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First Scripture = Isaiah 35:4-10
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
We are still in our series looking at the questions God and Jesus ask in the Bible. Those questions are designed to speak to something in our souls, not gather extra information that God somehow didn’t already know. Last week we heard Jesus ask, “who do you say that I am?” As CS Lewis said, Jesus must be a liar, a lunatic, or our Lord. I’m in the “Lord” camp.
This week, I have to confess, I tried to bargain with the Holy Spirit. This is a very strange text to be preaching in these very strange times. So I wondered if I could switch it to a different week, but the Spirit said no. I tried to convince the Holy Spirit to let me go in a couple of different directions with this text, but the Spirit said no. So my third bargain with the Spirit was to say, “Well then you better give me the words to say!” I guess we’ll find out together if that happened.
Our text today is a difficult one for many reasons, not the least of which is that so much of it is about what isn’t said. This is a “read between the lines” part of the Bible. So that’s problem #1, but we’ve done that together before. Not a big deal. We can handle that.
Problem #2 is the intersection of the topic and the timing. Our country is undergoing many upheavals right now. On top of the ongoing pandemic, we now have protests, riots, major court cases, massive debates – many of these around the topic of justice. And what a time to be preaching a previously-scheduled text that is centered around a debate about the justice of God. And for extra fun, Jesus tells a holy, innocent man that he won’t be granted justice this side of heaven. Can you see why I tried to bargain my way out of this text at this time?
But the Holy Spirit said no.
So today we’re going to hear about God’s justice. And to get there, we’re going to talk about Jesus’ cousin and how Jesus didn’t grant him justice. Strap yourselves in! Or get your tomatoes ready to throw at the screen, either one. Just remember, it’s your laptop or TV that gets hit with that tomato right now 🙂
Without further ado, let’s hear the text today and then we’ll unpack it together.
Main Scripture = Luke 7:18-35
18The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 24When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29(And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) 31“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’ 33For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
Do you remember the movie The Matrix? Much of the movie revolves around discovering if Keanu Reeve’s character, Neo, is The One. The One is supposed to have incredible powers inside the massive computer simulation that is the Matrix. Morpheus found Neo. Morpheus believed in Neo. Morpheus told his skeptical crew that Neo was The One.
Then came the test. Everyone in the crew had special abilities in the Matrix, but The One was supposed to be special. Extraordinary. Miraculous. Everyone in the crew had failed the test the first time they took it – and many times after that. No one had ever passed the test on their first try. But Neo…if he really was The One…maybe he could do it on his first try.
The test was to jump from one skyscraper roof across thirty or forty yards of distance to the next skyscraper roof. Morpheus showed Neo it was possible. So with the whole crew watching on pins and needles, watching, expecting, hoping…Neo sprinted to the edge of the building and leaped as hard as he could…and plummeted to the simulated street below. Just like everyone else in the crew, Neo had failed the test. Luckily it was only a simulation and he didn’t get hurt. But for the crew watching him fail to meet their hopes and expectations, it was like the air had gone out of the room.
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist’s followers would have induced a similar sense of disappointment, of dashed hopes and expectations. The air would have gone out of the room for John’s followers. To understand why, we have to read between the lines.
John was in prison because he had offended Herod, the ruler. Herod married his brother’s wife, and John thought that wasn’t kosher. Luke 3:19 says that John “rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done.” Herod eventually had John imprisoned for speaking against his evil deeds, though how it happened is a twisty-turny tale in its own right.
So John was in prison because he spoke truth to a powerful evil. That sounds like the kind of thing Jesus would want to fix, right? Especially when John was the one to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah. John was like Morpheus telling a skeptical crowd that Jesus was The One. In The Matrix, Neo and the crew busted Morpheus out of prison when he was captured.
John sent his followers to ask Jesus, essentially, if Jesus was going to free him from prison. That’s not what they said, but it’s what they meant when they asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ answer takes even more background to understand. There were a ton of prophecies in what we call the Old Testament that talked about what the Messiah would do and what kind of person the Messiah would be. Many of the most famous prophecies about the Messiah came from the book of Isaiah. Jesus’ reply to John’s followers was a summary of many of the prophecies from Isaiah.
Jesus “answered them, Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
That sounds straightforward, right? Except Jesus skipped a very well-known, very important prophecy that was very poignant to John’s predicament. Our first text we read today started this way, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
Jesus didn’t say anything about liberty to the captives or release to the prisoners. He skipped that part. And John’s followers knew it. That’s when the air would have gone out of the room. That’s when their hopes and expectations would have been dashed like Neo failing the first test. And Jesus threw in for good measure, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” “No offense, John, but I’m not going to free you. I could! You deserve to be free! But I’m not going to. But no offense!”
That would have been a pretty tough pill to swallow.
And that’s when Jesus changed the focus of the conversation. Where did Jesus put his focus in this conversation? “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus changed the focus from the great prophet, John, and placed the focus on the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. They are the focus of God’s justice, not the prophet. Not the Pharisee. Not the keeper of the law. Not those who, as Jesus said, “put on fine clothing and live in luxury” or “in royal palaces.” They aren’t the focus of God’s justice. The poor, the lame, the blind, the deaf, the dead, the leper – they’re the focus of God’s justice.
