Isaiah 35 & Matthew 11
“Are you the one who we’ve been waiting for Jesus? Or what?”
John is in prison. Things are not looking good. Emboldened by God’s Spirit and maybe by the flocks of people coming to receive baptism, John had spoken out against the tyrants of his time—Herod and Herodias—and they heard the critique, were upset, and threw him in prison … and probably at this point in the story, John’s whole sense of God’s plans are called into question. Things are not looking good from the inside of the cell, so he calls out this question to Jesus. “Is there any reason for hope? Are you the one or did I stake my life on this God-mission for nothing?”
Whether or not we’re at John’s level of passion and commitment, we’ve had something like that question go through our minds. It’s a question about purpose, about where we put our hopes, and about wondering from the middle of the story what the end will be.
These past couple of weeks, several of us at Christ have been walking with and praying intently for the Humphrey family of Rock of Ages, the Baptist church that worships in this space right after us. Pastor John Humphrey gave me permission to share with you that their oldest daughter, Jonnay, has been in jail. She was coerced at gunpoint to participate in a robbery, and with the real criminals, she was incarcerated. Her faith has been tested in jail. Doesn’t God hear our prayers? Then, why is she still in the cell? Why is the bail so high? Why did this even happen to her? Knowing she was vulnerable, why didn’t God protect her?
These are the questions we ask God on behalf of Jonnay… these are the questions that rise up from the cell, when all looks bleakest… when it seems as if God is powerless or not acting on behalf of God’s people at all.
And here is what Jesus says in response to John’s deep questions (and ours)—
People who have been unable to walk can now walk. People covered with leprosy are now cleansed. People who could not hear can now hear. People who live in poverty can look forward to a time when there will more than enough…
God will release individuals and systems from these disabling conditions, so that all interactions and relationships take place according to God’s original purposes.
And although some of God’s healing, then and now, is literal—literally, people being given glasses and being able to see—I think that Jesus is not saying that the physical cure is the main thing… because we can all think of so many examples, then and now, of moments when a physical cure just didn’t happen.
In fact, John’s story ends in a bizarre turn of events… with his death.
John’s story ends, but the storyteller seems to be trying to tell us that it is not the end for him, or for the God-movement that he was part of… God’s work continues in Jesus, who is confident that God never gives up offering the world opportunities to become more like heaven. And God’s work continues through “even the least in the kingdom of heaven”… then and now.
Maybe we feel like “the least” as we wait and watch for God’s action… maybe we feel like those exiles Isaiah describes—with weak hands, feeble knees, fearful hearts, obscured vision, hindered hearing, broken bodies, and silent tongues… I imagine that with that long list, there’s none of us who can’t identify because either we have that physical challenge or we have it metaphorically. This season, so many people have been utterly overwhelmed by despair and weariness. Our capacities needed to move through this world have been diminished. We’ve felt sorrow in our bodies, deep in our bones.
But the good news is that God does not abandon us to our despair. Our sorrow will come to an end, and on a day when the sick body will find new life in God, Isaiah says the people of God will: “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.”
It’s not just humans who will benefit, Isaiah describes the whole creation will experience new life… and Isaiah in the end invites us into this life-changing vision, giving us both something to do and something to preach to others (you heard me right, you are all invited to be preachers in your everyday life… sharing your reasons for hope and assurance with those who are bent down by despair and hopelessness).
Here’s the invitation to courage:
Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
That is not our usual picture of vengeance. It’s not our usual picture of payback.
God’s way is to protect and save—and it’s for you… and for everyone who needs to see this life and hear this word from you.
This morning, we’ll act this out. We’ll stand and sing. We’ll confess our sins and hear them forgiven. We’ll pray for people like Jonnay who are incarcerated and for all those who need healing—from physical pain and for all the other kinds of fear and despair that make us unable to move—and we’ll pray for confidence in God who has come in Jesus Christ and will continue to come to save us.
And then at Holy Communion, you are invited up to receive not only the bread and cup, the healing & restoring body of Christ… but to receive prayers personally, through the laying on of hands of another sister or brother in Christ who is clinging with you to the promise that this future that Isaiah and Jesus describe is not just a dream unfulfilled. In fact, it has been and is and will continue to come into being.
So we are invited to watch and walk with Jesus, the One, for signs of the Holy Way, both as we wait and then as waiting comes to an end… and God’s joy breaks through to us.