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1 Embarrassed by Jesus Isaiah 35: 1-10; Matthew 11: 2-11 Third Sunday of Advent, (Dec. 12) 2010 Kyle Childress Dorothy Day was one of the greatest Christians of the 20th century. Born in 1897, she died in 1980, she worked with the poor and homeless, worked for peace, was a journalist, and was a person of deep prayer, reading, and reflection. Toward the end of her life she said, "If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about Jesus; not been embarrassed to talk about God." We Christians talk about a lot of things: we express our love for our church, our enthusiasm for a particular mission activity, and our opinions on how the Sunday morning sermon went and whether we knew any of the hymns or not. But do we talk about God, about Jesus? Earlier this fall I talked about the National Study of Youth and Religion and the work of Princeton theologian Kenda Creasy Dean. One of the findings of the study is that families rarely talk about Jesus, much less God. Jesus is not a part of the natural conversations of the home or in our lives. I'm not talking about "praise the Lord" chatter, I'm saying that for faith to be real and growing, Jesus Christ needs to be such a partner in your life that prayer is a regular and natural part of your life, as well as speaking of him and listening to others speak of him, becomes as natural as talking about one another (see Almost Christian, p. 131ff.). A couple of years ago, theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke was delivering the inaugural Will Campbell lectures at the University of Mississippi. He lectured

2 for almost an hour and followed with another hour of vigorous dialogue, and question and answer. Afterwards, a friend of mine who is a baptist minister, along with an Episcopal priest and four or five laypeople, went over to one of their houses, and had further conversation for another three hours about God. They didn't talk about Stanley Hauerwas or Will Campbell ­ both of whom are interesting to talk about. They didn't talk shop or church. They talked about the God we know in Jesus Christ. How unique; how rare. How interesting. How without embarrassment. In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus says, "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." Or it could be translated, "Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me." Or, "Blessed is anyone who is not embarrassed by me." It is a curious thing to say. Why would anyone be offended, scandalized, or embarrassed by Jesus? Of course, those of you who have hung around church very much know from reading the Gospels that a lot of people took offense at Jesus. He made withering attacks on the religious and governmental authorities, which did not win him friends in high places. He called for committed discipleship and there were plenty of people who either did not want to make that kind of commitment or could not. Many more people turned away from Jesus than turned toward him. And many of these who were offended by Jesus had good reason. He stepped on almost everyone's toes sooner or later. In our Gospel story, John the Baptist is in prison. In the cold, dark cell, facing death from Herod, John is having his doubts about Jesus. He sends word to Jesus by way of his own disciples, "Are you the Messiah or should we be looking for someone else?"

3 Every year the second and third weeks of Advent we deal with John the Baptist. He is the forerunner, the one who comes shouting "Prepare the way. The Messiah is coming." We spend two weeks with John because he is there to help us get ready for Jesus. Last week John was out in the wilderness preaching about us getting ready. John is excited that Jesus is the Messiah and he wants us to be excited. But now, John is in prison and he's having second thoughts. Jesus' work is underway and according to John's expectations Jesus is showing no signs of being the Messiah he expected, much less the one everyone else expected. Jesus is something of a disappointment. He's not building up a following as much as John wanted him to. He's not running the Romans out on a rail and tarring and feathering the religious leaders who cooperated with them. He has not even shown up at the prison to liberate John. "Are you the Messiah or should we look for someone else?" This is a good Advent question for all of us. Is Jesus who you were expecting him to be or did you expect him to be someone else? Did you expect him to be your buddy or help you get rich or cure your stress or make your children beautiful, happy, smart, well-behaved, and successful? Were you looking for a self-help messiah? How about a liberal messiah? Or maybe a mean-spirited teaparty messiah who preaches that everyone is on their own, and if you imply that you might need your neighbors, you're suspected of being a socialist? One of the temptations we constantly face, especially this time of the year as we prepare for Emmanuel, God with us, is that the path is very short between the incarnation's God with us and the cozier presumption that God "R" Us. We can

4 very easily expect the God with us in Jesus to fit into our molds, meets our needs, help us with our wants, and mirror our wishes. The same is true of Jesus' body, the Church. We want it to meet our needs and respond to our wants. But we become offended if it doesn't grow the way we thought it should; if it doesn't do this or it doesn't do that like we hoped it would. On and on I could go. But the temptation is to try to make the church into our image, rather than reflect the image of Jesus. In one of Elizabeth Edwards last interviews given before she died this past week from cancer, she said, "I had to reconcile the God I had with the God I thought I had... it's not entirely the God I want but it is the God I believe I have." Jesus responds to John's question by telling what he's doing. He doesn't give a big explanation or involved Bible teaching. He simply tells what he is doing: the lepers are cleansed, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have had the good news preached to them. Then he adds this "Blessed are those who are not offended by me." "Blessed are those who are not scandalized by me." "Blessed are those not embarrassed by me." No big, sweeping statements. No philosophical or theological explanations. Just the specifics. "Just the facts, mam." And then "Blessed are those who are not offended or embarrassed by me or what I'm doing." If Jesus had given us generalities and generic, vague explanations he might not have been as offensive. You see, when we speak in general, vague ways about God, then we can plug in our definition of God whenever and wherever we hear the term: in God we trust, one nation under God, or "Gott Mit Uns" (God with us) as the German army uniforms said in WWII.

