LUKE 7:18-25

29 Sep 2013


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             Jack Lemmon, the actor, loved to play golf and he especially loved to tell stories about his exploits on the links.  One he liked to tell involved another actor, Clint Eastwood.  He often told the story of the day he and Clint Eastwood paired up with a couple of golf pros for a friendly round of golf.  They arrived at the sixteenth hole which was bordered on one side by the ocean.  Jack hit the ball sharply, but it went over the edge and landed on a plant outcropping just over the side of the cliff.  Jack was going to leave the ball there and take the consequences, but Clint insisted that he hit it.  Jack protested that if he leaned over the side of the 80-foot cliff and tried to hit his ball, he would surely fall to his death.  Clint promised that he wouldn't let his friend fall.  He grabbed Jack by the back of his pants and lead him over to the edge of the cliff.  The two golf pros, along with Clint Eastwood, formed a human chain to hold onto Jack Lemmon as he leaned over the side of the cliff and hit his ball.  It arced up and landed right on the green.[1]

            This morning we hear from a man who was teetering over the edge of a cliff.  This story about Jesus and John the Baptist, however, has bothered some people.  Specifically, some reject the idea that anyone as great and forceful as John the Baptist could have doubts about Jesus.  So, rather than doubt motivating John to ask Jesus if he were the one, they offer an alternative explanation for Johns inquiry.  Some suggest that John asked the question not for his own sake but for the sake of his disciples.  They say, John was sure enough, but his disciples needed further convincing.  Others suggest that John asked the question of Jesus in order to hurry Jesus on, that in John's eyes it was time for Jesus to pick up the pace.  In John's eyes it was time to get on with ushering in the Kingdom of God.   I don't buy either of those two explanations.  I believe doubt, indeed, was at the core of his question.  Simply put, he wondered if he had put his eggs in the wrong basket.   He wondered if he had placed his bet on the wrong horse.  Jesus are you the one or should we wait for another?  John's life work was teetering on the edge of a cliff.

            Have you ever felt a little like John the Baptist?  Have you ever had doubts about Jesus or the Christian faith?  If so, let me reveal one of the greatest secrets in the church: doubt is prevalent in church pews.  It's true.  Doubt is everywhere.  Of course, some people come to church with big doubts, some come with small doubts, and some are fortunate to not come with any doubts, but doubt is prevalent.  We just don't talk about it.   One pastor put it this way ... and by the way, take what he says with a grain of salt because he pastors in a Presbyterian church Temecula, California and we all know about people from California, but this is what he said ... speaking of people in the church he said, "Were not nearly as certain as we let on. In fact, the more certain we sound is generally a good measure of the intensity of our doubt.  Beneath our pat answers is raw fear.  Deep down we are plagued by a fear that this is a hoax and we have been the butt of a cosmic joke."[2]

            But an outsider to the church would never know that from our easy smiles and our eager efforts to assure them that everything is just fine.  Frankly, most of us are extremely hesitant to reveal our doubts.  We cant reveal them to our friends, because it would be too embarrassing to admit that we dont always believe what we sing.  We can't reveal them to those who do not yet believe in Jesus because how can we convince them of Christianity, if we have doubts?  How can we lead them into a relationship with Jesus Christ, if we admit our doubts?

            Our passage for this morning tells a story of two cousins and two types of doubters.  Let's begin with the cousins. 

            The two cousins are Jesus and John.  John was older by six months.  He played a significant role in society, but not the sort one might expect.  He wasnt a politician. He wasn't a rich man.  He didnt party with kings.  He was a preacher, but he didnt fit the traditional preacher mold."  He was a pull-no-punches, anti-establishment sort of a guy.  He spent most of his time in the desert.  Large crowds from Jerusalem followed him into the desert to hear him preach.  He told them that judgment was coming; he said that now was the time to repent of sin.  He told them that they should be baptized as a sign of their repentance.

            John, being a pull-no-punches preacher, would also look into society and point out very directly what was wrong.  He did this quite often, and one day he pointed out the sins of the king.  Only very brave or foolhardy men point out the sins of kings.  The king was shacking up with his brothers wife, but none of the good citizens of Jerusalem dared say a word.  Only John spoke up and his speaking up, his challenging the king, and calling him to repentance cost him his freedom.  In just a few short months, it would also cost him his head.

            So, as John, the child of the desert and wide-open spaces sat in a dungeon cell, doubts began to creep in and the questions began to form.  If I'm going to lose my head, let's make sure I bet the right horse.

            Some eighty miles north, in a region called Galilee, his cousin, Jesus, was riding a wave of popularity.  John had baptized Jesus only a few months earlier.  Now Jesus was traveling the countryside, preaching, healing, even raising the dead.  He was staying in the country, in out-state Israel if you will, and the crowds were finding him there.  Among the crowds were some of Johns followers.  They were watching what Jesus did and listening to what he said and bringing regular reports about Jesus to John in prison.  And the reports did nothing to ease Johns mind.

