The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, 43 Foreside Road, Falmouth, Maine 04105 / 207-781-3366

Are You The One?

Sermon for 15 December 2019 (Advent 3 Year A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 35.1-10; Canticle 15; Matthew 11.2-11

Title:               Are You The One?

“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word [to ask Jesus], ‘Are you the one…or are we to wait for another?’” (Matthew 11.2-3).

My friends, as we are gathered here with only 10 days to go until our great celebration begins, let’s take a few minutes to consider the unique relationship between John the Baptizer and our Lord Jesus.

It’s quite a complicated relationship, so let’s begin by considering a parable written a few decades ago by a well-known American Rabbi, Edwin Friedman. Maybe some of you have heard it before. I will shorten it a bit for our purpose this morning.

Consider a person who had been waiting patiently until just the right moment to act. Life had always gotten in the way of his important purpose, until now. Now, at last, the moment had come, and he knew it. So he set out to accomplish his life’s purpose.

Filled with energy, he started on his journey, and his enthusiasm grew with each step. Hurrying along, he came to a high bridge that crossed over a river, and he started across. Then he noticed someone coming from the opposite direction. As they moved toward each other, it seemed like the other was coming to greet our fellow, who was dressed in a similar fashion, except for something odd tied around his waist.

As they grew closer, he could see the odd thing clearly: it was a thick rope. It was wrapped around him many times and probably, if extended, would reach 30 feet long.

The approaching stranger began to uncurl the rope as he walked, and when they were close, the stranger said, “Excuse me, would you be so kind as to hold this end of the rope for a moment?”

Surprised by this polite but unusual request, our man quickly agreed, reached out, and took it.

“Thank you,” said the stranger, who then added, “two hands now, and remember, hold tight!” Whereupon, the stranger jumped over the side of the bridge.

Quickly, the stranger fell the length of that rope. Instinctively, our man held tight and was almost dragged over the side. Thankfully, he managed to brace himself against the railing at the edge. And he yelled down to the stranger, “What are you trying to do?” “Just hold tight,” said the other.

“This is crazy!” our friend thought and began trying to pull the other up. But he couldn’t get the leverage. They were about the same size and he just did not have the strength to pull the stranger up.

“Why did you do this?” our friend called out. “Remember,” said the other, “if you let go, I will be lost.”

“But I can’t pull you up!” our friend yelled. “I am now your responsibility,” reminded the stranger.

“But I didn’t ask for this!” the man said. “If you let go, I will be lost,” repeated the stranger.

Our friend looked around for help, but there was no one else. And there was no place where he could tie the rope. The railing was smooth. He was stuck. Oh, how long would he have to wait? Why did this happen to him now, at this time in his life?

“What do you want?” he yelled to the stranger below. “Just your help,” the other answered.

“But how can I help? I can’t pull you up, and there is no place to tie the rope so that I can go and find help.”

“I know. Just hang on; that will be enough.” With his arms losing strength, our friend tied the rope around his own waist and braced himself.

“Why did you do this?” he asked again. “Don’t you see what you have done? What were you thinking?”

“Just remember,” said the stranger, “my life is in your hands.”

What should he do? He thought to himself, “If I let go, all my life I will know that I let this other die. If I stay, I risk missing this moment that I have waited for so long. Either way, this will haunt me forever.”

Briefly, he even considered jumping off the bridge himself. “Ha! That would teach this fool.” But he wanted to live! He had a dream to fulfill.

Time went on and still no one came. A moment of decision was drawing near. His body was becoming too weak to hold on much longer. But he had one more idea to try.

“Now listen,” he shouted down. “If you shorten the rope by curling it around your waist, and then pull very hard, together we might be able to get you up.”

But the stranger wasn’t interested.

“You mean you won’t help?” our friend replied. “But I can’t pull you up by myself, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer!”

“You must try,” the stranger shouted back in tears. “If you fail, I die!”

Our friend was exasperated and nearly exhausted. The point of decision had arrived. What should he do? Suddenly, a new idea came to me. A revelation! Something completely different. He spoke to the odd stranger hanging below.

“I want you to listen carefully, because I mean what I say. I will not accept responsibility for your life. I must live my life. The choice for your own life I hereby give back to you.”

“What do you mean?” the stranger asked.

“I mean, simply, that it’s up to you. You decide which way this ends. I am your counterweight. We can do this, but only if you pull yourself up now. And I will pull from here. Let’s go!”

“You can’t mean what you say!” the other shrieked. “I am your responsibility. How can you be so selfish?! How could you let someone die? Don’t do this to me!”

Our friend on the bridge waited another minute, but there was no movement down below. So finally he declared, “I accept your choice!” He let go of the rope, and continued on his way across the bridge.

(see Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman, The Guilford Press, 1990: p. 9-13)

John the Baptizer prepared the way for Jesus, but then  – he threw himself off the bridge!

Do you remember why John was thrown into prison? Because he was meddling in the personal affairs of the Ruler of Galilee. Denouncing his marriage and his wife. And I get it – John had good cause to say these things. What Herod was doing was detestable. But, if you are going to mess with those in power, then you’d better be prepared to suffer.

John picked a fight with Herod and got himself arrested. Was this intentional? Perhaps. In fact, it’s possible that this was a plan to usher in the messianic age.

In prison, John heard news of what the Messiah was doing, and what the Messiah was NOT doing! So he sent word for clarification, saying, in effect, “Here I am, in Herod’s prison! Ready for the Messiah to come and clear this threshing floor and burn the chaff of corrupt Herod with his unquenchable fire!” – just as John had been preaching. “Come, Messiah, and set this prisoner free!”

But Jesus had a different plan in mind. He responds, in effect, “No, John. I am not coming to set you free. You put yourself in this predicament, and I am not throwing away my purpose in order to save you.”

You see, when Jesus responded to John’s disciples, he said, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

He was paraphrasing very familiar promises from Isaiah, and he intentionally left out this one crucial phrase: “and the prisoners are brought out from the dungeon” (see Isaiah 42:7 and 61:1).

The Lord walked on that path made straight by John and he said “I AM the promised Messiah. Just look around and see what is happening here! But I am not exactly as John or Isaiah or anyone else has ever imagined. I know my purpose, and I will not be swayed from it.”

Do you think it was easy to be in Jesus’ position? With everyone around you continually projecting their hopes and dreams and expectations upon you.

All throughout his life, people were pushing to change Jesus, to fit him into their image of what the Messiah was supposed to be.

Even John, his own kin, one of his first and closest supporters, could not give him the freedom to follow his own messianic path.

Jesus could have saved John from prison, but he chose not to. And when Herod finally had the Baptizer beheaded, the Gospels tell us that it was especially difficult for the Lord (see Matthew 14:9-13).

Jesus let go of the rope. He had to do it. It was not his destiny to become entangled with Herod in this way, to start a running battle with those in power. The way of the Lord was moving in a different direction. His purpose was not to fight with those up in high places, but to go to those in low places and to heal, to save, to redeem.

What else did the Lord say here? “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt 11.6).

There is a subtle form of idolatry that arises when we refuse to give God the freedom to be God, when we will not allow Jesus to be who he is. We want a different kind of God, a different kind of Redeemer. We want a different kind of world, a different kind of life.

And yet, here we are. Living THIS life, in THIS world, with THIS God, walking the way of THIS Messiah.

My friends, as we prepare to celebrate once again the gift of Emmanuel, will you embrace the healing brought to us by this Messiah, who chooses to share with us all of the pains and the joys of human life, just as it is?

May it be so. Amen.

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