Who Is Jesus?
a sermon based on Isaiah 35:1-10
and Matthew 11:2-11
by Richard Gehring
DaVinci Code by Dan Brown has
been one of the most amazing publishing phenomena of recent years. The
astonishing success of this book and subsequent movie has, in turn,
inspired a whole slate of other books, articles and web sites which
either refute or support many of the claims which it makes. Chief among
those claims is that Jesus was a mere mortal, not God incarnate, and
that he lived a normal human life–including getting married and having a
family. His wife, according to Brown’s book, was none other than Mary
Magdalene; and their descendants continue to live on to this day. The
fact is that this version of Jesus is not one that was invented by Dan
Brown. His work of fiction has merely popularized some ideas that have
been around for centuries.
this is merely one of many versions of Jesus that can be found
circulating these days. There are scholars who claim to have uncovered
the “historical Jesus” and regard him as either a prophet of the end
times or a revolutionary leader or a first-century Jewish mystic. There
are skeptics who claim that he never really existed at all, but is
merely a literary fiction created by the early church. And there are
many in popular culture who seem to have fashioned an image of Jesus
which reflects their own idea of what a Messiah should be–a warrior, a
hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, even a football player. For example,
in his book On God’s Squad, former Miami Dolphins lineman Norm
Evans writes, “I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever
played this game. If he were alive today I would picture a
six-foot-six-inch, 260-pound defensive tackle who would always make the
big plays. . . .”[quoted by Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 19] It all makes you want to
ask, “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” While some of these
characterizations may be quite modern, the question of just who Jesus is
has been asked ever since that midnight clear long ago when “the world
in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”
In our New Testament text for today, we even find the
question coming from one who it seems should have known the answer: John
the Baptist. John, of course, had been a rather successful preacher
himself. People flocked out to the desert to hear his message and to be
baptized by him. One of those baptized was Jesus himself. And when he
baptized Jesus, John knew that his mission had been fulfilled. He was
witness to God’s Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove and resting
on Jesus–a sure sign that this must be the One who was promised by God,
the One for whom he was to prepare the way.
But as we
encounter John in today’s reading, we find him sitting in prison after
having publicly chastised the ruler of Galilee. Sitting there in
prison, John no doubt had a great deal of time on his hands; time to
reflect on his life and ministry; time to think about all his successes
as well as his failures. And as time went on questions began to fill
John’s mind. Had he done everything God had wanted him to do? Had all
his work made a difference? What if all his time and effort had been
wasted? What if God still wanted him out in the desert, preparing the
way and he had messed that all up by shooting off his mouth about some
tin-horn ruler? Most importantly, what if this Jesus wasn’t really the
One he had been waiting for? What if he had made a huge mistake?
hardly blame John for having some doubts. He had devoted his life to
preparing for someone, and he had a right to be sure that Jesus was that
One. Sure, he’d sensed God’s presence with Jesus when he baptized him.
But that was some time ago. It didn’t seem quite as real anymore as it
had back then. So from his prison cell, John sends a message to Jesus
by way of some of his followers who still came to visit him: “Are you
the One?” he asks. “Are you the One that I was to prepare for or is
there still someone coming? I need to know.”
fair question. At this relatively early stage in Jesus’ ministry, it’s
not yet clear just who he is. The crowds, and even his own disciples,
have not yet begun to really grasp what he’s all about. He certainly
hasn’t done anything to free his people from the Romans–something John
is painfully aware of in his prison cell. In fact, it seems at first
glance that not much is happening at all. John needs some reassurance
that his life’s work has not been in vain.
disciples catch up with Jesus one day as he is going about preaching and
healing. And they ask him the question that John had instructed them to
ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for
another?”(Matthew 11:3) Now, Jesus could have simply said, “Yes. Tell
John that I am the One.” But, frankly, I’m not sure that would have
satisfied John’s lingering doubts. After all, there were plenty of
folks going around in those days, each claiming to be “The One.” If
Jesus simply said “Yes” then he could just be one more self-proclaimed
giving a direct answer to John’s question, Jesus says, “Look around.
See for yourselves. Then go back to John and report on what you have
seen and heard and experienced. The blind are receiving their sight.
