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Who Is Jesus?
a sermon based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11
by Richard Gehring

            The 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.

            Indeed, 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?

            One can 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.”

            It’s a 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.

            John’s 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 Messiah.

            Instead of 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 news.”(Matthew 11:4)

            Throughout 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.

            Jesus 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)

            This 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. 

            Along this 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.

            Today, 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.

            Our world 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 brokenness. 

            Jesus 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. 

            We who 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.

            Yes, Jesus 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.