Sermon

Matthew 11:2-11

What Proof Do We Have?

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Did you hear about the little flap we had last week at the City Board meeting?  A group called the Latin Cultural Organization made a presentation about how they’re trying to help Hispanics – especially those who don’t speak English – learn the ropes and get assimilated into the culture.  They were hoping the Directors would endorse their plan to open up an office here in Hope.

Everything went well until it came to their membership card.  It seems that, for $15.00, the newcomer gets a plastic card similar to a driver’s license with his or her picture and vital information on the front.  That led to the question: Is this an I.D. card or a membership card?

The answer was, well, it’s both.  There’s nothing official about it, but it looks official and, depending on the honesty of the applicant, it gives merchants and law enforcement officers a starting place in knowing who they’re dealing with.

The directors received the information and took it into advisement.  It remains to be seen whether or not they’ll choose to partner with the Latin Cultural Organization.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, it’s a good question: What exactly does constitute a valid form of identification?  In this day of computer graphics and desk top publishing, you can print just about anything you want to and have it say whatever you want other people to know about you.

So, you’ve got a card with a name and address on it.  How do we know that’s who you are?  You see the problem.  Establishing identity is important, but it’s not all that simple.

Several years ago I went to the county jail to visit one of my parishioners.  The jailer asked me for my identification.  I handed him my driver’s license.   “No,” he said, “I need something that shows you’re a minister.”  “I have an ordination certificate,” I told him, “but it’s hanging on the wall of my study.”  “Don’t you have some sort of card or something?” he asked.  “Sorry,” I said.  “I’m all I’ve got.  Don’t I look like a preacher?”

He frowned and said he’d take my word for it, but it was pretty obvious he wasn’t happy about it.  Ever since then, I’ve wondered, “What, exactly, does a preacher look like?”  Without proper identification, how would others know what I do for a living?  What proof do I have?

In the larger sense, what does a Christian look like?  If someone were to stop you on the street or in the shopping center, what proof do you have?  How are we to know who’s who?

In a word, that’s what’s at stake in the gospel lesson this morning.  John the Baptist had gotten himself thrown into prison for insulting Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee.  His days were numbered.  In time, Herod would have him beheaded.

The clock was ticking, and John wanted to know before his time ran out whether or not Jesus truly was the Promised Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.  So, he sent his disciples to Jesus with a very important question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

For the Jews, it was a matter of utmost importance.  Their faith hinged on the promise of a Messiah.  Was Jesus the One, or not?  Jesus said,

“Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling in me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

In our World Religions class we saw how, in the earliest days of Christianity, the first Christians were simply Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  To this day, that remains a classic distinction between Jews and Christians: We believe Jesus is the Promised Messiah of the Jewish faith; they believe that, while Jesus may have been a great teacher, miracle worker and prophet, the Messiah has yet to come.

And they make a pretty compelling case: If the Messiah has come, why is the world in such a mess?  There are wars going on, as well as random acts of violence such as the recent shootings in Omaha and Denver.  Injustice abounds, as does disease and pestilence.  A huge number of the world’s population is still illiterate.  The gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider than ever.  If the goal of the Messiah is to establish God’s kingdom on earth, he’s either not gotten here, or he’s got a lot of explaining to do.

So, John’s question continues to haunt us: “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?”  Is Jesus the Christ, the Promised Messiah of the Jewish faith?  What proof do we have?

Well, as I said, as Christians we believe that Jesus is the Promised Messiah.  We also believe that, as we turn to him, our lives are transformed in his image.  So, if the whole world were to embrace him and follow the leading of his Spirit, the Kingdom of God on earth would become a reality.

Obviously, we’re not there yet.  But, if we look carefully, we find signs of hope.

Take charitable giving, for example.  According to The Financial Times Limited, charitable giving in the United States reached a record of 295 billion dollars in 2006.   True, there were a number of mega-gifts.  For example, Warren Buffet gave 1.2 billion dollars last year to the Gates Foundation.  Still, the bulk of charitable giving came out of the pockets of individuals like you and me.

We gave a total of 223 billion dollars, up 4.2% over the previous year.  And, if you remember, we had some pretty horrific tragedies in 2005.  That’s when the big hurricanes hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.  When you take out the extra 7.4 billion dollars given for disaster relief in 2005, charitable giving in 2006 was up by 6.6%.

So, what does this mean?  It means that the teaching and example of Jesus Christ is stronger than ever, at least in this country.  Charitable giving has always been a hallmark of the Christian faith.  It reflects the nature of our Lord and what he taught his disciples.  For example, he said,

“Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42) …But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, so that your merciful deeds may be in secret, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:3-4) …Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Christians have the same human nature as everyone else.  We can be just as selfish as the next person.  Yet, the love of God in Jesus Christ turns our greed to generosity and, in time, makes helping others our greatest joy, especially when we consider that in giving to others we give to Christ himself:

“…Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

So, what proof do we have that Christ has come?  The witness of our charitable giving is a good place to start.  Another is in the way we show hospitality to strangers.

You may not agree with me on this point, but I believe this is what’s fueling the current debate over undocumented workers in this country.  Currently we have something like fifteen to twenty million people living in this country illegally.  Some say more.  But we don’t know what to do about it.

The Old School said, “Send them home.  Deport them.  They’re here illegally, they don’t belong.”  But then, economists tell us that they’re now the backbone of our labor force.  Without undocumented workers, we’d be in a heap of trouble.

So, why not document them?  That’s what New York Governor Elliot Spitzer wanted to do when he proposed issuing them a driver’s license.  Other politicians have gone even further: Why not grant them amnesty and make them citizens?  Yet, what would that say to those who’re in this country legally and have been standing in line for years?

I submit to you that, beyond their legal status, there’s a more powerful force at work here, and it’s called compassion.  How can you fault an honest man or woman who’s willing to work hard to get ahead and provide a better life for his/her family?

Add to that the complexity of the children of illegal immigrants who were born in this country.  By law, they’re citizens of the United States.  But their parents are not.  Would you send a father back to Mexico or South America and separate him from his family?  Would you separate a mother from her children?  Scripture is clear:

• “For Yahweh your God…execute justice for the fatherless and widow, and loves the foreigner, in giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the foreigner; for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy10:17-19)

• “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

“I was a stranger, and you took me in.” (Matthew 25:35)

No, I think the reason we can’t seem to resolve the issue surrounding illegal immigrants in this country is because we’re conflicted ourselves: We want to protect the integrity of what it means to be a citizen of the United States; at the same time, we want to show compassion for those less fortunate.  It’s a simple as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

And my point is that this compassion we have for those less fortunate is yet further proof that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is alive and well in our country today.  The Promised Messiah has come!

So, why is the world in such a mess?  Not because the Promised Messiah hasn’t come, but because his coming is not yet complete.

The truth is Christ comes not once, but over and over again.  And each time he comes, he invites us to trust him more fully and surrender our lives more completely to the reign of God, until he comes in final victory.  As we do, we experience the fullness of God’s grace and love, and the world inches that much closer to becoming the kingdom of God on earth.

And so, we pray, not only in this season of Advent, but in every season of our lives, the prayer of Charles Wesley:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2007 Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.