The lame are walking. The lepers are being cleansed. The deaf are
hearing. The dead are being raised. The poor are hearing good
his ministry, Jesus doesn’t go around saying, “Hey, look at me. I’m the
Messiah.” Instead, he touches people where their needs were. He gives
them hope. He heals their wounds. And those actions speak louder than
any words he could have used to call himself Messiah or Son of God or
Lord or any of the other titles applied to him over the centuries. Yes,
he is all those things. But the evidence we have for saying that is not
that Jesus himself said it. The evidence we have is that he acts to
bring healing and wholeness into a broken world.
calls this evidence to the attention of John’s disciples and tells them
simply to report what they see and hear back to their teacher. And I
believe that when John heard their report he was comforted. When he
heard of the blind seeing and the deaf hearing and the lame walking, he
no doubt remembered the promise given hundreds of years earlier through
Isaiah, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the
deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer.”(Isaiah 35:5-6)
prophecy stems from the time of the exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had
been destroyed. Both the temple of God and the throne of David, the two
institutions that defined ancient Israel, had been demolished. The
leaders had been carried off to the far away country of Babylon. There
was much despair and distress over these traumatic events.
It is in
the midst of this hopelessness that Isaiah brings God’s message of
promise for the future. He looks forward to a time when the people of
Judah will once again be able to return to their homes, when all the
oppressed will find freedom and liberty. The Old Testament text for
today describes how a highway will be built through the desert from
Babylon to Jerusalem.
desert highway there will be streams of water to give them drink. There
will be no wild beasts to threaten them. And not even the most
dim-witted will be able to get lost. As the people travel this road,
their fears will leave them, their infirmities will be healed, and they
will rejoice greatly. It is picture of joy and happiness that echoes
the great work of God in delivering the people from their bondage in
Egypt by leading them through the wilderness. It is a vision that John
himself had hoped to see fulfilled. And now the report that his
disciples were to bring back to him would assure him that it was,
indeed, coming to pass.
Unfortunately, John would not live to see Jesus’ fame rival his own. He
would not be there when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheering crowds.
And John would not be there a week later when Jesus rose from the dead.
For before any of these events took place he would be executed, and his
head delivered up on a silver platter. But in spite of his lonely last
days and his gruesome death, I think that John probably died in peace.
For he knew that his life’s work had been worthwhile. He knew that he
had lived to see the fulfillment of the promise given by Isaiah so long
ago. He knew that Jesus was indeed the One. And though his last days
were spent in a dark cell, John knew that he had seen the light.
nearly 2000 years later, the question that John raised is still being
asked. Our doubting world continues to wonder, “Is Jesus really the
One? Is Jesus the answer that we are looking for?” It is a question
that the church, the Body of Christ must still seek to answer. And the
way that we need to answer the question is the same way that Jesus
himself answered it when John’s disciples came to him.
is not looking for bumper stickers that say “Jesus is the answer.” It’s
not looking for tracts about “The four spiritual laws” or TV preachers
throwing around words like “atonement” and “redemption” and
“sanctification.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these
statements or modes of communication. But all of them are rather
meaningless unless people first have some evidence that God is at work
in our world, that God is still touching lives and healing people’s
didn’t go around giving out pithy sayings to hurting people. He reached
out to people in need. He addressed their hurts. He gave them reason
to hope, reason to live. And we must do the same. Jesus fulfilled
God’s promise that had come through Isaiah centuries earlier and through
John himself in Jesus’ own time. That promise continues to be fulfilled
today as the same things are still happening in Jesus’ name. The blind
and deaf are ministered to. The disabled are given dignity. AIDS
patients are treated with compassion and respect. The poor are given
food and clothing and shelter and the opportunity to help themselves.
have come to know Jesus have the opportunity to glimpse God’s promises
being fulfilled as we work to see that the task of carrying out Christ’s
work will continue. We must continue the work which he began so that
the rest of the world can see it as well, so that their questions and
their doubts can be answered.
is the One. Yes, God’s promise has been fulfilled through Jesus. And
yes, it continues to be fulfilled through the church today. So come!
Let us walk in the light. Let us proclaim that Jesus is the One. Let
us proclaim it with our deeds of kindness and compassion. Let us
proclaim it through works of grace and mercy. Let us proclaim it by
allowing God’s healing and hope to flow through us to the world as we
walk in the light of God’s day.