All You Need is a Little Patience
December 13, 2010
All We Need Is A Little Patience
(Matt. 11:2-11; James 5:7-10)
In today’s Gospel reading, we see John sitting in prison and hearing about the work of Jesus. It seems that John must be getting this message from his disciples and so he asks that interesting question, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
What an interesting question to ask. This is the same John who had baptized Jesus. This is the same John who had declared in Matthew’s Gospel that he was the one that needed to be baptized by Jesus instead of the opposite occurring. It would seem to be a strange question coming from him but for us to understand this better we have to realize that many Israelites had quite a different idea of what was to happen when the Messiah comes. There were quite a few, John possibly included, who were hoping that a cosmic justice would arrive which would vindicate Israel and bring about its deliverance. John may have thought this was the type of Messiah that Jesus was to be. (Matthew and the Margins, Warren Carter)
So, how does Jesus answer John’s question? Does he tell John not to worry about anything? Does he indicate that deliverance will come to John in the form of freedom from imprisonment? No, Jesus has John’s disciples tell him the type of ministry that he is doing. Jesus is going to the weakest of society: the outcast and the ones who don’t fit into “proper society.” Jesus grants the blind their sight, the lame walk, those unclean, filthy lepers no one wants to touch are healed, the deaf hear and the poor are given some good news. Jesus is showing that his mission is one of healing and it points to the one of healing that is to be anticipated in God’s Empire. (Matthew and the Margins, Warren Carter)
Jesus is saying that in one’s encounter with him, they are encountering God’s Empire at work and God’s Empire works differently than they expect other Empires to work. Where Rome comes in and takes things by force, Jesus says that God’s Empire goes to the weakest and brings healing. God’s Empire stands against those who are in the place of power and abuse by showing mercy to those who are on the fringes of society.
In our Gospel reading, we then see Jesus speak to the crowd about John. He asks them, “What did you go into the wilderness to look at?” and he answers that very statement with his next question, “A reed blown about by the wind?” We have to understand that a reed was a symbol that had been imprinted on Herod Antipas’ coins! Jesus is asking the crowd if they went out to listen to John so they could see Herod “blown about” or attacked by John’s critique of the political powers of the day. They probably did go to hear John’s critical take on the rulers. But, you see, the writer of Matthew is bringing something richer into the equation because that reed also has another meaning to these Israelites. For many of them, the reed would have symbolized the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea) which was blown back by God as God freed the Israelites from slavery. (Matthew and the Margins, Warren Carter)
Jesus then throws the question at them, “Did you go to see someone in soft robes?” Jesus, in a way, is mocking the listener because John’s clothing was anything but soft or nice. Jesus is using this as a way of pointing out that John had no alliance with the powerful or the elite of his day and the people should realize this simple but striking truth. In the end, Jesus tells them that when they went out into the wilderness they were looking at a prophet. So, all of Jesus’ questions in this passage are a way of saying that John was performing the actions of a prophet. Prophet’s call into question the powerful, the elite, those who mistreat others and these prophets also offer hope for the people who are hurting.
In the end, Jesus is trying to show that John was the prophet who prepared the way for him even though that prophet did not have a clear understanding of Jesus’ purpose! Jesus was trying to show that in phrases such as “yet the least in the empire of heaven is greater than John” that greatness is being redefined in himself. Jesus redefines greatness as service to others. Greatness in God’s Empire does not come by or through domination!
This background is a key to understanding this passage but it’s also a key to understanding power structures in the world around us. John is sitting in prison, probably filled with impatience wondering when Jesus is going to bring the deliverance for which he is hoping. We can’t know for sure (and that’s the beauty of the story) but it’s very possible that John thought Jesus would bring about his deliverance from prison by overthrowing the powerful leaders of his day.
Honestly, this is what I see us dealing with all the time within the Christian church. So often we want to see God step into history and overthrow unfair and unjust power systems with all God’s mighty vengeance.
