Words from Our Pastor

Monday, December 16, 2019

Consider the Evidence: An Advent Sermon

Matthew 11:2-11

I've recently gotten obsessed with True Crime podcasts.  
It’s gotten so bad that when I participate in our Roadside Cleanup, I’m convinced that every piece of trash is evidence that’s been discarded while leaving the scene of a crime.
They are so fascinating and so interesting!
There is one in particular called Crime Junkies, which has quickly become my favorite.
Each episode takes a high-profile case- some of which are solved and some of which are still unsolved-and investigates.
They have all the intrigue of a good old-fashioned mystery, except these are true.
They provide an overview of the case to set the stage.
Then, they introduce the suspects, exploring motives and alibis.
Then, and this is oftentimes my favorite, they review trial records and examine how certain things were presented.  They review how certain witnesses performed- what they said and what they didn't say. They dramatically highlight key turning points in the case and how they impacted the outcomes.
But what is almost always the most intriguing and what, almost always, is the "clincher" is evidence.
More often than not, it's the evidence which seems to make or break the trial.
But evidence isn't always a slam dunk. 
There are many, many cases where the interpretation of the evidence can unexpectedly shift the outcome.
Remember the OJ Trial?  The gloves?
The prosecution was convinced that this evidence was going to seal the deal.
In fact, in the trial they dramatically requested OJ try on the gloves, hoping for a theatrical denouement that would reveal him to be the killer.
But it backfired.
The gloves didn't fit.
And as Johnnie Cochrane famously repeated,   "If they don't fit, you must acquit!"  
It didn't matter that the leather of the gloves likely shrunk from heat over the course of the trial.
Evidence- all evidence- has to be interpreted.

Evidence seems to play a key role in today's Gospel reading.

In the passage, John the Baptist, whose mission from the beginning was to pave the way for the Messiah, now finds himself  in prison.
While in prison, John's heard stories about all these things suggesting Jesus is indeed the Messiah.  But for some reason, John isn't quite convinced.
We don't know exactly why, but he seems to need confirmation.  So he sends his folks out to ask Jesus, point-blank-
"are you the one? or should we keep looking?"
And Jesus, of course, doesn't answer the question directly.
and let's talk about that- I love the Lord.  Love the Lord.  
But throughout the Bible this man never, ever, ever seems to answer a question directly!
In some ways I feel like it would have made things way easier if he had.  But of course, that's not the point. 
I know this is Jesus' style.
Jesus- ever the teacher- wants his followers to answer the questions for themselves.
So Jesus responds to John by asking him to, basically, to discern the evidence.
The blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are healed
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised
and the poor have the good news brought to them.
All of these are actual prophecies pointing to life after the arrival of the Messiah.

So instead of answering John's question directly, Jesus cites this evidence and leaves it for him to decide. 

He leaves it for John and his followers to discern.
There's wisdom in this approach.
Because especially in matters of faith,  discernment is critical.
If you base your faith decisions- or really any decision--solely on the experience or advice of someone else, its most likely won't take root.
Because the conclusions aren't authentically yours at all.
You're just parroting someone else's views.
Any meaningful decision requires some level of discernment. 
When you discern, the outcomes become authentically your own.

We see this process most fully lived out in Confirmation.
In Confirmation we stress the importance of the youth discerning what THEY believe to be true.
At their baptism, if they were baptized as babies, the promises and faith statements were made on their behalf by adults, usually their parents.
But at Confirmation, we provide the instruction and create a space for question and debate, but they ultimately decide the trajectory of their faith on their own.
We present the evidence, and they render the verdict. 
And in doing so, it becomes theirs. 
Faith requires discernment.

Thankfully, there is a lot of material to help.  
Hundreds of years of traditions.
Lots of "evidence"--
Key witnesses-
We have an entire library of documented experiences of God ranging over thousands of years and in various forms- history, poetry, myths-
all of them speaking to the truth about God and the incredible power that comes from embracing a life of faith.
Collectively, they make a compelling case. 

But you still have to examine it for yourself 

Now to be fair, the evidence in Scripture isn't always so clear.
In the case of identifying the Messiah, for example,  much of the evidence seems counter-intuitive, at least to those in the ancient world.
Jesus, for example, would certainly not have fit the criteria at all.  The Messiah was understood to be this powerful warrior whose arrival would result in the vanquishing of all of Israel's foes.
And yet, here he is- this builder turned itinerant rabbi, born on the wrong side of the tracks, who goes around challenging the religious establishment.
It's understandable how many would not have believed him to be "the guy."
So to assist with the case, Matthew employs the ancient prophecies as evidence to "connect the dots" for the original audience.
Throughout his Gospel, Matthew frequently references the messianic prophecies so we will hopefully conclude that he is indeed "the one"

-he will be descended from David  
-from the line of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob-- from the tribe of Judah
-he will be born in Bethlehem to a virgin
-he would be called a Nazarene
-he would speak in parables
-he would be crucified with criminals 
-but resurrected from the dead and ascend into heaven

That's a lot of evidence, right?
Persuasive evidence.
In the book "Science Speaks" Peter Stoner and Robert Newman discuss the statistical improbability of one man, whether accidentally or deliberately, fulfilling just eight of the prophecies Jesus fulfilled. The chance of this happening, they say, is 1 in 10 to the 17th power
Stoner gives an illustration that helps visualize the magnitude of such odds:
Suppose that we take 10x17 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Then blindfold a man and tell him to pick up one silver dollar. What chance would he have of getting the right one? The same chance that eight prophecies would all come true in any one man.

Compelling evidence, for sure. 

In today's Gospel, Jesus uses the prophecies to prove to John and his followers that, against all odds, he is indeed who they suspect him to be: the Messiah.
But that's really not his ultimate point.
By referencing all the prophecies from Isaiah- the blind seeing, the deaf hearing and so on, Jesus yes, is confirming he's the Messiah.
But more importantly, he's announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
That a radical new way of living and being has arrived.
All that they're witnessing- the healing and restoration- are the evidence to this truth.
All the promises they've read about and heard from the prophets are now taking place!
So when you bring it all together, it's a giant WAKE UP CALL that the Kingdom of God is at hand!
Here, now, among us!
In his very being, Jesus is
Inviting us, beckoning us
to live into this reality of God's Kingdom on earth.

A new reality where:
we are liberated and reconciled
we are fully restored and made whole-
all those things which oppressed us and held us back no longer have any power over us.
Restoration is available to us
true restoration!

We live in a culture that too often tells us that it's all up to us.  We've sort of shoved God to the corner, leaving us to shoulder it all.
That our joy ....is up to us
That our worth .... is up to us
That our futures ....are up to us.

But friends, that's not the Kingdom of God!

In God's Kingdom, we are liberated from all of that.  
In God's Kingdom
Our joy... is in CHRIST
Our worth... is in CHRIST
and most definitely our futures-- our eternal futures--
are in CHRIST.

This was the truth John the Baptist had been preparing us for.
John knew that all of these things would occur upon the arrival of the Messiah.
He had spent his entire life spreading this message-
- preparing the way.
And with Jesus confirming that he was indeed the one, 
John could, in a sense, rest his case.
He could now safely pass on this mission to others.
As a result, we are now transitioning from prophecy to fulfillment.
The world would be forever changed.
The Kingdom of God had indeed arrived.

So what does this mean for us today?
How do we honor this?
In this season of Advent, how do we faithfully observe it?
Well, I suppose that's up to you.
But if you ask me, I think the evidence is clear:
It's really, really good news.
So let's celebrate.
Come Lord Jesus, Come.