Stretching

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Jesus fields a lot of questions.  What is the highest law? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is my neighbor? Why are you performing these miracles on the Sabbath?

Sometimes he gives a straight answer, but frequently Jesus asks another question, tells a parable, even seems to change the subject.  Eugene Petersen calls that “telling it slant.
Jesus is not being evasive or coy or manipulative.  On the contrary, Jesus is utterly committed to stretching us enough to receive the truth.  Jesus’ truth does not just fill an empty space in our minds.  It makes room for itself in a soul that is too narrow to encompass it.
Direct, unambiguous information exchanges may or may not serve his chief purpose: to make room within our narrow, sometimes rigid souls for the infinite God.
Rene Magritte’s “Unexpected Answer”
Even when we think we’re asking Jesus a simple question, we come away stretched.    
Paradoxically, as our knowledge of God grows, so too does our ignorance.  God’s infinite love, mercy, goodness, and beauty exceed the grasp of our finite understanding. There is always more to know, and Jesus patiently stretches us to make room for mystery.
In a manner of speaking, our questions are always inadequate.  We may want to stop asking by getting a final, complete answer.  Jesus answers by showing us more of God than we had ever imagined, and that leads us to ask wiser, more revealing questions.
That’s what happens when John the Baptist sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus what seems like a straightforward question: Are you the one that is to come, or should we wait for another?  (Matthew 11:3)
John was hoping for a conclusive answer.  Something like, “Yeah, you caught me.  That’s me.”  Or, “Sorry, wrong number.”  But that’s not what he got.  Instead, Jesus says that the Baptist should take a good look at what he sees and consider what that means.
Jesus is God’s promised one, but he is not what John the Baptist has been waiting for.  Let’s dig into his story and you’ll see what I mean.

The Compliance Officer

The Baptist has been waiting for the promised Messiah.  He thinks that he’s asking Jesus this: Are  you the Savior that God has promised?
Instead, he’s actually asking: Are you the one that I have been looking for?
The Baptist’s spiritual challenge is to see the tension between what God promises and what John expects and to open his heart to letting God be God.  In the process, God will stretch the Baptist and make him more than he imagined he could be.
You can see what I mean if you recall some of John’s own preaching.  John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Matthew 3:12)

Georges Seurat’s “The Garbage Picker”

John believes that God is all about imposing his rules, rewarding those who comply, and punishing violators.  John sees our world as wildly out of compliance with God’s rule.  From his perspective, it is filled with those who deviate from, defy, and even rebel against the Law.

John is looking for the one who will whip things back into shape.  The Messiah will be a kind of spiritual Compliance Officer.  He will enforce compliance with God’s policies, rewarding those who comply and disciplining those who resist.
Waiting for a Messiah like this makes John a sort of critic and scold.  He points again and again to the moral shortcomings of those around him and warns them that failure to improve will result in a celestial pink slip.  In John’s spiritual imagination, “You’re fired!” doesn’t just mean you lose your job.  You’re toast.  Eternally.
This is certainly what John the Baptist has been waiting for.  There’s just one problem.  That’s not what God has promised.  God has promised more, not less.  And God wants something more from us than being critics and scolds in his name.
To refine our own expectations of God and to discern a bit more clearly his expectations of us, let’s turn to Jesus’ response to John.
Gospel Medicine
Jesus can see that John’s heart has been burning for God to set things right.  And Jesus knows that in him God is already establishing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  In other words, John’s desire is right on.  
However, the way he understands the world and God’s response to it is too narrow to encompass what God is doing through his son Jesus.  Listen carefully to what Jesus says:
“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.”  (Matthew 11:4-5)

Vladimir Makovsy’s “In Search of Medicine”

John has been looking for the one who will enforce God’s sovereignty and bring final judgment.  Jesus describes himself as what Barbara Brown Taylor calls Gospel Medicine.  Jesus has come to bless the needy and heal the broken.

There is an ache at the heart of the cosmos arising from a primordial wound.  It shows itself in the shattered glass and broken pottery of the life we lead every day.  
For instance, violence has taken scores of children from their families and from their communities.  Promising lives have been cut short, parents and siblings are crushed by grief, and whole communities have been robbed of the idea of a safe place.
How does punishing the wicked restore a shortened life and mend a parent’s broken heart?
The mentally ill fall through the cracks in our social net onto the cold, often cruel streets of our cities.  They go hungry, experience violence, and live with untreated illness of both mind and body.  Their families wonder where their loved ones are or live with a knowledge of their condition that they wish they didn’t have.
Even if you could figure out who to punish for this, what good would it do?


Jesus has come to set this right.  Not with judgment and punishment.  But with mercy and healing.  And that mercy and healing take a shocking form.  That’s why Jesus says, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  (Matthew 11:6)  Or to translate it more literally, “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.”
The scandal is that God becomes a human being.  And not the grand sort of human being we might have expected.  Instead of claiming a lofty place in the halls of power and starting life with social and material privilege, Jesus is born a poor kid in the middle of nowhere with no status.
Jesus came to feel our need in its rawest form.  To embrace our ache without earthly comforts to shield him from it through distraction, entertainment, or anesthesia.  He takes our ache into himself and heals us with his death and resurrection.
Jesus is the one we’ve been waiting for, the one who brings Gospel Medicine.
From Scolding Critics to Wounded Healers
Since Jesus brings Gospel Medicine, it only stands to reason that he wants us to reflect his Good News in our lives as his followers.  Critics and scolds hardly convey the truth of the Jesus who heals and makes things whole.
Instead, when we follow Jesus we become what Henri Nouwen famously called wounded healers.  In response to the compassion that Jesus has shown us, we grow increasingly mindful of the needs of others.  We respond not in condescension but in solidarity.


We proclaim the Good News as a reality when we provide medical treatment to the poor and the homeless through services like St. Luke’s Mobile Medical Mission. 
Several of our congregations have responded to hunger among children in their community.  Since children dependent upon school lunch programs often won’t eat when school is out, these congregations have organized ways to provide food over weekends and during the Christmas break.
God is always more than we could have hoped for.  Our expectations are too narrow.  Our sights are set too low.  Jesus stretches our hearts, minds, and souls to receive more of the infinite God, making us more in the process.
This sermon was preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Monroe, Louisiana.

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, husband, dad, and movie-goer

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