The people at Coca-Cola seem to think you can “Open Happiness” by
popping the top off an ice-cold bottle of Coke, but in this Advent
season we are opening hope, peace, joy, and love by turning the
pages of scripture and being reminded that the coming of Christ
changes everything. Two
weeks ago we opened hope by talking about not only our children’s
hopes for Christmas, and not only our own hopes for help and
healing, but also about God’s hopes for the redemption of all
creation. Last week we
opened peace by talking about peace with God, and how it’s not only
that we have to make peace with him, but that he—in the person of
Jesus—has come to make peace with us.
Today I want to open joy, and that’s not going to be easy.
It would be nice if joy came in a bottle—like Coke—and you
could buy it at the store, and bring it home, pop the top, take a
big gulp, and feel all that joyful fizziness bubbling up inside you
and spilling over to others.
But you can’t.
When you look up the word
joy in the dictionary it doesn’t say anything about where you
can get it. It says that
joy is: 1) “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by
something exceptionally good or satisfying,” for example that
feeling you get when your
favorite team scores a touchdown, 2) “a source or cause of keen
pleasure or delight,” as in the someone or something who brings you
joy, 3) “the expression or display of glad feeling,” which might
describe the look on your face when you are joyful or the way you
literally jump up and down, and 4) “a state of happiness or
felicity,” which might be a quieter, deeper, calmer thing—something
you might feel in your heart even if it doesn’t show on your face.
As I said, the dictionary doesn’t tell you where you can get
joy, but it does seem to suggest that joy can be “got.”
That second definition speaks of joy as a
source of keen pleasure or
delight—a something or someone who
causes the emotion of
great delight or happiness, who
makes your face light up,
who brings about that
state of deep and quiet joy.
And, as you may have guessed, I want to talk about Jesus as
In today’s reading from Matthew 11 Jesus is doing what he always
seems to be doing in the Gospels—preaching and teaching, helping and
healing—when he gets an unexpected visit from the disciples of John
the Baptist. John has
been locked up in prison by King Herod.
He hasn’t been able to follow Jesus around and watch him
work. But he’s heard what
he’s been up to, and it doesn’t seem to be exactly what he expected.
Listen to the question he asks in Matthew 11:2-6:
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
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
How could John ask such a thing?
He was the one who said, ‘I baptize you with water, but one
who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to
carry his sandals.” And
then, when Jesus came for baptism, John tried to stop him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
In other words John recognized Jesus for who he was—the
Messiah, the one more powerful than he, the one whose sandals he
wasn’t worthy to carry—but here, a few chapters later, he isn’t so
When John was preaching in the wilderness he told people to
repent because the kingdom of heaven was near.
And then he told them how he thought that kingdom would come.
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” he said;
“every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and
thrown into the fire. I
baptize you with water,” he said, “but the one who is coming will
baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his
threshing floor and gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff
he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John had in mind a Messiah who would come with an ax in one
hand and a winnowing fork in the other, one who would chop down the
fruitless trees, and burn up the useless chaff, one who would bring
in God’s kingdom with a rush and a roar, and baptize God’s people
with spirit and fire.
What he got instead was Jesus, who went around healing the sick, and
blessing the poor, and telling clever parables about the kingdom.
John seems almost
disappointed, and I think I know why.
New Testament scholar Ralph Martin says that
the expectation of a Messiah was at a fever pitch in the time of
John the Baptist. He
quotes from a document called the Psalms of Solomon, which is
not in our Bible but was very popular in those days.
It was being read in the synagogues, in the public square,
and in private homes. It
spoke of a Messiah who, like his ancestor David, would be a mighty
warrior and rescue his people from their enemies.
He would overthrow the Romans and set up God’s kingdom,
making Jerusalem his capital and restoring the temple
to its former glory.
Martin says, “The days of the Messiah’s rule would be days of
indescribable blessedness and unparalleled prosperity for
The nation would be elevated to a rank of supremacy, with
acknowledged as the chief city in the world.
The Gentile nations would either submit to the dominance of Israel,
or be broken in pieces and brought into subjugation.”[i]
Let me read a few verses from the Psalms of
Solomon, just to give you a taste of what the people in John the
Baptist’s day were hearing:
Behold, O Lord, and raise up for[your
people] their king, the son of David, at the appointed time which, O
God, you did choose, that he may reign over Israel, your servant.
