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Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Last Great Prophet (Matthew 11.1-15)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - February 9, 2014
Text: Matthew 11:1-15

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns" (Martin)
Song of Praise: "Build Your Kingdom Here" (Rend Collective Experiment)
The Word in Music: "Prepare the Way, O Zion" (BEREDEN VAG FOR HERRAN)
Offering of Music: "I Hear the Prophet Callin'" (Choplin)
Our Song of Praise: "The Doxology"
Hymn of Sending: "Hear the Call of the Kingdom" (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: "Morning Song" (Burkhardt)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose. 
1 When Jesus had finished giving instructions to His twelve disciples, He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2 Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” 4 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5 the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. 6 “And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” 7 As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 “But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! 9 “But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. 10 “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’ 11 “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. 13 “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. 15 “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.   ~Matthew 11:1-15
Last week we heard the account of Jesus reading from Isaiah in his home-town synagogue and announcing that “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We’ve been talking for weeks about Jesus’ use of Scripture, reminding his listeners of its true and deep meaning as well as beginning to point people to how it would be fulfilled in him. As we draw closer to Easter we will not only continue to see how Jesus taught scripture, but we will see this fulfillment embodied in him, even as he announced in the synagogue in Nazareth.

Today, we look at a passage that is the perfect follow-up to last week. Jesus announced the fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecies of the “Year of the Lord.” Today we will see more directly how Jesus was fulfilling those scriptures as the followers of John the Baptist come to Jesus to ask just who he is.

The Last Great Prophet

John the Baptist is an unusual figure in the New Testament because his life and ministry really come BEFORE Jesus public ministry begins. There is some overlap at the end, which is what we read about today, but John is properly understood as the last of the great prophets. His calling is to look ahead to the coming of the Messiah and his message is one of repentance in preparation of that day. At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, John has been put in prison. We read later in ch. 14 that it was for speaking out against Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law.

John knows Jesus, of course, since they are relatives. And there has already been a powerful interaction when Jesus came to be baptized and God spoke (Matthew 3). But whether it is a bit of that “I’ve known you all my life” dynamic or last minute doubts kicking in as John faces death, he sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he’s really the one.

We’ll look at how Jesus responded to that question in a moment, but first let’s look at what Jesus said about John, beginning in v. 7. He asks the crowd gathered there, in effect, who they thought John was. He repeats the question three times: “Who did you go out to see?”  A failure – a reed shaken by the wind? A spectacle – man in soft clothing? Or a prophet – he’s even more than that!
Though they may have had some sense John was a prophet, Jesus affirms this and more: “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet.” And he quotes scripture from Malachi to say that this is the one about whom IT IS WRITTEN, “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (Malachi 3:1) In other words, quoting the scripture, Jesus holds up John as the last great prophet (“no one greater” v. 11) to prepare the way for the Messiah.

Jesus goes on to talk about the violence waged against the Kingdom of God (v. 12).  Likely he has in mind the action of Herod against John, first to imprison him and soon to execute him. And then in v. 13, Jesus says something very interesting, that the Law and Prophets prophesied UNTIL John; again, Jesus is not discounting the old scriptures, but announcing their fulfillment and completion. Something new is beginning and John’s arrest and death marks a significant shift from expectation to fulfillment. Jesus even holds John up as “Elijah who was to come,” also prophesied by Malachi: “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” (4:5) Later on Jesus will affirm that John is this promised one like Elijah: “‘…I say to you that Elijah already came and they did not recognize him’… then the disciples understood that he had spoken to them about John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:12-13)

Having said all this, John would be the first to say that he is not the focal point here; it is Jesus, the “Expected One.”

The Expected One

From prison, John sent some of his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the Expected One or shall we look for someone else?” Jesus responds with an invitation not just to listen to his teaching, but to look at his ministry as proof. Without his usual, “it is written,” he nonetheless quotes from Isaiah 35, which speaks of the judgment of God coming, but with it, salvation: “He will save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.” (Isaiah 35:4b-6a)

Jesus says, “Look at what I’m doing and see if I am not fulfilling all that was written.” At this point, Jesus was healing the blind, lame, deaf, and mute (Matthew 9 for multiple examples). He was casting out demons and lifting up the poor and outcast. He is connecting the dots for a people full of expectation and looking the wrong direction. God had sent the prophet to prepare the way and now the time was at hand.

This is just what Jesus read from the scroll at the synagogue in Nazareth: today these scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing… not just an announcement that the day was here, but that the day was here IN JESUS. Don’t ever buy the claim that Jesus was just a teacher and it was those who came after who made him into something more. Jesus explicitly claimed to be the promised and expected Messiah of God. And the themes of his teaching and the proof of his ministry bear that out even when he isn’t speaking. Every word and action is full of that declaration!

Takeaway: What are Your Expectations?

What an important question that John asked of Jesus. It is one that many ask today and one some of you may periodically ask as well, even if you’ve spent years in the church or with faith. 

Is Jesus the real deal or is there something else

 It’s a great question and you are in good company to ask it. John the Baptist asked it and he knew Jesus personally (and was the last great prophet!).  At least several times a year I think it in the middle of the night or as I go about this work that is predicated on Jesus being the real deal.

God can handle our questions and our doubt; so ask away!

And here’s Jesus’ response: check me out. Listen to my words; look at what I did in my ministry. See how I keep, fulfill, and complete God’s ancient promises. Look at the lives I have changed and the signs of God’s Kingdom that accompany everything I do.

And related to that, don’t forget what God HAS done in your life; your willingness to remember may significantly strengthen your own faith. Your willingness to share that story may significantly strengthen another person’s faith.

The worst thing we can do in regards to our own faith is not to doubt, but to refuse to look and listen. Likewise, we don’t do anyone else favors by keeping what God has done in our life a secret.  Besides, doubt ASKS questions; doubt seeks; doubt looks. It is unbelief that refuses to look.

And we’ve only scratched the surface of Jesus’ teaching and actions; the most significant is yet to come as we move towards Easter and follow the narrative of how he gave up his life in obedience to God and for the sake of love.

I’ll remind you of the “questions at the Table” jar out on the Communion Table. I’ll remind you of our Wednesday night Bible study where we are asking some of the hard questions together.

Your questions are welcome here: that’s good news AND encouraging news, isn’t it… if you are willing to accept it. As Jesus said, “Let the one who has ears to hear, hear it.” Amen.

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