A person in prison has a lot of time to think and question. This is true of John the Baptist when he gets thrown into prison for speaking the truth to power. There in that dark dungeon, John starts to wonder about Jesus. Jesus seems to him a most unlikely messiah. The messiah John had been looking for, that almost all the Jews anticipated, would sweep through the holy land with massive force, drive out the Romans, and establish an everlasting reign of godliness, to the applause of his people.
But this is not happening with Jesus. The reports John receives in prison never speak of anything of this sort. Indeed, if Jesus were active as this kind of messiah, then doubtless John would be a free man once more, sprung from his cell by the messiah himself!
So John sends his own disciples to Jesus with a message. This message takes the form of a question: “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” (v. 3). John expresses his puzzlement honestly and directly. He does not doubt that a messiah will arrive to deliver Israel. He is simply perplexed as to whether that messiah is Jesus or someone yet to appear.
Jesus commands the messengers to tell John what they see and hear of what Jesus is doing. He sums up his own activities in language inspired by today’s reading from Isaiah: the blind gain their sight, lame people get up and walk, lepers are lepers no more, deaf people hear, corpses are raised to life, and good news is delivered to the poor. Finally he concludes with a beatitude, a cautionary one: blessed are those who take no offense at me.
He tells John to consider the evidence. His ministry matches what was promised centuries earlier as indications of God’s arrival to redeem his people. Jesus says in effect to John: Yes, I am the messiah; consider what I do.
We might say, and rightly, that the conclusive proof for the identity of Jesus is that the Father raises him from the dead, thereby setting on him his seal of approval. But when John sends his message from prison, the cross and resurrection are still in the future. Jesus makes his case to John based on events that have already happened, miracles of the kind recounted in the gospels.
These miracles attest to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the holy One of God, the Son sent by the Father. The power at work in them is divine. But these miracles are not done simply to prove a point. They are done to advance a mission.
That mission extends far beyond the compassion shown to particular sufferers who appear as characters in the gospel stories. Beyond that, these miracles have universal significance. They are not freak events that happened to a handful of lucky people in a small corner of the world two thousand years ago. These miracles reveal ways by which God seeks to transform the world even at this moment.
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Recently I read an eye-opening book entitled The Meaning in the Miracles. The author is Jeffrey John, who is dean of St. Alban’s Cathedral in England. The Archbishop of Canterbury has described The Meaning in the Miracles as a book “sometimes startling, often very moving, never dull.” I have recommended this book to our church school as a resource for exploring the miracles of Jesus.
Jeffrey John believes that the healing miracles of Jesus need to be seen in contrast to the purity laws found earlier in the Bible. About these miracles, he writes,
“They seem to have been deliberately selected by the evangelists
to show Jesus healing at least one of every category of persons who,
according to the purity laws of Jesus’ society,
were specifically excluded and labeled unclean,
or who were set at varying degrees of distance
from worship in the inner temple.”
Among the groups thus excluded were:
people with various handicaps,
and the dead.
Jeffrey John goes on to speak of the universal significance of these miracles, which is
“the overturning of religious and social barriers;
the abolition of taboos;
and Jesus’ declaration of God’s love and compassion for everyone,
expressed in the systematic inclusion of each class
of the previously excluded or marginalized.”
So the healing miracles, most if not all of them, fulfill a mission that can be expressed in Jeffrey John’s phrase: “Including the Excluded.” The public ministry of Jesus is in large part dedicated to this effort. And the people around him recognize that he is overturning old standards. Some rejoice at this, others are bewildered, still others turn against him and plot his death.
These healings are signs of the breaking in of a new order, a new kingdom, the reign of God in the world. They reveal that the divine purpose is radically inclusive, enough to embarrass each one of us in some way or another. Jesus turns out to be the messiah, but not in the way anyone expected.
He is no longer in the world as he was in those days. He does not walk the streets of Port Huron as he did the streets of Nazareth and Capernaum and Jerusalem. Now Jesus means for his presence to be apparent through those of us who belong to his body. He looks to us to fulfill his mission here in this world, here in this city. A non-negotiable part of his mission is this theme of the healing miracles, namely “Including the Excluded.”
We engage in a bit of self-protective literalism if we assume that the excluded of today are simply identical with the excluded in the time of Jesus. We can easily imagine ourselves showing compassion to Samaritans, comfortable in the recognition that most of us will never meet one.
Who then are the excluded of today here in the United States, here in Port Huron? Several of the same groups as in the time of Jesus, certainly:
But we need to add other groups as well. I would nominate:
people of color,
gays and lesbians,
prisoners and their families,
the maritally unsuccessful,
and the extremely obese.
Who do you think has a place on this list of those our society marginalizes? Some of us may find ourselves there.
The challenge is that if we want to be loyal to Jesus and his mission, then we must, like him, include the excluded.
The consolation is that when we do this, we welcome Jesus in the person of the excluded. He is present in this world not only in the company of the baptized, but also among the rejected.
Recently I came across some memorable lines from St. John Chrysostom, arguably the greatest preacher of the ancient Church. He is complaining about Christians who construct beautiful church buildings while overlooking the needs of the poor. I pondered about how what he says could be paraphrased to address the way we today may celebrate Christmas with holiday zest but overlook the mission of the Messiah to include the excluded.
Here is what I came up with, my friends, a challenge to me as well as to you.
What is the good of stringing up lights
in honor of Christmas
if Christ is left in the darkness
in the person of the excluded?
First welcome him in the person of the unacceptable,
then put lights on your houses.
Suppose you see someone who is treated like trash
and you have no kind word to offer,
but you send out cards in honor of his birth.
Suppose you meet someone condemned for ethnicity or sexual orientation
and do nothing to bring about justice,
but you praise that person in joyous carols.
Will not all this seem like mockery
and a most extreme insult?
Yet how easily we do this with Jesus,
forgetting that he appears to us in all those weary faces.
Chrysostom sees nothing wrong in the building of beautiful churches. Nor is there anything wrong with the customs we associate with Christmas. But we must be sure to practice something which belongs to the heart of our faith. We must do as the Messiah himself did: include the excluded.
Each of us can take action in this way before Christ is born again at Bethlehem.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).