscious motivations, our desires and fears shape the way we interpret information. So some information, some ideas feel like our allies, and we want – we want them to win. We want to defend them. And other information or ideas are the enemy, and we want to shoot them down.” Galef goes on to say,

“And this is ubiquitous. This shapes how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical. And what’s most scary to me about motivated reasoning….. is how unconscious it is. We can think we’re being objective and fair-minded and still wind up ruining the life of an innocent man.”

Galef’s words speak a deep truth don’t they? How easy is it for us to overlook the faults of our political candidates for the sake of winning? How easy is it for us to close out others because their view doesn’t jive with the way we see the world? Jesus is telling us today that what you see is dependent upon what you are looking for, it is dependent upon our motivated reasoning. And in this passage he is challenging our motivated reasoning. He is asking us what we are looking for?

Our passage today is the assigned passage in the lectionary. For those of you who don’t know the lectionary is a tool that many churches use. It is a calendar of scriptures to read for different parts of the liturgical year. It helps us get an understanding of the breadth and the depth of the scriptures. And during the season of Advent we traditionally study scriptures about the coming of Jesus. We do this in preparation for Christmas where we celebrate the first coming of Jesus through the incarnation and Virgin Birth. During the season of advent we study scriptures about Jesus first coming, his second coming, and the inauguration of his ministry.

And today’s passage is a critical passage. Because in this passage Jesus is distinguishing the difference between the ministry of John the Baptist and His ministry, which in Matthew he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.  Fundamentally what Jesus is doing in this passage is challenging people’s expectations. He is asking us today as we await the Christmas season, as we await a new year, as we await a new administration for our country, as we welcome a new pastor into our midst, what are we looking for?  So today I want to answers three questions.

  1. What were people looking for in Jesus’ day?
  2. What did Jesus offer?
  3. Why were people offended by what Jesus had to offer?

First, what were people looking for in Jesus day? This gets to the heart of the political and religious situation of Jesus’ day and perhaps every time. Jesus addresses the expectations of John’s disciples by asking them a series of rhetorical questions.  “What did you go into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken in the wind?  What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold those who dress in soft clothing are in king’s houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one whom it is written,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.”

In this response Jesus outlines different types of political and religious expectations that people often look for.  First, Jesus mentions a “reed shaken in the wind.” Most scholars think Jesus is referring to the tall grasses that grew along the Jordan river. The image invokes the idea of someone who changes their position to adapt to popular opinion or the Spirit of the time.  Someone who uses popular opinion to rise to power. This is why we value someone with authenticity and consistency even if we disagree with them. For it is easy to be for something when that idea is popular. It is hard to be for something when you are going against the wind. Jesus warns against such behavior here. We should not look for someone who simply is saying what we want to hear.

Next Jesus describes someone who wears fine clothes who sits in a King’s house. Most scholars believe Jesus is referring to Herod Antipas. He was the Roman appointed governor of the region of Galilee. And John the Baptist is in prison in this chapter because he called out Herod for marrying Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother, something John called out as unlawful, a form of incest. For that, John got imprisoned, and would eventually be executed. Herod Antipas was the opposite of a reed shaking in the wind. He did not draw his power from the people. He was appointed by the Roman occupiers.  And he did not even have real power. Fundamentally, he traded his loyalty to his people, for riches. For fine clothes and a nice palace. Herod is the definition of a sellout.  He did it for the money. Jesus is warning us against looking for folks who promise us an easy life and a get rich quick scheme. Usually there is a cost to that and that cost is our integrity.

Why then did the people wander into the wilderness?  Jesus knows and the crowd knows why they left their homes and journeyed into the wilderness to be dunked in the water by John, a guy who wore camel hair and ate honey. They were looking for a prophet.  And they got one in John the Baptist. He fit very much into the mold of prophets in the Old Testament. What was the role of prophets in the Old Testament? To paint a broad brush the prophets generally proclaimed the judgment of God on the people of God.

The prophets cried out for justice and when justice was not met they proclaimed judgment. Jesus says the people were right to think John was a prophet But Jesus says John is more than that. Quoting Malachi 3:1 he tells the crowd that John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. To prepare the way for the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of God on Earth as God Rules in Heaven. They were right to look for a prophet Jesus tells them, but now they need to expand their motivation to look for the Kingdom of heaven.

