No Offense Intended!
Text: Matthew 11:2-6
I have moved far too often in my life. Though each move was different, they all shared something in common. Moving is one long, extended headache. Along with all the “getting the house in order” matters, when you move, you spend a ridiculous amount of time tending to the basics – finding doctors, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and the list literally goes on and on.
The first thing I look for in each search is credentials. I don’t want to entrust my eye care to someone who finished last in her on-line school of Ophthalmology or my car’s brakes to a mechanic who failed his High School auto shop class. Credentials matter.
In our text today, John the Baptist has sent his advance team to check out Jesus’ credentials. This fire-eating, insect-crunching prophet has one question for Jesus: “Are you the Promised One of God or do we have longer to wait?”
It is a frank, but a fair, question. John has clocked hours preaching about the Mighty One from God who is coming to transform the world. Now John finds himself in prison and his patience is growing thin. He wants to know if Jesus is the Mighty One, promised by God.
And that is not all that John wants to know. He also has an unspoken question for Jesus: “If you are the long-awaited Mighty One from God, Jesus, isn’t it about time to start acting that way?”
Obviously, John has serious concerns about Jesus’ credentials. How can Jesus be the Mighty One of God, the dashing new David who will slay the Goliath of Rome, when Rome still sits like an overstuffed dragon, spitting out its stale, oppressive breath all over Palestine? Why is Jesus wasting his time hanging around a bunch of no-name misfits and dishing out wonders smack in the middle of nowhere?
John’s question: “Are you the One who is to come or do we have longer to wait?” is another way to say: “No offense, Jesus, but you sure don’t look like the Savior of the World and you sure aren’t acting like one either.”
John may have been the first to challenge Jesus’ credentials; he has not been the last. In every generation since, people have asked: “How can an uneducated, itinerant preaching, tortured and executed Jew be the Savior of the world?”
The church has never handled this question especially well. Often, it has sounded more than a bit defensive when challenged: “Tell me why you think this Jesus of yours is so special?” To that question, hairs raise on the church’s neck and it responds: “What a stupid question. Who else was born of a virgin by a mother who herself was immaculately conceived?” The church’s artists have conspired in this vapid defense of Jesus; they’ve dressed him up to look like royalty and shown him with a golden halo as an infant so that even when wearing diapers Jesus looks the part of Savior of the World.
If only the church could have learned a lesson from Jesus, a lesson to be learned from today’s text. Jesus is asked a straightforward question by John’s crew but he gives anything but a straightforward response. He doesn’t say: “You idiots, of course, I am the Promised One of God, the new David, the Savior of the World! Just take a look at my halo! Don’t you know who my mama was, not to mention my daddy?”
The Jesus we meet in Matthew doesn’t rush to his own defense and neither does Matthew rush to defend him. It is not that Matthew is ambivalent or uncertain about Jesus’ identity; he just knows that identity shouting-matches never do much more than leave all participants hoarse.
So, when asked the most important question of his life, what does Jesus do? He pulls the old trick of the most annoying, and often the best, of my former teachers. He presents them with his credentials:
The blind see.
The deaf hear.
The lame walk.
The dead discover new life.
The poor finally get home delivery of good news.
And then, he asks them, “What do you think?”
The credentials Jesus presents do not match John’s hope for a Fire-Breathing Messiah who will burn Rome to the ground. In fact, Jesus’ so-called “credentials” might look like a fake I.D. to John, but there is nothing fake about them. The credentials Jesus presents actually offer far more promise than anything John had ever hoped for; they announce Jesus’ authority to overthrow every death-dealing force that keeps people in shelters, in prisons, in dead-end jobs, in addiction, in despair, every death-dealing force that keeps people hopeless, isolated, and impoverished.
After Jesus shares his confusing credentials with his incredulous guests, he gives them a gift. He leaves them with a blessing. At first, it looks like a throwaway “blessing,” like the perfunctory prayer said before dinner or a “God bless you” after someone sneezes. Take another look for it is not a perfunctory gift at all. Jesus leaves them with these words: “Blessed is the One who takes no offense in me.”
I have a world of respect for scholars who translate the Greek New Testament into English, because translation is hard work. Even so, “take no offense” is a tepid translation at best. “Offense” here translates a Greek word from which we get the English noun, “scandal” and verb, “scandalize.” A better and far more edgy translation is: “Blessed is the one who isn’t scandalized by following me, scandalized by my non-violence, scandalized by putting their life’s trust in me.” “Blessed is the One for whom it is not a scandal to follow me into hospital and hospice rooms, into courtrooms of injustice, onto unlit streets covered with humans in cardboard houses trying to survive one more night.”
John’s crew arrives looking for one set of credentials, for what they’ve always wanted God to be and expected God’s Mighty One to be and they are presented with another set of credentials altogether.
I suspect that John and his crew are not the only ones taken aback by this set of credentials. For over time, many have sought out an inoffensive, scandal-free, Jesus, including us. As Christmas draws near, we sing about a sweet little white Jesus boy, born in a manger, tucked nice and cozy in a cradle on our mantel crèches, far removed from the scandal of poverty or the slick machinations of corporate fraud, far removed from the horror of watching your child suffer because the free clinic says, “No Room Today” and the shelter says, “Not tonight.”
Most people prefer a more stylish Jesus, a Jesus whose cross adorns our necks and decorates our sanctuaries, a fashionable Jesus who would feel right at home in our nice neighborhoods and cozy churches. We prefer a well-mannered Jesus, the kind of boy you want your son to bring home with him from school to play, one who is far removed from and protects us from “those kind of people.” Most people prefer an antiseptic Jesus who is glad to give the needy a seasonal handout, to arrange for an annual Thanksgiving turkey and a Christmas basket, but after that, demands that the poor assume responsibility for their lives.
“Are you the One who is to come or should we look for another?” asks John’s disciples. “If you’re looking for an inoffensive, scandal-free, Jesus this Christmas,” look somewhere else says Matthew. “If you want a high and holy Jesus, who sits next to God and eats celestial cherries, while the world cries out in misery and the church mistakes charity for justice, look somewhere else. If you want a mysterious, mighty Messiah, who is happy with however you behave because he knows that you mean well, look somewhere else.”
Matthew does not tell the story of a scandal-free Jesus and has no patience with a “scandal-free” church – a church that always steps lightly so as not to offend anyone in the congregation, never speaks truth to the Herods or the Pilates of the day so as not to offend any public leader who can then make it hard on the church, always finds ways to soothe the waters even when those waters are drowning the poor in their poverty and infecting the rich with terminal affluenza.
The Jesus we meet in Matthew invites the church to worry less about its self-image and more about every child who is created in the image of God, less about being liked and more about being faithful, less about accepting the way things are in the world and more about trusting in the transforming and redeeming hand of God at work in the world.
If you want to follow an inoffensive, a scandal-free Jesus, just walk outside and join the crowd. Get in line for this year’s comic version of Christmas, where people pretend that a new Lexus draped in a red ribbon has anything to do with Jesus. If you want to follow an inoffensive, scandal-free Jesus, just walk into any church where preachers promise that this Mighty Messiah who had no place to lay his head wants us to be prosperous beyond our wildest dreams and always to be pain-free.
But if you’re looking for the real Christmas, if you want to follow the blessed Jesus beyond the borders of Bethlehem, take a long, hard look at his credentials. The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame walk. Those with no hope whatsoever find hope. Resurrected life confounds death.
Take a long, hard look at these credentials this Christmas.
No offense intended.