"Stop and Hear the Music" – Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." As they went away, 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? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Anticipating that the end of his life was near, John the Baptist sat in his prison cell and wondered if he had gotten it all wrong. Had he wasted his life? All those years spent announcing that the Messiah was coming…that the world would be turned on its head…that salvation was at hand; and what did he have to show for it?
John was convinced that in his lifetime he would witness the Messiah come and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. And it would look something like this: There would be trumpets blazing, the evil occupying government powers would be brought to their knees, the righteous and religious would inherit the earthly blessings, and God would walk on the earth, ruling with justice.
Sitting in the cold, dark prison cell, John’s attention turned to Jesus. He had put so much hope, faith and trust in Jesus of Nazareth. He recalled the day he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. When Jesus came up out of the water hadn’t he heard the voice of the Lord say, “This is my Son, whom I love.” Maybe he misheard something that day, because as far as he could tell, Jesus was no Messiah.
After all, Jesus spent more time challenging the Hebrew people than the Roman government. Jesus was plain, ordinary, and physically unimpressive. He didn’t throw lightening bolts from his hands, he couldn’t fly, and he never even lifted a finger against anyone. Rather than lead God’s people in a fight against the oppressive, godless forces of oppression, he spent all his time eating and drinking with sinners, adulterers, lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes.
John was aware of the healings and so-called “miracles” which Jesus performed. But even that was too mundane for John. He expected something more spectacular from God.
As a desperate measure at a desperate time, John sent his followers to ask, once and for all, if Jesus was actually the Messiah. Jesus’ reply was poignant. According to Jesus, John needed to stretch his imagination of what the presence and power of God looks like, because he was missing out on something important.
Here, today, two thousand years later, we too must stretch our imagination of what the presence and power of God looks like. Many of us, like John the Baptist, have a narrow understanding of who God is, what God does, and where we can experience God. In this season of Advent many of us are caught waiting for a God who fits nicely into our preconceived notions – a God who lives confined within a particular church building or a particular set of scripture passages.
In January of 2007, The Washington Post videotaped the reactions of commuters to the music of a violinist at a D.C. Metro (subway) stop. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of bills into the violin case of the street performer. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the Metro. Except it wasn't an ordinary day. The violinist wasn't just another street performer; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston's Symphony Hall with people paying $100 for the cheap seats to hear him play similar pieces.
The question the Post author (Gene Weingarten) asks is: “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?”*
Just as how many of us have lost our ability to recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall; I also fear we have largely lost our ability to recognize God at work outside of the church.
Can we imagine that God is using us in our various roles as employee, parent, spouse, friend, citizen, and volunteer, to extend God's love, blessing, and steadfast care of all creation?
The possibility of missing out on God’s presence and activity might sound dire; but truthfully, it’s more of an invitation to recognize God’s presence so that we can share in the joy that surrounds it. Here’s how the Washington Post journalist captured this joy from in the Joshua Bell subway experiment. He writes,
“As it happens, exactly one person recognized Joshua Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.
“Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.”
John was driven to doubt and despair because he didn’t know what to look for. In order to see God at work within your family, job, friends, and community, you need to know what you’re looking for. On Sunday mornings we gather hopeful to experience Christ in a way that would help you identify God throughout the week. So that when you least expect it, you may see God at work in strange ways and in strange places, and that you would feel compelled drop everything, sit down, and smile until the end.
Jesus tells John that every Christian disciple is greater than John. Why? Because we have perceived in Jesus' "ordinary" actions of restoration the very hand of God at work to heal, redeem, and save –– something John almost missed completely.
I wish to leave you with a quote from poet W.H. Davies: