The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 11, 2022
There’s an old Jewish saying: If you have God figured out, it isn’t God you have figured out.
We may know something of the character of this mysterious God infinitely beyond us, and His faithfulness in the history of His people and perhaps in the course of our own personal life; but, as often as not, at any given moment, we don’t know what He’s up to and how He’s pursuing His aims. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways, Isaiah said.
For example, we may seek to duplicate the joy we used to have at Christmas and hope to have it again by certain means, only to have it by unanticipated means – say, through surprising people. Likewise, we may seek confirmation of our faith that we can improve this troubled world and hope to verify it in certain terms, only to verify it by unexpected means – say, by surprising “successes” that hadn’t before come to our notice.
The prophet John the Baptist once felt sure about Jesus. He saw Him as so much greater than himself that he deemed himself unworthy even to carry His sandals. John called Jesus “the one who is to come”, the most commonly used term in those days to refer to the promised Messiah.
So, even in prison, John kept track of Jesus; but the reports he got caused him to wonder whether Jesus was all he’d supposed Him to be. So John sent a delegation to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The scriptures do not tell us exactly why John had doubts about Jesus. Given John’s ministry however, it’s easy to guess. John emphasized the judgment of God upon hypocrites and evildoers and often gave them a verbal foretaste of it. How could John not be frustrated with Jesus’ patience, gentleness and even acceptance of such bad people?
Jesus responded to John’s question about His identity by talking solely about His activity. When John sought to know who Jesus was, Jesus answered indirectly by speaking only about what He was doing.
And what Jesus picked out, from all the activities in which He was engaged, makes for a curious list, one that would never satisfy someone seeking the security of certainty. The actions Jesus cited might have caused John to doubt his doubts some; but they proved nothing. Jesus merely cited five different kinds of miraculous healing He did and one single theme in His preaching.
Historical research shows no Jew in first century Palestine taking healing as a unique sign of the Messiah. After all, several prophets healed people miraculously; and one of them, Elijah, even raised a dead person. Yet, while such deeds indicated an anointing from God, no one thought any of those prophets the Messiah.
The preaching theme Jesus underlined for John, however, addressed an issue behind John’s doubt. Jesus noted that through His preaching “the poor have good news brought to them.” That jives with Jesus’ first beatitude, His initial word at the start of His Sermon on the Mount. He then said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
To whom do all the riches of God’s glory and goodness belong? According to Jesus, not every time to those who are especially righteous and have a proven record of doing justice, showing compassion and exemplifying integrity, as worthy as such practices are. Rather God’s riches belong to any and all who view whatever level of righteousness they have as too paltry and poor to give them any right to God’s riches. God’s riches belong to any and all who own up to the reality that their only hope is to throw themselves upon God’s mercy – and who get it that throwing themselves upon God’s mercy always involves throwing themselves under God’s Lordship as His obedient people. The righteousness that eventually comes is never the root of their good standing with God but the fruit of their good standing with God.
This good news about God’s grace is the greatest blessing Jesus brought. But that blessing is not always welcome. Those proud of their own virtue and those who mean to be self-reliant hate it. And I think that if John didn’t exactly hate it, he wasn’t at all sure he liked it.
While John wanted to determine whether Jesus fit into his categories of how God would and should act, Jesus wanted John to look at himself and determine whether he was, by his attitude and focus, fitting into God’s chief concern: to show His grace to any and all, and to encourage everyone to trust that it can save them from themselves and from their false faith in their own self-effort.
To believe that we can enjoy God’s riches just by responding rightly to God’s undeserved, un-earnable and thus unlimited kindness is a source of great joy.
The last person you’d expect to radiate joy is someone who’s suffered quadriplegia for over 50 years and endured chronic pain for decades. But that’s exactly what a hero of mine, Joni Eareckson Tada, does. She does it by looking to God’s grace and embracing the unwelcome blessing her paralysis is.
When in her late teens Joni looked at a new life as a paralyzed person, she looked first for God to heal her. But God never did…except that God healed her of her need to be healed and gave her the eyes to see her paralysis as an unwelcome blessing she’d do well to welcome. Joni now thanks – yes, genuinely thanks – God for her quadriplegia. She does for two major reasons: First, it makes her aware of her poverty of spirit, keeps her in touch with her need of God, and motivates her to seek a close friendship with God if only out of desperation but as the most wonderful gift of her life. Second, her overcoming by God’s grace the immense difficulties and challenges of her paralysis, and emerging out of them with unshakeable good cheer, give her a hard-won credibility when she bears witness to the powerful reality of God’s grace, a credibility that moves people to listen to her with an open mind.
Let us not box God up in our expectations about what He will or should do. Let us welcome even the unwelcome but wise blessings of His grace. For they may in the end, as they have for Joni, put our best dreams to shame, fill our hearts with joy, and give others ears to hear the good news He brought us and still brings to the poor in spirit. Let us pray.