Our reading today is kind of mirror image of last week’s reading. Then we heard John talking about Jesus, today we hear Jesus talking a bit about himself, but a lot about John, and his place as a pivotal point in the story of God coming to his people.
During the reading, we saw this picture. I really like it, it summarises the story for us! Jesus is talking to a couple of men, they may be the men John sent to make enquiries, or maybe it’s the other people Jesus was talking to. But probably the people John sent, they are pointing at Jesus, as if asking him a question. Jesus’ answer is in the figures at the bottom of the picture – the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed and the dead raised. And Jesus is pointing to John: perhaps he is saying, “Go and tell him what you’ve seen” or maybe he’s pointing to John to emphasise the importance of his role in the story of God with his people.
Let’s look at the passage a little more closely, Matthew 11, starting at v.2, “When John was in prison ..” We don’t read about how this came about until later in Matthew’s gospel. John the Baptist ended up in prison because he told Herod it was unlawful for him to take up with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. Herod disagreed, and had John the Baptist imprisoned. So while in prison in vss. 2 & 3, Matthew tells us John had heard about Jesus and sent his own disciples to ask if Jesus is “the one to come”, in other words, the Messiah, or was there another to follow. Now this could seem a strange question, we heard last week that John had met Jesus, had acknowledged that Jesus was greater than he was, because he asked if the baptism shouldn’t be the other way around! He knew he baptised with water, but Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. Maybe he asks because Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah they were expecting. They were expecting someone who would confront the elite rulers. Jesus didn’t do that. His ministry was often carried out one person at a time. Even in crowd situations, though he preached to many, he often spoke to, touched, healed, one person at a time, like the woman in the midst of a crowd who was cured of bleeding. Maybe Matthew here is being a clever author, maybe he knows that we aren’t sure what to make of Jesus, and so he wants a way to spell it out for us and challenge us in our thinking.
In vss. 4 & 5, Jesus recounts what John’s disciples have heard and seen – those five figures at the bottom of our picture: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised. These phrases echo the words of Isaiah 35 vss 5,6. Jesus adds another action: the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Now, if you’d seen all these things for yourself, or even heard of them happening – like news around Amington or in our Church congregation – what would you have thought, that Jesus was the Messiah, or that he was some kind of magician? There is no reply from John’s disciples recorded. Jesus tells them there is his blessing if they believe, he says in v. 6:” Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me”.
I am sometimes a person of small brain, like Pooh Bear, and I need help with understanding parts of the Bible. V 6 puzzled me for a bit. If there’s a particular verse or passage I struggle with, I find it really helpful to read it in one other, or several other, Bible translations. Some may be a bit closer to the actual words of the original Greek, but some may be closer to the overall sense of the verse.
If you translate a foreign phrase word by word into English, or the other way around, you can end up with some pretty funny sentences. Here is part of a scam email which was said to come from the Governor of the Bank of England. The scammers don’t do a great job of translating, the email begins: “We were having some minor problems with our payment system, which is inexplicable, and have held us stranded and indolent, not having the aspiration to devote our 100% assiduity in accrediting foreign contract payments.“ This is so bad you almost can’t understand it, but in fact you can get the drift, their system has gone down and a payment will be late. I like to think of the various Bible translations being more like what happens in watercolour painting. If you dampen a sheet of paper and then put a lot of colour on a brush, and just touch it onto the paper, the colour spreads onto the dampened surface. The colour isn’t evenly spread, but the colour itself doesn’t change, each shade (depth of colour) is a different aspect of the same colour.
So let’s go back to V. 6: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Other translations read:
Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of Me.
And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.
And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.
Maybe these are easier to understand:
God will bless everyone who doesn’t reject me because of what I do.
happy are those who have no doubts about me!
“And blessed is he who will not be suspicious of me.
Whoever doesn’t lose his faith in me is indeed blessed.
These are all about the reactions we may have on hearing about Jesus and the effect he has, the miracles he performs. For some the Good News is a great relief, a revelation, knowing that Jesus loves them, wants them to repent and follow him. For others, it is not easy to understand, or comprehend. Or we may simply feel that it’s too much for us that someone would give his life for us. We may feel the demonstrations of Jesus’ power are overwhelming, so we put them out of our minds because we simply don’t see how they can be done.
I like the latter translations because they seem to me to emphasise the blessing for us if we don’t reject Jesus’ message. In our version, “stumble” means to have trouble with the message. But if we stay with Jesus, and ask him for insight and understanding, he is generous and shows us the way. He doesn’t ask more of us than we can stand, without giving us the strength to help us stand, it’s an exciting adventure, and worth us trying, testing it, for ourselves.
We look at v 7. Here Jesus turns to the rest of the people around him and he asks the crowds, when you heard about John the Baptist, and went out into the wilderness, what were you expecting? Something wild? Someone well dressed, like a palace official? A prophet, out in the wilderness – like a hermit-type prophet perhaps. Then he goes on to quote the Old Testament prophet Malachi in v 10, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” So he is saying John the Baptist is the one of whom Malachi spoke, the messenger.
Then in V 11, there comes a really important statement for us. He says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” In other words, John the Baptist was great, but anyone who came after him and accepted Jesus into their lives was greater than him! But how could that be? Well, as I said earlier, John the Baptist was a pivotal person. He knew who Jesus was, but he didn’t have the opportunity to see him in action, he only heard about it from others. He didn’t have the opportunity to make Jesus the centre of his life, like we do. We have the opportunity of not just knowing about Jesus, but knowing the man himself as the centre of our lives, and that is what makes us greater than John the Baptist.
So the questions from this passage for us today are these.
1) When we think about a life with Jesus, what do we expect it to look like? What do we expect him to be like?
2) Having worked out something about what we think, is it something we want and are excited and delighted to receive, or does it make us nervous, unsettled or even offended, as Herod was at the words of John the Baptist? What do we make of the fact that he will bless us if we persevere in our walk with him?
These are big questions, and we do need time to explore them, wherever we are in our walk with Jesus, because there is always more to learn, the possibility of deepening that relationship is always there. That’s why there are house groups and Alpha courses, they give us a chance to explore more deeply, and work out what we think.
We are coming up to Christmas when we remember Jesus as a tiny baby in a cradle. The painters of nativity pictures might have waited a long time to get that peaceful picture – ask the parent of any newborn how long the peaceful tableau lasts before it’s time for a feed, or nappy change, or just comfort! But what do we expect of Jesus the man and his kingdom on earth where we live and work in December 2020?
So I ask again:
1) What do we think about a life with Jesus, what do we expect it to look like?
2) Having worked out something about what we think, is it something we want to follow, or does it make us nervous, unsettled, even offended? What do we make of the fact that he will bless us if we persevere in our walk with him?
We have to answer these questions for ourselves, no-one else can, though others can help you, encourage you, pray for you, but ultimately it is about our individual relationships with Jesus. Amen.