Ministry of ‘Both’ - thrive UMC Official Blog

Ministry of ‘Both’

Luke 7: 18-35

            Before we jump into our gospel reading for the morning, there are a few things we need to know about the political context of the day.  Much like Christianity today, the religion of Jesus was far from uniform, and there were a number of identifiable sects that vied for power. 

            And today, we’re going to run into two of those groups in the gospel: there are the Pharisees on the one hand, contrasted by the ministry of John the Baptist on the other.

            To put things as simply as possible, the Pharisees was the Jewish group for the masses.  It was the most popular sect with the common people, and it drew its authority from the scripture.  By Jesus’s time, the Pharisees had a well-established tradition that dated back several hundred years.  And according to their perspective, the way to access God was through the right interpretation of God’s law, as it’s found in the scriptures.  Once you knew what the law required, then you were expected to act accordingly. And the rabbis and scribes had rules for everything, and created an approach to life that was very structured, regimented, and predictable.

            The ministry of John the Baptist, on the other hand, was much more radical and organic. In place of emphasizing rules, John’s ministry emphasized purity and right relationships. And to be pure, you must disconnect and distance yourself from corrupting influences –and that includes all things Roman. It is likely that in John’s mind the Pharisees were sell-outs because they still lived in a system that paid taxes to Rome.  And those taxes corrupted the people, because they supported their pagan gods.  In fact, to participate in the exchange of money at all was to corrupt yourself.  To experience too much pleasure or comfort was to weaken your resolve.  That is why they had to leave the cities and villages behind to enter into the wilderness: because –and here’s the other thing- they believed God’s judgment was coming into the world at any minute! And God was bringing along fire and an ax! 

            Do we see the tension that would exist between these two groups?  They are both equally Jewish.  But one is institutional and legalistic; the other is ascetic and pietistic.  One is located in any and all urban centers big enough to support a synagogue; the other is located in smaller, isolated communes in the wilderness. One represents the status quo of the masses, the other represents a kind of religious extremism. One is traditionalist.  The other is radically progressive.  And I know there is absolutely nothing about this tension that we can relate to today.  This is the scenario into which Jesus is living his ministry.

            Our reading for today comes from Luke chapter 7.  Since our last reading, Jesus has begun his ministry of healing, preaching and casting out demons.  He has also called his disciples, and sent them out as apostles. In the passage immediately be  We’re reading verses 18-35.  It says this:

18 John’s disciples informed him about all these things. John called two of his disciples19 and sent them to the Lord. They were to ask him, “Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?”

20 When they reached Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you. He asks, ‘Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?’”

21 Right then, Jesus healed many of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he gave sight to a number of blind people. 22 Then he replied to John’s disciples, “Go, report to John what you have seen and heard. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. And good news is preached to the poor.[a] 23 Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me.”

24 After John’s messengers were gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? 25 What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who dress in fashionable clothes and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 He is the one of whom it’s written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you.[b] 28 I tell you that no greater human being has ever been born than John. Yet whoever is least in God’s kingdom is greater than he.” 29 Everyone who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and legal experts rejected God’s will for themselves because they hadn’t been baptized by John.

31 “To what will I compare the people of this generation?” Jesus asked. “What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace calling out to each other, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t cry.’ 33 John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 Yet the Human One[c] came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 35 But wisdom is proved to be right by all her descendants.”

            So John the Baptist –who is in prison by the way- sends two of his followers to Jesus to ask him: “Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?”

            He does this because John is expecting something.  John is expecting God to do something, and he’s looking for a sign that it’s happening, or about to happen.  And with all the crazy stuff he’s heard about Jesus, he’s wondering if now is the time. So his disciples go to Jesus and they ask him. 

            But of course Jesus never gives a yes or no answer, so the way Jesus responds to this question is Jesus starts healing people.  He’s healing sick people, people with diseases and evil spirits, and he helps blind people see.  And then, after all that, he turns to John’s disciples and goes: tell John about that.  Tell John what you’ve seen and what you heard.  And then he concludes by saying, “happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me.”

            Which is a little weird, right?  But hold on to that thought –we’ll come back to it later.

            Anyway, after all of that, Jesus turns and starts talking to the crowds –presumably the crowds of all the people who were just healed.  And then he asks them this question: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”

            Do we get what’s happening here?  John wants to know if Jesus is ‘it’ and Jesus turns the question around on everyone and asks: ‘what are you looking for?’ And now he’s talking specifically about John –this crowd went out into the wilderness to see John because they were looking for something.  So Jesus wants to know what it is.

            In fact, after that, Jesus explicitly asks two more times: “What did you go to see?” 

            To the crowd, he lists some stuff: a reed blowing in the wind, somebody in fancy pants, or a prophet.  In other words, hey guys, were you just headed out to the Jordan River for a nature walk?  Or maybe you were looking for a celebrity or a prince out for a dip in a muddy, shallow river? 

            What did you go to see?

            This is a question we might all ask ourselves this morning.  When you left your beds and home this morning, what did you go to see?  Did you come to church this morning to see if anyone changed the décor around the building while you were gone? Did you imagine that maybe the pews were swapped out for big, cushy recliners?  Or did you come for the coffee, or to see old friends?  Did you come to find consolation or to be held accountable?  Are you seeking justice or grace?  Were you expecting everything to stay the same, or for God to break in and start a revolution?

            All of us –each and every person here- we have come to Jesus, expecting salvation and satisfaction.  And many of us are like John, wondering if this is it –if this is as good as it gets, or if we’ll have to go on and keep looking and waiting.  We’re wondering how long we’ll have to trudge on, carrying around the same old disappointments and baggage.  Even as a secular culture, most of us sit around, on the edge of our seats, watching and waiting for the next new thing to be invented that could bring us our long-expected happiness. So from time to time, people will even swing by the church building, poke their heads inside and go, ‘is this it?  Or do we need to keep looking?’