And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous
rulers, and may cleanse Jerusalem from the Gentiles that trample her
down in destruction . . . With a rod of iron may he break in pieces
all their resources. Let
him destroy the lawless Gentiles by the word of his mouth.[ii]
If that’s what John was hearing then it’s not
surprising that he would expect a Messiah who would come with an ax
in one hand and a winnowing fork in another.
But what was Jesus hearing?
He says, “Go and tell John that 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.”
It’s almost a direct quote from today’s Old Testament lesson,
where Isaiah says:
“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…. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind
shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame
shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for
joy” (vss. 3-6a). “Here
is your God,” Isaiah says, “and this is what he does: He doesn’t
chop down trees and burn up chaff.
He doesn’t shatter unrighteous rulers with a rod of iron.
No, he comes, he saves, he helps, he heals.
That’s how you will recognize him.”
It’s as if Jesus and John each had a playbook on “How to Be the
Messiah,” but John’s was a piece of political propaganda called
the Psalms of Solomon and
Jesus’ was nothing less than the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
We know that there was a copy of that scroll in his hometown
synagogue because when he preached there one time that’s what they
gave him to read, but we don’t know how many other scrolls they had.
I have this suspicion that in a small-town synagogue like
that they may have only been able to afford a few: the Torah, of
course; Isaiah and maybe one of the other major prophets; and then a
few little scrolls they got on sale like Habakkuk, Joel, and a
slightly used copy of Obadiah.
I’m speculating, of course, but what if Jesus grew up in that
little synagogue hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah read aloud
Sabbath after Sabbath, mostly because that’s what they had, and what
if he closed his eyes and let those words sink down deep into his
mind, his heart, his soul?
He was the Word made flesh, but what if it was those words,
above all others, that became flesh in him?
If so he might begin to believe that his mission in life was
not so much to shatter unrighteous rulers as it was to help and heal
the sick, to preach good news to the poor.
And this is what he does.
He says, “Go tell John what you have heard and seen: 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.”
Because this is what can happen when you don’t measure up to
people’s expectations: they can take offense at you.
How many people have taken offense at political candidates
who didn’t live up to their campaign promises?
And what about John?
He was practically Jesus’ campaign manager!
He was the one telling everybody that Jesus was going to get
rid of the dead wood and burn up the chaff.
But now all he seems to be doing is helping and healing
people, preaching good news to the poor.
How is that going to get rid of the Romans?
“Are you the one who is to come,” John asks, “or should we
look for another.” He
seems disappointed, but then again he had political dreams; he was
dreaming that one, tiny middle-eastern nation could be restored to
its former glory. Jesus
has bigger dreams than that; he hasn’t only come to save Israel,
he’s come to save the whole world, and what he does is a sign of
what’s coming, of that time when God will be in charge of
everything, when there won’t be any hunger or hurting, no sickness
or suffering, no death or dying anymore.
But please don’t think badly of John.
Near the end of today’s Gospel reading Jesus says that “among
those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.
He is not only a prophet, he is “the Messenger” sent to
prepare the way (Mal. 3:1).
And yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he
is.” Jesus says it as
he’s looking around at those people he has come to help and heal—the
blind, the deaf, the lepers, the lame, and the poor.
His dream is not national; it’s global.
And it’s not political; it’s personal.
Because while he has come for everyone in the world he also
makes it clear that he has come for every one [holding up one
I think of what it must have been like for just one of those
people Jesus healed, for the lame person, for example, who was made
to walk. Picture him on
crutches, coming to Jesus, dragging his useless, twisted legs behind
him. And then picture Jesus
standing before him, looking into his eyes, putting a hand on his
shoulder and saying, “Be healed.”
And then picture that man’s face as he feels the strength
flowing into his withered legs, feels them growing straight and
strong again. Picture
him in that moment when he straightens up and lets his crutches fall
to the ground. Picture
him shifting his weight gingerly from one foot to the other, and
then starting to walk, faster and faster, until he breaks into a
run, racing down the road toward home and stopping only when he
remembers that there’s someone he needs to thank.
And then picture him running back, dropping at Jesus’ feet,
gasping for breath, holding on to his ankles, and saying, “Thank
you, thank you, thank you!”
“Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” John
asks. If he had been
standing there Jesus might have pointed to the man at his feet and
said, “Ask him,”
“He’ll tell you.”
Ralph Martin, New
Testament Foundations, Volume I: the Four Gospels (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 108.
Psalms of Solomon 17:21-24.