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Second Thoughts

by Gary Roth

based on Matthew 11:2-11

These last couple of months we've been without a paper. The local thing is such a poor excuse, that it hardly seems to have a point to it. I don't miss it too much - except for the comics. In fact, I keep a file of some old comics, and was going through them the other day, and thinking how sad it is that a person has to go back to reading old comics. It's like having to go back to old jokes to get a laugh. Then I ran across one that got my juices flowing. It's from Peanuts.

Lucy is speaking to Linus as she stands at the base of a hill. She says, "Someday I'm going over that hill and find the answer to my dreams.... Someday I'm going over that hill and find hope and fulfillment. I think, for me, all the answers to life lie beyond these clouds and over the grassy slopes of that hill!"

Linus takes his thumb out of his mouth, points toward the hill, and responds: "Perhaps there's another little kid on the other side of that hill who is looking this way and thinking that all the answers to life lie on this side of the hill." Lucy looks at Linus, then turns toward the hill and yells, "Forget it, kid!"

Isaiah paints, for us, a beautiful vision of life on the other side of the hill. There, the desert blooms with abundant flowers. There, the yees of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf are unstopped, the lame leap like deer, the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. There, sorrow and mourning flee and God's people see the splendor of His face.

John the Baptist staked his life on that vision. As he declared the approaching kingdom of God, it was with the certainty that the present age would be swept away in the consuming fire of God's judgement, and that God would lead his purified people, once again, over the hill to the Promised Land. Now, as he sits in jail awaiting death, his plea to Jesus takes on great urgency. "Are you the Messiah?" "Look here - I've staked everything on you! I don't mind dying, if I know that it will help bring in God's Kingdom. But you don't look like the God I know. Are you the One? Will you lead God's people over the hill to the Promised Land?"

And Jesus responds with these words of promise: "Tell John that not only are the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; not only do the mute sing and the lame leap for joy; but lepers are healed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them! I am more than what was expected! More than what you had hoped for!"

Yet He also speaks for Lucy: "If you think, however, that I am here to lead God's people away from life, to a golden age on the other side of the hill - forget it kid!" His ministry is to be on this side of the hill - among the sinful and the wounded. The answers to life's problems will not be in the coming golden age, not in the great hereafter, but in the presence of Christ, who has come to minister, suffer and die for us. The answers to life's questions will not be found over the hill, but where Christ is - in the midst of life.

Jesus' response to John is that the Kingdom of God John so longed for is hidden in Jesus' presence, and that the Kingdom will come to be known in the works Jesus does - the healings, the words of grace, the acceptance of God that people will experience in Him, the good news embodied in Him. And in His suffering and death in their behalf.

That is still true. God is in the world, in Jesus Christ. He is near to us, as John proclaimed. And therefore "in the world" is where His people need to be.

The missionary, Adrian Hastings, once wrote, "It's misleading to say that the church has a mission, as if the existence of the church comes first. In truth, it is because of the mission that there is the church; the church is the servant and expression of the mission."

We often pass much time observing that the world we live in is a different kind of world than most of us old fogies grew up in. When I was young (I never thought these words would come out of my mouth!) . . . when I was young, we lived under the assumption that this was a Christian society: that the church was the moral voice of that society and that, even if some folks didn't attend regularly, they still had ties to the church. To be a member of society meant to have ties to the church, to support its voice and its ministries. And, bcause we were a Christian society, we saw mission as "out there," in Africa or New Guinea. The job of the laity, then, was to support those missions, and that's what the Sunday School and Ladies Missionary Society did.

If that vision were ever true - and I doubt that it was - it certainly is not true anymore. The majority of Americans have never been in a church. Eighty percent couldn't tell you more than three of the Ten Commandments. Three-fourths don't know the Lord's Prayer. And for a large and growing segment, all that they know about Jesus is that he must have something to do with Santa Claus.

Our biggest mission isn't in foreign lands. Our primary mission is in our backyard. There Jesus is healing the sick, making the blind to see, opening the ears of the deaf and preaching good news to the poor. It's not a big, flashy ministry. It is God's hidden healing work, out in our very own backyard. And if we are to be his church - his body - then that is where we will be, doing those same things. Our primary ministry is not here, inside these four walls. Our primary ministry isn't ministry to the gathered body, here. But out there, where Christ is, among the very least of our brothers and sisters.

A final story. Last week I was at the home of a young unwed mother who needed help. She just struggles by, as so many do, and sometimes she can't make ends meet. She, like many in her position, isn't affiliated with a church. Generally people who are homeless, or unwed mothers, or people with other problems like that don't feel at home in our churches. But while I was there, she brought out an old beat-up Bible she had been given. She told me that she had found Christ a few months ago. A friend, who is in the same kind of situation, and who also doesn't belong to a church, shared what she had with her - a few groceries, her faith, and that old Bible. Together, they became the church, "For where two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of you." I shared that with her, and she cried. She is the church. She is the body of Christ. That's where Jesus is. And that's where we need to be. Doing Christ's hidden healing work.

John has second thoughts about Jesus. Maybe we should too. He asks, "Are you He, or shall we look for another." And Jesus answers, "Where are those in extremity? See them, and see the power of God at work there, healing and proclaiming good news to them." That's where Jesus is. That's where the Kingdom is. It is near to you. It's right across the street. Not beyond the clouds, over the grassy green slopes of a distant hill. But outside our door. And our joy, our fulfillment, our hope, our minstry, is to be where He is.