            And in the next moment they’re gone.

            John’s disciples journey all the way to Jesus just to ask such a question.  And they come because they had already heard the rumors about the stuff that had been happening.  They’d heard about the healings and the miracles and the little boy raised from the dead.  They want to know if their search is over at last –just tell us Jesus, yes or no, are you it?

            “Right then,” the scripture says, Jesus repeated the miracles before their eyes, and he instructs John’s disciples to return and report what they’ve seen and heard.  ‘The blind can see,’ he says. ‘The lame walk. The diseased are cleansed. The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  God news is preached to the poor. Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me.’

            After that, John’s disciples returned, and we can imagine one of them, after walking a few hundred yards quietly turning to his companion and going: ‘So uh Bob, do you suppose that was a yes or a no to John’s question?’

            Here we as the readers are invited to decide for ourselves whether or not Jesus was ‘it’ for John.  But here’s a clue: we never hear from John in the gospel of Luke again.  Sometimes hearing and even seeing are not enough –because sometimes we’re looking for the wrong things.  Our expectations can get in the way of our search.  This is why Jesus says, ‘happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me!’  He couldn’t send to John a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ because –very likely- Jesus did not fit nicely into what John was looking for.  This is also why he asks the crowd what they were looking for when they went into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist. 

            Finally, at the end of our reading, Jesus gives us a very short parable.  He says “To what will I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?  They are like children sitting in the marketplace calling out to each other, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance.  We sang a funeral song and you didn’t cry.’” 

            This is such a simple and beautiful illustration that it’s easy to miss, but picture this: there are two groups of kids sitting on opposite sides of a pathway, and the kids on one side all have flutes, and the kids on the other side have harps.  They’re both playing songs at the same time: the flautists are piping out a rousing marching-band rendition of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees, and the kids with the harp are playing “Tears in Heaven,” by Eric Clapton.  But they’re so close together, that the whole thing just sounds like an awful, noisy mess, and no one is dropping coins into either of their hats.  So what happens is that the two groups of kids soon stop their music and they start yelling at each other across the path and fighting.  The flautists are taunting the harpers because they’re being all mopey and emo and terrible dancers, and the kids with the harps are proving that the flautists are no musicians at all because the Bee Gees are trash. 

            That’s the image Jesus is giving to the crowd to represent the relationship between the Pharisees and those who follow John the Baptist: they’re like kid musicians who put down their instruments to yell at each other.

              One side expects dancing; the other expects tears.  And each side believes their own expression to be the only appropriate and true way to be in tune with God. So they gather themselves into little factions: dancers over here, and criers over there. These people sing new songs, those play only the old ones.  Harps here, flutes there, acapella choruses over there, and maybe there’s a lonely guy standing in a corner somewhere with a banjo.  Heck, there might even have been a spot back then in that big, ancient market for a group like our United Methodists of today: maybe there’s a group that doesn’t dance or cry or show any kind of emotional response to music all… but, by golly, if a tune really happens to move them, they will clap three or four times very politely and nod when the song is over to show their appreciation. 

            Can we see the picture Jesus is painting of that generation?  Can we visualize the kids clustered around in a crowded market?  Can we see that they’re all just children?  Do we notice that they each have their own unique gift and an instrument to share?  Maybe none of them really sound too good yet –because, really, who wants to sit and listen to just a bunch of flutes- but isn’t there some potential here, if they were to put in some practice time?  These scattered, discordant little ones could be –could be-  tomorrow’s grandest symphony yet… if they’d only bring their instruments together.  If only they could see and realize that there are times for both dancing and for crying –there is a time for the new songs and the old-  and if they could see that, then they could come together to be a part of something so much richer and deeper and more powerful than anything any of them could ever accomplish on their own.

            But the greatest tragedy of this picture Jesus paints is that these little ones, with their flutes and harps wrapped in clenched fists, voices strained with yelling, in that crowded, chaotic market –the tragedy is that now there’s no one left to carry the tune.  The only sound to be heard is the overwhelming and cacophonous roar of sellers pedaling their wares, and buyers bellowing to haggle down the price. There’s probably the sound of bickering too, because someone cut in line, and maybe a mother is shrieking, after losing track of her four-year-old.  But there’s no music.  There’s no sound anywhere to help people feeling anything at all together.  No sound to birth beauty in the chaos.

            John came fasting, and he was accused of having a demon.  Jesus came feasting and was accused of being a glutton and a drunk and a friend to sinners.

            The message here is that if you’re busy looking for evidence of sin, or off demon-hunting, you will be sure to find signs of what you seek.  But the question is: is anyone listening for the music anymore?  Are we, sitting here, out in active search for the rhythm and melody of God as it resounds throughout the entire earth to help us move and march and dance and cry together?   Or are we too busy yelling at the other groups about what a song simply cannot be… so that we’ve effectually murdered the music since there’s now no longer anyone left to sing?

            “But wisdom,” Jesus says, “is proved to be right by all her descendants.” 

             Wisdom and music have both birthed rich and varied traditions across the globe and throughout history.  Together, they have given us theology and economics and science, and classic orchestras, reggae and rap-metal, and so, so much more!  Is wisdom denigrated by either quantum mechanics or the vogue of literary critique?  Is music denigrated by either jazz or new-wave styles?  No, the child expressions all always justify their parent. So how much more is God glorified by all the varied ways that the people of earth praise their maker!

            Therefore let us put away our accusations and let our focus lie with the voice of music, and the inspiration of wisdom.  Let us pray.