And our text has these cutting, insightful words: “And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”
So, according to Jesus, the focus of God’s justice here on earth is not on the super religious people like the Pharisees. The focus of God’s justice here on earth is not on the people who have made it. According to Jesus, the focus of God’s justice here on earth is not on those who are in the mostly-happy middle. The focus of God’s justice here on earth is on those who are on the margins, who have a very different experience than others, who have to jump over extra hurdles. They’re the focus of God’s justice here on earth. And in general, I think we should focus our attention wherever God is focusing his attention. I think that’s a pretty good spiritual principle.
As I’ve shared before, Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. That’s the great reversal of God’s justice. Jesus said he would leave the 99, the comfortable, to go after the 1 who was lost. Most of the people in our church are in the 99. We are mostly religious people to some degree. We are mostly doing OK in this society. That doesn’t cover everyone in our church. That doesn’t mean everything has been easy or smooth. I know that. My ride hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. But if we’re dividing up whether we’re part of the 99 sheep in Jesus’ flock or the 1 who’s wandering away, most of our church is the 99. Jesus loves the 99. Jesus interacts with the 99 all the time. But the 99 aren’t the focus of God’s justice.
We have reasons to complain. We have reasons to mutter. We can point to struggles and pain. But God’s justice isn’t focused on us. God’s justice isn’t focused on the 99. God’s justice is focused on the one. I believe our focus should be there, too. And if we are going to focus on ourselves and our experience of God’s justice, for most of us who are in the 99 that should look like holding up a mirror to ask ourselves how our attitudes, actions, and non-actions have impacted the one – those who are the focus of God’s justice.
And Jesus gets ahead of one of our temptations. It’s tempting to look at someone demanding justice and tell them, “I agree with what you’re saying, but not how you’re saying it or how you’re getting attention to your plight.”
But Jesus pointed out that people said that to John. “John, you’re saying some good things, but could you maybe be a little less weird? I mean, eating locusts and honey? That’s not even some fad died, that’s just bizarre! Can you just be a little more normal? Come on, man!”
And those same people were mad about Jesus’ methods, too. “Jesus, you’re saying insightful things. You’re doing amazing miracles. But Abraham over there saw you at the house of a tax collector. And the night before, he saw you touching a dirty leper. Don’t you know those people are unclean? Don’t you know those people are violent? Don’t you know those people aren’t worth God’s attention? Come on, man!”
But God’s focus is on the people, even if they’re traitorous tax collectors and Godless sinners. Not the 99. The one. Not the comfortable. The afflicted. Not the mainstream. The outcast. Not the well. The sick. Even if the methods aren’t what we would prefer, God’s focus is on the people who are experiencing injustice. Will our focus be there, too, when we’re wondering about God’s justice?
And just to be clear, when I say “focus on the people,” I don’t mean focus with suspicion. Many people hearing this sermon are more suspicious of someone who doesn’t dress right, or someone who doesn’t smell right, or someone who doesn’t have the right color of skin, or someone who doesn’t say the right things, or someone who always seems to need something.
In Jesus’ day, it was the Samaritans who were viewed with that kind of suspicion in broader Israel. And what did Jesus do? He went out of his way to a Samaritan town. He found a Samaritan. A woman. A woman who had done a lot of things that were poor choices in her life, and some other things that were just bad luck. And he spoke with her. Listened to her. And he gave her a reason to hope. That’s our model. That’s the focus of God’s justice for those viewed with suspicion because of their birth or their culture.
Later on, in the book of Acts when the early church was being formed, the Holy Spirit sent Philip specifically to talk with another person who was outcast. An Ethiopian eunuch was passing through, and though he wanted to know more about God he was barred from entry as a foreigner and a eunuch. Two strikes against him. But the Holy Spirit sent Philip to climb into this Ethiopian’s chariot. The Holy Spirit sent Philip to listen first, and then talk.
The Holy Spirit sent Philip to baptize this Ethiopian eunuch. And then the Holy Spirit sent the Ethiopian eunuch back to his home country to spread the Good News of Jesus. That’s our model. That’s the focus of God’s justice for those who are barred from the special places because of their birth or their culture. Maybe, like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, we need to listen first, and then talk.
Sisters and brothers, God’s justice entails a great reversal. The 99 are OK, so Jesus runs after the one who isn’t OK. Those who are viewed with suspicion are instead viewed by Jesus with greater honor than the greatest prophet. Those who are beneath notice or who are noticed as objects of derision are instead the focus of Jesus’ love. That great reversal is earth-shattering comfort for the afflicted. But that great reversal might also be earth-shattering affliction to those of us who are comfortable. That great reversal is one of the reasons the rulers wanted Jesus killed.
I’m not going to tell you how you should apply this to today’s environment. I leave that as a challenge to you in your prayer life and in your speaking life and in your doing life. But hopefully this equips you for that. Go read our first text today – Isaiah 61:1-9. See how the Holy Spirit wants you to apply God’s justice today. If you don’t like what I said today, talk to the Holy Spirit in light of Isaiah 61:1-9. The Spirit knows more than I do, anyway. But if you just write this off because you don’t like it, I think you’re missing an opportunity to grow closer to Jesus.
I believe all of us need to ask how the Holy Spirit wants us to apply God’s justice today. Do we have the courage to ask? And do we have the courage to listen? Amen.