Sermon – December 15, 2013 – Advent 3 (Matt 11:2-11, James 5:7-10)
As John’s disciples went away Jesus began to speak to the crowds:
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?
What then you go out to see? What then did you go out to see?
Okay, so I’m reading this book (this book). You’ve probably heard of it: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. I don’t think you could a better account of what it must have been like to live in the time of Jesus: the cultures, the politics, the religious traditions, everything. His portrait of Jesus as Zealot is vivid and humanizing, comprehensible and very, very compelling. Only one problem: his central premise is just wrong. Jesus was not a zealot.
The problem with Aslan’s assertion is not an error of fact but a fallacy of logic. His case for Jesus being a Zealot runs something like this: Jesus’ home town and the area in which he spent most of his life in Galilee. Galilee was a known stronghold of the Zealot party. Ergo, Jesus was a Zealot. This would be like saying: Frank Anderson (our former senior warden) grew up in Chicago; ergo Frank is a Democrat. Or it would be like saying that Mother Shivaun group up in Orange County; ergo Shivaun is a Republican. This a kind of generalization error know as an “ecological fallacy” (generalizing from a characteristic of the whole to a single part) or – and I like this one better – the “True Scotsman” fallacy – as in “no true Scotsman supports England” (you can always find one).
So why do I mention this in the context of today’s Gospel? Because it’s an answer to Jesus’ questions to the crowds, “What did you go out looking for? What did you go out to see?” In other words, “What were your expectations? What did you bring with you might have influenced what you were looking for and were willing to see?”
What Aslan brought with him was shaped by his entire spiritual journey. He began life as the son of lapsed Iranian Muslim refugees fleeing the Islāmic Fundamentalism of Iran. In his teens he converted to Evangelical Christianity. In his twenties his faith became more liberal: he went to Harvard seminary and earned an Master of Theological Studies. Finally, in his twenties, he returned to Islam. Ultimately, he found the Jesus he went out to look for: a Jesus he could wrap his mind around: a Jesus that, in his own words, made sense to him, a Jesus he could understand.
And in that, he is no different from John, the people who came out to see John, or from us. What we see is always influenced by what we are looking for. And what we are looking for is influenced in turn by were we are coming from: what our journey so far has prepared us to see.
So with that in mind, let’s hop in the Way-Back Machine, press the Instant Rewind Button, turn on the Universal Translator, and watch this interchange again.
John’s disciples have just come from visiting their rabbi in Herod’s prison. You remember John, right? Crazy prophet dressed in the camel-hair suit out in the desert by the Jordan River. And, no, he didn’t eat grasshoppers – that would be un-kosher – locust was a local idiom for carob root – wearing that itchy, inside-out camel hide was crazy enough, thank you. John was out there bringing down the hammer on everybody who was anybody. Busting the religious authorities for their corruption and the Roman Occupiers for their brutality, and calling all the sinners to repent. Man, that guy could draw a crowd. Some folk he even convinced. Others got baptized anyway, just for fire insurance. Speaking of fire, remember what John said to his disciples early on about Jesus. About all Jesus was going to do for the blind, the lame, the poor, and the prisoners. And how John would be baptizing with water, but Jesus would baptize with fire. Remember that? That “baptize with fire” stuff was what John’s baggage. His people, the Essenes, had abandoned the temple to protest religious corruption, and expected that God would soon overthrow the corrupt priesthood and Roman infidels and set everything on earth right… right now. John was more like to be sympathetic to the Zealot cause than Jesus. (That’s another reason you can tell Jesus probably wasn’t a zealot. Because if he was, he would already be in prison like John, or dead like John soon would be.) John sent his disciples because he wanted to know why Jesus hadn’t yet “opened up a can” on them like he thought the messiah would do.
And Jesus response was not a criticism of John, but a reminder: “John,” he was saying, “Look! All that stuff we both know I’m supposed to do – all that healing and stuff. It’s happening, cousin, I’m doing it, just not with all the whoop-ass you and the people expect. I’m bringing a new way, cousin, a way that will bring about the reign of God without violence.”
So the Baptizer’s disciples went back to make their report to John, a little confused, maybe, though I don’t think John will be. And the onlookers start chuckling. You know how it is: people loved him when he was bringing down the hammer on the high and mighty and getting so much attention – people always love a hero – but never forever. And for some reason they never seem to mind their heros getting knocked down a peg or two.
So Jesus whips around and challenges the crowd. “What are you looking at?” he asked, “and what are you laughing at?” You knew what you were coming out here looking for. “Reed swaying in the wind,” he scoffed, “You knew John was no populist politician like the Zealots, making a big deal about how WE are going to drive out the Romans by force. And all your talk about John in robes. If John were willing to suck up to kings, he wouldn’t be where he is now: rotting in Herod’s dungeon. No…you came out because John was a prophet: best there ever was…in this world. And that’s when he makes that comment about John being the least in the kingdom of God, which sounds to us like he’s criticizing John, but was really a heads up to the onlookers: not to put too much into status in THIS world because in God’s realm – in the kingdom of heaven – status doesn’t matter: nobody’s better than anybody.
Now, we might look back on these folks and think we wouldn’t have made those mistakes. But we know that’s not true. We know that we are every bit as likely to let what we are looking for override what we have actually found; every bit as likely to let what we what God to be for us override what God wants to be for us. Like humans everywhere, we really have no patience and no humility.
Which is exactly what James, in today’s Epistle is telling us that we need to be asking God for: which we say we want, and maybe do want in some degree… on our terms: “What do we want?” – “Patience and humility.” – “When do we want it?” – “Now.” But James is saying that true patience and humility is a willingness to stop trying to control God’s response and to trust God’s knowledge and timing about what we are ready and willing to understand. And that we be well advised to realize these two strands of logic: That just because we believe something doesn’t make it true and that just because we can’t believe something doesn’t make it false. And to pray for the wisdom to question our own certainties and doubt our own doubts.