Summary: A sermon which asks the question, "Where do we find ourselves this Christmas season?"

Matthew 11:2-11

“Looking at Jesus from Behind

Prison Bars”

By: Ken Sauer, Pastor of East Ridge United Methodist Church, Chattanooga, TN

An amateur actor friend of mine told me about an experience she had while performing in a local play.

Now, even though she was an amateur--as were the rest of the cast-- there lived in the town—a professional—who had done some Broadway and a few parts in made-for t-v movies, and he was in the play—as the lead!

My friend told me that they rehearsed the show for weeks, and reckoned that they had pretty well sorted it out.

Everyone was enthusiastic!

They were really happy with their singing, acting and dancing.

The show was going to be good, funny and exciting!!!

People would love it—and they did!!!

But in the last performance, the star of the show had a new idea.

He didn’t tell anyone.

He simply, at a crucial moment, did the opposite of what they had rehearsed.

My friend relays, “He had realized we were in danger of getting stale, and knew that if he shocked us on stage our reactions would be all the better.

He was right!!!

We all jumped like startled rabbits, just as if we’d been practicing the move for ages.

The audience loved it!!!

We all responded and the performance became electric.”

My friend concludes, “It wasn’t what we’d expected, but it was better than we’d dared to hope!!!”

That’s kind of the way it works with Jesus isn’t it; as we see in our Gospel Lesson for this morning!!!

Jesus is dealing with the fact that what He’s doing isn’t what people were expecting Him to do.

The trouble is, as in the illustration from my friend’s play, the other actors, so to speak aren’t necessarily getting the message.

And this must have been hard for Jesus to bear.

His own cousin and colleague, John the Baptist was having doubts.

“Had Jesus forgotten the script? Hadn’t He remembered what He was supposed to be doing?”

John was in prison.

King Herod had not taken kindly to John’s fiery preaching.

John had even denounced Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and this, along with John’s announcement that God’s True King—was on the way—that Herod wasn’t the real king…

…well, it’s no wonder Herod put him in prison!

And now in prison, John was wondering about things.

He heard about what Jesus was doing, and it didn’t sound at all like the show he thought they’d rehearsed.

He was expecting Jesus to be a man of fire who would sweep through Israel like Elijah had dealt with the prophets of Baal.

And quite possibly, John looked eagerly forward to the day, not long now, when Jesus would confront Herod himself, topple him from his throne, become King in his place—and get His cousin out of prison!!!

But it seemed as though Jesus was working according to a different script altogether.

Jesus was going around befriending tax collectors and “sinners”.

And Jesus was getting quite a reputation—but not necessarily for doing what John had expected Him to do.

What was going on?

Had John been mistaken?

How difficult it must have been for John—looking at Jesus from behind prison bars!

If ever the word “free spirit” applied to anyone, it applied to John the Baptist.

Now the prison walls confined him.

John had been sure that when Jesus arrived, things would change.

He expected that evil and corrupt people would be confronted.

And he may have thought that all evil itself would be destroyed, burned up like chaff in a fire.

But from where John sat behind those prison walls, the chaff was still very much around.

Things hadn’t worked out the way John expected.

Was John frustrated?

Was he angry?

Was he bitter?

With our lack of information, it might be safest to guess that John was maybe a bit disappointed and confused.

While John languished in prison, can we blame John if, under these circumstances, he began to wonder if he had invested himself in the wrong cause?

Could we blame him if he worried that his life had been based on a mistake?

We know that John had been willing to accept Jesus as the One Who was coming…

…but John did have some questions.

Remember, he hadn’t been able to understand why the One Who would judge the whole world needed to be baptized.

And after John was put in prison, John’s disciples had asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast.

Was Jesus really the One?

The answer to this question really mattered to John.

Everything hung on this.

So, where do we find ourselves in this Advent season?

As we approach Christmas, how is our mood?

Do any questions or doubts plague us in the midst of holiday cheer?

Does some grief or worry have us down?

Does the singing and merry-making just work to hide our anxiety for a time?

Do we use the “Christmas spirit” to cover up deeper problems?

John’s question about whether Jesus was really the One may lead us to ask some of our own questions.

“How has it made a difference to the world that Jesus was born?”

“If the Messiah has come, why do so many of us find ourselves in one kind of prison or another?”

And we can all probably name those prisons.

For John the Baptist, the prison was literal.

And for too many people, that is still true.

The prisons in our country are practically standing room only.

And we know what lies behind that overcrowding: drug addiction, poor education, childhood abuse, poverty, mental illness…

Those in prison have committed a crime, but they also reflect the crimes that society has inflicted on them.

Yes, there are prisons.

Maybe some of us have lost our job and the frustration is eating away at us.

Maybe some of us have an addiction to gambling, substances or pornography…

…and these things have us in its grip and, no matter how hard we strain, we can’t break free.

Maybe the memory of some mistake hangs over us, and we can’t find the oasis from the guilt.

Perhaps we feel isolated because we think no one would understand our problems, so we hold on to our secrets.

If we look at some prisons that hold us in, we may ask a question that sounds a lot like John’s question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus sent an answer back to John, and it probably wasn’t what John expected.

“Jesus said, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’”

Jesus came in power, but not the kind of power John expected.

Jesus’ power is the power of healing and of grace.

Jesus’ power is in His deeds and His teaching.

And in spite of the evil in the world—we see the power!!!

The arrival of the Messiah didn’t instantly fix all our problems.

It didn’t free John from prison.

But when we see the Church working in the inner city--teaching job, parenting and life skills—we see Jesus’ power!!!

When we see people break the chains of addiction and live free, that is Jesus’ power!!!

When we see the walls of prejudice shattered brick by brick, that is Jesus’ power!!!

When we see families healed and love restored, that is Jesus’ power!!!

When people find the courage to live with things that won’t change, that is Jesus’ power!!!

When people hear about the coming reality of God’s reign and learn to trust it and hang their hat on it, that is Jesus’ power!!!

As one New Testament scholar points out: “When John’s uneasiness was at its most intense, Jesus gave the clearest answer about His identity as the Messiah.”

It has been said that “just as wicked people don’t like the message of judgment, because they think that it’s aimed at them, so sometimes good people don’t like the message of mercy, because they think that people are going to get away with wickedness.”

But mercy was at the heart of Jesus’ mission, just as it is today!

And whether or not that’s the script people want us to follow, that’s the way we—Christ’s followers—Christ’s Church are called to go as well!!!

And Jesus invokes a special blessing on those who embrace mercy, service, inclusion and salvation for all as Christ’s mission…and thus…as their mission as well.

For Jesus says in verse 11: “I tell you the truth: among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Jesus is at work among those who are imprisoned…

…the poor, the abused, the outcast, the neglected, the blind, the sick, the spiritually dead.

Those who are willing to accept this, and are not offended on account of it, will know God’s blessing most of all!!!