5 This summer Glen Beck held his big rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and in a two hour rambling speech talked about a revival of God in America. Every other sentence was about God, America, the founding fathers, the Gettysburg Address, moral values (where were not specified), and on and on. His generic "god" was a kind civil religion. Any listener could define god any way he or she wanted. He never talked about Jesus. But the God we know in Jesus Christ is a particular God. An incarnate God who came to us in the flesh, in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and then did specific, particular actions of ministry: cleansing lepers, healing the lame, the blind, the deaf, and preaching news that was very good to poor people. God is not anything; God is not anyone. God is not everyone. God is someone. God has a place, a name, a face. Jesus. G. K. Chesterton once said that we may be able to have a debate about whether or not Jesus believed in fairies, but we can have no debate over whether or not he thought that rich people were in grave danger. We are stuck with certain concrete, irrefutable evidence. So sometimes I wonder if some of the God-talk about the God we don't know is simply a way to weasel out of dealing with this man Jesus of Nazareth and who he calls us to be. He offends us. And in certain polite company, he embarrasses us. Clarence Jordan used to say that Jesus, Emmanuel, God coming and living right in the middle of us, was sort of like sitting in the barbershop on a Saturday morning listening to the men tell stories and jokes and so on. Then the preacher walks in and everyone gets real quiet. Dealing with God in the flesh in the person of Jesus may be getting too close for comfort for many of us. We prefer the God beyond us, the God we don't know and perhaps the God who doesn't know us. I

6 think we Americans like "God" to be vaguely God. Just enough God for us to call on to aid us in the times of our distress but not specific enough to challenge us in our sin. Jesus can be embarrassing. He hangs around people who are poor and then he heals people. If he's not offending the country club set, he's embarrassing all of us who are smart and educated and sophisticated. My heavens, Jesus! You want us to be a Pentecostal church with faith-healing? I was in a question and answer dialogue last year in San Francisco, when a college professor asked, "Why do you have to believe in the miracles of Jesus in order to believe in Jesus?" I responded with all sorts of gyrations about how I wasn't sure that belief in the miracles was necessary to believing that Jesus Christ is Lord. A student spoke up, "I wonder why belief in miracles is a problem for us modern people? Can it be that we are modern, affluent, educated, North American people who think that maybe we just may be God? So we're threatened by the possibility that God is not us, who is beyond us, and who doesn't operate by our rules?" [ Don't you hate it when the students know the answer.] When Jesus healed and taught and preached, he was showing us a power let loose in the world that is not constrained by our modes and channels of authorization. In our world, if you are sick, you have to have enough money to buy enough insurance to get healing help. But Jesus offered healing for those who were poor, excluded, and powerless. How embarrassing. How offensive. Why is it that Jesus heals some people and not others? Why didn't Jesus

7 heal me? I'm a faithful Christian yet I've lost my business while others, some of whom are downright non-believers, seem to have businesses which are thriving. Why are some people always successful while my life seems to be tragedy after another? Why don't you help me, Jesus? Why am I ­ your cousin and best friend ­ languishing in prison while you are out there healing other people? Are you the Messiah or should we wait for someone else? Are we embarrassed that he heals and encourages poor people? Are we offended that Jesus doesn't work according to our plan? But when I think about it, and when I look out at you, I know better. If you were offended you wouldn't be here on this Third Sunday of Advent. You are not embarrassed by all this talk of Jesus and this devotion to Jesus. You are here. You are here expectant, eager for Jesus to do his work, willing to let him surprise us, delight us with his work. Former pastor Roger Paynter remembers when he came back here for the Austin Heights' fifteenth anniversary. You gathered at Kurth Lake for a retreat on a Saturday and talked about where Austin Heights would go next. Part of the conversation was the question, "Why keep going?" Roger said that Steve Smith spoke up and said, "I will tell you what keeps me coming to this church. It may be strange to say but after 15 years of trying to figure out what it means to be church, I still get the feeling here, like nowhere else, that any minute now something is about to happen." You are not offended. Jesus doesn't embarrass you. You are blessed by Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen and amen.


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