            John remembered back to the days when the people surrounded him and the voices from the crowd shouted out to him, Are you the Messiah?  Are you the one sent by God to usher in his kingdom?  Will you save us from the tyranny of our oppressors?  John knew that he wasnt the Messiah.  He knew that wasnt his role.  But he knew what he was expecting.  He was expecting the Messiah to bring a fiery baptism, a harvester who would take the chaff of evil, wickedness, tyranny, and oppression and burn it in the unquenchable fire of his judgment.

            And that was the problem.  John was expecting the Terminator and he got Gandhi instead.  He was expecting a Messiah who would usher in a new age of Gods people, throw off the shackles of Israels oppressors, and renew in the people a whole-hearted obedience to Gods law.  But instead he got a teacher, a miracle worker, a friend of sinners.  Jesus didnt meet Johns expectations.   A wise person said that unmet expectations are the root of most problems, and as John sat in prison he had a problem.  Was this guy really the long-awaited Messiah?

            So those are the two cousins.  Now let's turn to the two types of doubt. 

            First, we have the doubt of the faithful, the doubts of people like you and me who, like John, have put our eggs into the Jesus basket.   Yes, Johns disciples came with a question for Jesus, but Jesus also had a question of his own.  Quizzing the them about John the Baptist, Jesus turned to the crowd and asked, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  What did you go out to see?"  Let me rephrase that this morning.  I know that borders on heresy rephrasing Jesus, but let me pose the question another way, and not in relation to John but in relation to Jesus:  What are we looking for this morning?  What sort of Jesus do we think we need? 

            For John, how Jesus answered his question wasnt quite what he was expecting.  To reassure John that he was indeed the one, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah.  He quoted words first spoken eight-hundred years earlier.  In verses twenty-two and twenty-three Jesus quotes Isaiah's description of paradise when Gods rule is manifested.  It is a description of the end of time, what the Greeks called the eschaton."  The miracles that Isaiah prophesied and that Jesus performed point out that this special time has arrived.  The people of Israel are already beginning to enjoy its benefits, even though it is not yet fully realized.  Jesus reminds John of Isaiahs prophecy.  The Messianic Age commences when great healing take place.  If the age is present, so is the Messiah.

            Yes, John, I am the Messiah, I am the Coming One, and I am doing the work that the Messiah must do.  But, John, your expectations of me are wrong and you need to look at things differently.

            Isnt that what our everyday experience of faith often is?  Were faced with situations in which we expect God to act a certain way, but God doesnt, and we think God has failed us, and we begin to doubt. 

            But the faithful are not the only ones with expectations, and that leads us to the second type of doubters in our story:  the doubts of the non-believers.  Jesus speaks of them in verses 30-35.  He speaks of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law who refused John's baptism.

            Jesus likens them to children who refuse to be satisfied.  They will not play wedding, they will not play funeral, they will not dance, they will not mourn.  Jesus was very honest when it came to children.  Children loved him.  They flocked to them and he loved them, but he did not paint a Pollyanna picture of children.  He knew of their trust, and their innocence, but also of their shortcomings, and all adults know what Jesus is saying.  Even children, who are normally happy, have days when no game is fun, no food is appetizing, no trip is interesting, no book contains engaging stories, no television has good shows.  But Jesus is not talking about children here.  Hes talking about adults.   These adults, acting childish, found John too austere and Jesus too sociable.

            They had expectations as well and their expectations were never satisfied.  They didnt like the fact that John was a radical.  They didnt like the fact that Jesus was a friend to the outcasts.  They didnt like the fact that John held to a strict religious diet.  They didnt like the fact that Jesus enjoyed good food and wine. 

            Of course, we understand why some people choose not to believe.  Their reason or reasons not too believe are often the same reason or reasons we fall into doubt.  I think of the cartoon of a fourth-grade boy standing toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with his teacher.  Behind them stares a blackboard covered with math problems the boy hasn't finished.  With rare perception the boy says, "I'm not an underachiever, you're an overexpecter!"

            Many who do not believe think we expect too much.  How could we believe in a God so weak that he dies?  How can we believe in a Savior so scandalous that he shares the punishment of common criminals?  How can we believe in a resurrection so preposterous?  Well, we believe it, not because it always makes sense, but because it is the wisdom and the power and the strength of God.  It addresses our deepest needs.  It does not remove our doubt, but it makes room for our doubt.  Friends, we do not need to overcome our doubts before we come to God.  Thats why we come every week to sing, to pray, and to hear someone tell us about Jesus.   We, like John the Baptist, need Jesus to take our doubts seriously and to reassure us.  Thats why we come forward every month to eat a little piece of bread and drink a too-small cup of wine: our faith is weak and we need these earthly elements to confirm in us our heavenly hope.

            Are you the one or should we wait for another?  Oh, yeah.  Hes the one.  Hes the one.

[1] Janet Kinosian, "Pure Lemmon," THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, Sept./ Oct. 1997, p. 36.

[2]Eric Landry, from a sermon titled "Are You the One?" published on Westminster Seminary web site under alumni sermons.