Saturday, December 15, 2007

Making a Name

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2007
Matthew 11:2-11

Probably you will remember the old joke which asks, “What do Kermit the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, and John the Baptist have in common?”

Answer: They all have the same middle name.

Now, silly as this is, in a way it does touch on our gospel passage for today. Some folks become known to us on a first-name basis because we know of them with a connecting middle “the,” followed by a descriptive term or phrase: Alexander the Great, Atilla the Hun, Louis the XIV, Vlad the Impaler, John the Baptist...see what I mean? A friend of mine once said there was a woman in his church who swore people thought of her as “Catherine the casserole maker” because that was what she was always asked to bring to church suppers.

For us, John the Baptist had a connecting middle name and he found himself in prison at the whim of the tyrannical King Herod (This was Herod Antipas, not to be confused with his daddy, who had that famous middle name, Herod the Great, because Antipas really wasn’t ever all that great). John wanted to know if his cousin Jesus was going to turn out to be another person with a connecting middle name as he had supposed. That is, would he continue to be “Jesus of Nazareth,” or were people going to begin thinking of him as “Jesus the Messiah?” For John, it was like waiting on the curb at the airport in a strange city for a friend who promised to pick you up. One car after another goes by. Did he say he would be driving a blue Subaru or a teal Oldsmobile? These new cars are so hard to tell apart, especially in the dark. You peer into the windows as each goes by. You wonder, “Are you the one, or must I wait for another?”

When John had baptized Jesus, he had been more sure: “I need to be baptized by you,”1 he had declared. But now he found himself in prison, alone with his thoughts, some of which were becoming those uncomfortable second thoughts. His mind, once so crystal clear about the person of Jesus, began to lose its focus. “Is he the one?” he began to wonder. It reminds me of the two pastors visiting with each other, when one says “I was going to preach on commitment, but now I’m not sure...”

William Muehl once told a story of a visit he made to an old, old home in Connecticut, a colonial-era house, which dripped with history. The home was owned and occupied by the last living descendent of the original owner, an ancient woman. Dr. Muehl noticed an old rifle hanging over the fireplace in the main room and, admiring its craftsmanship, reached up to fetch it down for a better look. “Please don’t touch it!” the woman exclaimed, “it might go off!” Sensing his curiosity, she told Dr. Muehl that her great-great-great grandfather had loaded the gun and placed it above the mantle for the day when he might strike a blow for freedom. But it had never been fired, so Dr. Muehl wondered, “Did he die before the revolution?” “No,” the old woman responded, “he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1817 — but he just never seemed able to generate much enthusiasm for General Washington’s rebellion.”2

Grandpa may have received a connecting middle name along with a surname, something like “Grandpa the Indecisive — or not.” John the Baptist knew how he felt. Surely Jesus was the one, destined to be Jesus the Messiah. He just knew it. But then, but then...

Apparently Jesus did not meet all the pre-formed ideas of what a Messiah should be. Think of it from John’s perspective. He came from a fierce and zealous tradition of desert asceticism. He and his followers eschewed the civilized life in favor of a life lived close to the wilderness, on the edge, away from civilization, a life pretty much devoid of comforts, dedicated to purity and separation from anything or anyone impure. They remained in the desert. Meantime, Jesus and his followers were constantly to be found with the common people, even the unclean people like Samaritans and lepers. Rather than seek separation, they seemed to glory in being close, and especially did Jesus seem to seek out the sinners, the unclean, the sick and the troubled. They went from town to town where the people were, not to the desert where they could avoid having contaminating contact with other people. It was even rumored following the wedding celebration at Cana that Jesus and his crowd were wine-bibbers who didn’t mind a bit going into even a tax-collector’s house and eating with him. This did not meet many of the contemporary definitions of the way a Messiah was supposed to be, especially not the standards of a desert hermit like John. No wonder John sent his disciples to ask if perhaps they had been wrong in taking Jesus to be God’s chosen one, someone with a connecting middle “the” in his name, Jesus the Messiah.

We can be just like this, can’t we? Sadly it is truthfully said that through history, when the church couldn’t have the Jesus it wanted, it has often recreated him in a more acceptable form, often in its own image. 19th century social gospel theologians went looking for the Jesus of history, and, lo and behold, discovered an “historical” Jesus who looked for all the world like a 19th century social gospel theologian. In our own time, the “Jesus Seminar,” has for many years now taken ballots on whether certain sayings attributed in the Bible to Jesus were really uttered by Jesus. In the process there has begun to emerge — surprise! — a Jesus who could pretty comfortably be a member of the Jesus Seminar!

If the Jesus we meet in scripture or in the life of his body in the church doesn’t meet our previous expectations of him, we are so tempted to look into the window of the gospel seeking a mirror reflection of ourselves. We claim God’s purpose in our lives in ways that we believe should be suitable for God when really they are ways that we find to be suitable for ourselves. The psalmist said, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”3 And it turns out to be an earnest prayer, needed by every believing person, including John the Baptist, and including us. When God fails to meet our expectations, perhaps it is our expectations that must need change, not God. Much as we wish it were otherwise, when we insist on having our lives according to our own purposes with only a nod in God’s direction, we have ourselves for the messiah, but we cannot sustain the role, we must look for another.

Then, of course, we may be offended when God chooses his own unpredictable, obscure way of fulfilling his purposes and promises. We send delegations, hold conferences, pore over scripture asking, “Are you the One or must we await another?”

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” We may too quickly say, “Why, I don’t take offense at you, Lord!” Yet there have been times when we been offended, or at least dumbfounded, that God’s grace comes as a free gift to those who are unworthy of it, that God chose this means to bring us a Messiah.

I am particularly convicted when I read Jesus’ response to John’s question. When asked if he is or isn’t the Messiah, Jesus didn’t respond, “Why yes, I’m the Messiah, how can you think otherwise?” No, Jesus did not point to himself, never did, really. Instead he pointed to the effects of his presence among them. People healed, dead people raised, even poor folks receive a good-news message. Jesus’ movement through time left a wake, like a large ship moving through a small passage. Along the inland passage to Alaska, if you were to come out of the woods in time to see great waves lapping at the shore, you could deduce that a large cruiser would have just disappeared around the bend, leaving behind in its wake the stirred-up waters. This is apparently what it was like for those around Jesus. It may not have been comfortable, it may not have been what they expected, but they certainly knew he had been there once he had passed by!

Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Life-giver, Jesus the Good-news preacher, Jesus the Emmanuel, Jesus does not come to confirm our pre-formed expectations of a Messiah but to overturn them! You and I may have in mind what we want for our own healing and comfort, but a true Messiah comes bringing not what we want but what we need.

T.S. Elliot wrote, in The Four Quartets:

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking valuation of where we’ve been.

In the end, if we desire to make a name for ourselves — Clayton the Forgiving, Tammy the Comforter, Rachael the Courageous — we may do so only inasmuch as we are naming ourselves in deference to the One who carries the name above all names.

Is he the One, or must we wait for another? Only our lives of faith in response to his call can answer for us and for him.
1 Matthew 3:14.
2 William Muehl, All the Damned Angels, Pilgrim Press, 1972, p. 52.
3 Psalm 119:37.