So first we know what the people of Jesus’ day were looking for. They were looking for a prophet, not a reed shaking in the wind or a man in fine clothing. But Jesus tells us what to expect from his ministry. He tells us what he has to offer. He does so in response to a question from the disciples of John the Baptist. “Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another?” What an amazing question to come from John. The man who baptized Jesus in the Jordan. The man who protested when Jesus came to him to be baptized saying that he needed to be baptized by Jesus. This man who had such respect and hope for Jesus. This man who saw his ministry as paving the way for Jesus, now openly questions if Jesus is the one Israel is waiting for? The prophesized messiah. It is an understandable question. John is in prison about to be executed. I am guessing when John started his ministry he did not expect to end up that way. He expected that God would come to judge the Romans. That the Messiah would come and bring victory. And that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Jesus’ response to John’s question is surprising. He doesn’t talk about believing in Him and going to heaven. He doesn’t talk theology. Instead, his answer focuses on His deeds. “Go and tell what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Jesus actions were also fulfilled the words of the prophets. Many places in the book of Isaiah talk about the blind, deaf, and lame, being healed, and the good news being preached to the poor. But this is not what John focused on. John seemed to focus on the parts of the prophets that proclaimed Judgment. His belief seemed to be that the Messiah would come and judge Rome and the nation of Israel. And then there would be healing. But Jesus in his quotes leaves out notions of judgment. While John taught that first God would judge and then restore, Jesus taught that first God would restore and then judge.  Let us not deceive ourselves. Jesus talked about judgment and hell. His second coming will be a coming of judgment when he comes to judge the quick and the dead. But grace and healing were also a part of Jesus’ message. This is what distinguishes the Kingdom of Heaven, the vision of Jesus, from the vision of John. Both John and Jesus warned of the judgment of God. But Jesus brought people to repentance through healing while John only preached wrath.  Jesus sought to heal hurt and death, he sought to overcome shame, and he sought to give a voice to those who no one cares about. He used mercy to bring people to repentance. Certainly, Jesus taught us in this life we will suffer. But often we neglect his acts of healing and restoration, thinking that was something in the past, something we were meant to take symbolic lessons from, and not something for today. But Healing of body, mind, and soul was something Jesus taught, something he did, and something that he expects his disciples to do.

Finally, we must ask why would anyone be offended? This is the one verse in this scripture that baffles me, “blessed are the ones who are not offended by me.” For a long time it never made a lot of sense to me. Who would be offended by blind people seeing, deaf people hearing, lame people walking, dead relatives coming back to life, and people who are neglected receiving some good news? In the Greek the word for offend is where we get our modern word scandal. Basically Jesus is saying blessed are those who are not scandalized by me. We have had a lot of election year scandals haven’t we? I’m just glad this election is done with. But who would be scandalized by a video of someone doing something objectively good like helping orphans? Or can we imagine the FBI investigating someone because they did so much good that it was just too good to be true? It just seems hard to imagine someone being offended by such acts that Jesus describes.

The only instance in my life that I can think of that happening is when I went to a healing prayer conference at Regent College maybe five years ago. For a long time I have had an interest in healing prayer because my sister suffers from a chronic pain condition. At that conference I was astounded because I prayed for a woman who was healed of a fused spinal column. Before we prayed for her she could not bend over. And afterwards she could. We often use the word miracle in trite ways. Certainly, God can work through the Doctors and through circumstances, but rarely does it rise to what the Bible describes as miracles. In five years since that happened I have not seen something quite like that healing. And when it happened at first I was astounded but then I quickly became offended. I quickly became scandalized. Why? Because the Lord healed a stranger by my hand, but my sister whom I love, has not been healed despite all my prayers. It just seemed unfair.

Perhaps John had a similar feeling. He obviously had heard about all the things that Jesus had done before he sent his disciples to Jesus. He heard about all these acts of power and healing and he looked at his own situation, chained and in prison, awaiting execution and he thought, “hey Jesus what gives?” If Jesus could raise a dead man surely he could stop his cousin from being executed. But Jesus’ power was not a power that John could control. It is not a power that we can control. We can only pray and watch to see where Jesus is working and go work with him.

All this reminds me of a quote from C.S Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia series. In this series children journey through a magical wardrobe to the land of Narnia. Narnia is ruled by Aslan, a lion who is the king of Narnia and is a Christ figure in the book. Lucy, one of the children in the story is talking to Mr. Beaver about Aslan. Here is the conversation. “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Jesus is good but he is not safe, because he is King I tell you, King at His birth, King in His life, King on the Cross, King when he rose from the grave, and King as He Reigns at the right hand of the Father. He is not at our beck and call but he does call us to Himself and He cares for us for He is the Good Shepherd. He will not give us scorpions if we ask for bread. He offers power to restore our broken hearts and bodies but He will not be controlled by us and He will not be defined by what we want Him to be. He is Messiah and Lord and he offers healing and mercy to bring us to repentance for He is the one who will judge the quick and the dead when he comes again. The question he asks us today is what are we looking for? What are our motivations? Are we looking for Jesus in strangers, in our enemies, in our friends, in our family? Are we looking for Jesus in our homes, in jobs, in our churches, in our government? Would we recognize Him when he calls us by name? Are we seeking the Truth or do we just want to win? Will we exchange the power of the Gospel for a reed shaking in the wind? For a man dressed in fine clothing? Or will we not settle? Will we not settle even for a prophet? Will we only look for the Kingdom of Heaven? Will we only settle for the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the dead rising, the poor having good news preached to them? Will we follow the Christ, the one conceived when the Spirit of God overshadowed Mary and placed Jesus in her womb, the one who the Spirit rested upon like a dove as Jesus came up out of the waters of his baptism, the one who called down the Spirit upon His church to empower us for ministry. That same Spirit has been given to us. That same Spirit can rest upon us and empower us this Christmas season and every season to come. But only if that is what we are looking for.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit amen.

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