In the last week, if you’ve been watching (or as I do) reading the news online you may have heard about the Wikileaks controversy. WikiLeaks, a website which facilitates the anonymous leaking of secret information, began posting the first of more than 250,000 U.S. State Department documents late last month. Since then, the site has been hit with denial-of-service attacks, been kicked off servers in the United States and France, and lost major revenue sources. (CNN.com)
The powerful always respond the same way to those who air their dirty laundry. Wikileaks has aired the dark secrets of government and that doesn’t make powerful people happy. It doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is but when you let the dirty laundry out to air the powerful will do anything they can to shut you down. They don’t like their secrets exposed and will do anything to stop you. That’s what happened to John the Baptist. He was airing Herod’s dirty laundry and that got him thrown in prison. The problem, I believe, is that John was wanting deliverance in much the same way that Herod threw him into prison: through an act of powerful retribution.
However, the Jesus life doesn’t work this way. James tells us to be patient in the way the prophets were patient. Well, how were they “patient?” Often they were tortured or stoned or killed. They spoke the truth to powerful people and lived with those consequences. It was difficult for them but when you speak out against the powerful be ready for the consequences.
Today many people online and around the world want to respond to the attacks on Wikileaks in the same manner. They want to attack the infrastructure and the governments that insist on finding some way to censor online content. Some are hackers who wish to respond in force.
But for Christians, this is not the Jesus life. The Jesus life is something different and something special. The Jesus life calls us to a life of true patience. If you don’t mind, I’m going to take a line from a Guns-N-Roses song and do a little editing:
Shed a tear ’cause I’m missing you
I’m still alright to smile
Jesus, I think about you every day now
Was a time when I wasn’t sure
But you set my mind at ease
There is no doubt you’re in my heart now
God says take it slow
It’ll work itself out fine
All we need is just a little patience
Said love make it slow
And we’ll come together fine
All we need is just a little patience
Patience in the midst of what appears to be overwhelming power. Patience in the midst of a suffering world is a difficult concept. It’s even more difficult when it’s in the middle of the hurt and pain of our own lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, we are “summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of the world” and Richard Beck clarifies it by saying “as God becomes radically available to the world (and suffers for it!), so the church becomes radically available to the world and will suffer for it! This is the crux of our difficult journey to which we’re called and it’s hard to be patient but during Advent we especially need to hear these words:
“The Church exists for the sake of the world into which Jesus enters and in which He acts and for which He gave up His own life.” (Bonhoeffer with a little clarification.)The way we find patience is to turn away from this otherworldly view of God which many Christians have been taught to have concerning their faith. This view says Christians should just sit around and wait for God to show up and wipe away all wickedness or a similar view that says God will just yank believers away from this world when things get too bad.
No, as the Church and as individuals, we must realize that patience is about walking with God in a world of suffering for we walk with the God who has suffered! Are we bringing Christ into this world? Are we preaching good news to the poor? (That good news means we are standing with them in their pain and helping deliver them from it.) Are we bringing healing to the hurting and lonely? The mistreated? The outcast? The lepers of our day and age? And who are these lepers in our world? Are they not the AIDS victims? The “freaks and geeks” of society? Aren’t they the homosexual community that is often neglected and kept on the margins of society? This, my friends, is the Jesus life and that is how we walk with Jesus in this world! We walk with those suffering and hurting standing on the margins of society.
In this Christmas season, I have to say that I’m worse than most people. I’m so busy with life, school, and work and everything else going on that I forget about the hurting. There are those who do think about the hurting and the outcast during this time of year and I appreciate the work they do but is this something we only do yearly? In this Jesus life, we are called to walk with the outcast and hurting throughout our life. It is when we are with the hurting that we are with Jesus.
Do you have enough patience to walk with Jesus? It’s not an easy walk but then Jesus didn’t have an easy walk from his first Advent to the cross. Are we willing to walk that road with him in this world? Walking that road is essential to the Jesus life but walking along this road means that, ultimately, we will arrive at the cross.
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