Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-11; Matthew 11:2-11
2000 years later, this is a question that still rings in our ears: “Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?” We proclaim Jesus the savior of the world, the Prince of Peace and the Son of God, and yet the world is still a mess as wars continue to rage, the poor are still oppressed, and people still get sick and die. With John, we might sometimes find ourselves wondering, “Are you the one who is to come? Or should we be waiting for another?” To John and to us, Jesus replies, “Blessed are those who are not scandalized by me.”
What John perhaps failed to see is that God’s wrath—the business end of God’s love—doesn’t always look like we expect. John imagined a day of reckoning for the powers-that-be: perhaps he envisioned rebellion or riots, political upheaval, maybe even the downfall of Rome itself and the rise of Jerusalem in its place. We know that such political change very often happens in other ways like the non-violent movements led by Ghandi and King.
Healing, too, can occur in ways we don’t expect. Sometimes to be healed of an illness or injury can happen even without a cure. People learn to live full lives without the use of eyes or ears or limbs, even terminally ill patients find themselves appreciating life much more as they approach the end of it than when they were “healthy.”
In fact, the things Jesus points out to John as examples of the coming kingdom all have distinct metaphorical interpretations in scripture. Blindness and deafness are often used symbolically of people who cannot or will not understand the messages that God sends through the prophets. Leprosy—a sort of catch-all term in Scripture for a number of different skin conditions, all of which confer ritual uncleanness—often stands as a metaphor for being or perceiving oneself to be unworthy to come before God. The cleansing of leprosy, then, is symbolic of restoring people’s relationships with God and helping them know God’s love and acceptance.
And, of course, the raising of the dead to new life is a metaphor with which we are intimately acquainted as people who are ourselves raised to new life in baptism. “New life” can mean anything from having a new lease on life to starting over with a blank slate to experiencing such a dramatic shift of perspective as to be almost a new person—to be “born again,” as it were. Jesus’ report to John’s disciples may be referring to all these things, all the result of God’s real and present work in the world through the promised Messiah.
I would hope that we could all identify among that list things that we ourselves have seen or experienced to different degrees in our own lives. That is what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are those who are not scandalized by me:” those who do not turn away to wait for another have our ears unstopped and our eyes opened to see the coming of God’s kingdom even now, among us. How blessed are those, indeed.
And yet, there is more to God’s kingdom than this.
If we stop here, if we wait for and expect nothing more than a slight shift in our perspective, if we imagine that true healing and resurrection is reserved for life after death, then Marx was right: religion really is nothing more than the opiate of the masses. Jesus did not come into the world to proclaim a self-help course to adjust our attitudes. Those types of healing are real, but they are just the opening act. The real show—in which all the earth is redeemed from death—has yet to begin.
And for that, James says, we must be patient. The farmer knows when she plants the wheat that it will not grow overnight. First must come the rains, then the sun; first the shoots must poke through the soil and send up stalks and leaves and, finally, the head. The farmer doesn’t lose hope that the harvest will never come, but rather waits for the wheat to do what it has always done. In the meantime, she does what she can to help it grow and to make ready for its harvest.
This patience is not easy. Unlike wheat or corn or apple trees that put forth their fruit at predictable times, we have no such timeline for the harvest of God’s justice; but we do know that that God is full of mercy and compassion. Just like the farmer, we know the pattern of God’s action; how God chooses the weak and lowly—people like Abraham and Moses and David and Mary—to be the bearers of God’s blessing to the world. We know that God always acts for justice and decides for righteousness. That is hope. Vaclav Havel, the great Czech statesman and leader, said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Our hope is that, regardless of how things turn out for us now, everything will make sense in the light of God’s ultimate restoration of all creation.
And this hope is not blind. When Jesus makes his reply to John’s disciples, he points not only to the things he has done, but to the things his disciples are currently doing in his name, things John’s disciples can see and hear around them. Immediately before this story in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has sent them as apostles to go throughout the land of Israel proclaiming the good news. He has given them the power and authority to work signs and wonders in his name, and it is to these signs that he is referring.
We, Jesus’ disciples, are the sign of this hope in the world today; we are not the hope itself, but the sign of that hope.
We are the ones who have been send out to continue his work. We are his hands and feet—but we are also not. We can do the good works God has prepared for us (Eph 2.10), but we cannot actually do God’s work of bringing the kingdom. We can work for justice, but only God can establish justice; we can work to make peace, but only God can establish peace. Ultimately, the kingdom is going to come not through our actions or through the conversion of everyone in the world to Christianity, but only through Christ’s return to judge the world in righteousness and establish God’s dominion forever. Only God’s alien action can ransom us from those forces which hold us captive.
Until that time, we disciples of the Messiah are the assurance of things hoped for but not yet seen. The Church is the down payment of God’s ransom for creation. As we draw our hope from the words and promises of scripture, the rest of creation, broken and dying as it is, draws its hope from us. Our job as disciples is to bear witness to that hope, because creation needs reassurance that God’s salvation is near.
The Holy Spirit’s presence among us doing the work of building community, declaring the forgiveness of sins, and establishing justice is the sign that all these things will come to pass; that they are coming to pass, even if we can’t see the effects yet. The Church is the first shoot of green emerging from the field, the first sign of God’s impending justice. God’s promised renewal of creation is the grain that is coming in due season. We are only one of many generations of workers to tend the field, but as long as those shoots of God’s promise keep reaching for the sun, we know, creation knows, heaven and earth know, the poor and oppressed know that the kingdom of heaven is near.