What Do You Think?
Epiphany VI (O. T. 6); February 12, 2017
This is one of those moments in the Gospels when the Evangelist goads you and me to ask ourselves, "What do I think of this Jesus?" All four Gospels have a certain genius about them, in that you can't just read them for pleasure. They prompt you to ask yourself what you think about Jesus. You can decide you're going to ignore the prompt, but it's there anyway.
In this case, John the Baptist sent some of his guys to Jesus, evidently because John is disappointed. When angels and people talked about what Jesus was going to be and do – you heard a lot of that at Christmas – had raised expectations very high. He would save the people of Judea from their enemies (Luke 1:71), he would be the promised Messiah (2:11), he would be the glory of God's people (2:32). John himself had said that Jesus would pour out on them the Holy Spirit and fire (3:16) and would burn those who are of no use to God with unquenchable fire (3:17).
So what's Jesus doing? Where's the army he's supposed to be raising? Where's the fire raining down on God's enemies? Instead he's casting out demons and healing the sick and preaching such nonsense as "Blessed are the poor" and "Blessed are the hungry" and "Woe to the rich" (6:20, 21, 24). Where's the fire? So John wants to know: Are you really the One or are we to wait for another?
Please notice two things about the way Jesus replies. First, he does not insult John. He praises John for John's work and calls him the greatest of prophets. He adds that it's more important to be part of the Kingdom of God than to be a great prophet, but that's still not an insult. He doesn't insult John; he praises John. And the second thing he does is not answer the question directly, but instead says: Look at what you have seen and heard. What do you think?
I have a small button that I picked up a few years ago at the American Association for the Advancement of Science; it reads "I Evidence." And I do love evidence. I think it important, for example, to come to my own opinions about people, based on what I experience, rather than someone else's opinion. I listen to what is reported of what they say and do, compare it to what I have seen and heard myself, and come to my own opinion. Likewise, when evidence points a certain direction, I'm not going to dismiss it, simply because it conflicts with an opinion I already hold or my own financial interests.
Today, among those of us who care about good science, is Evolution Sunday. It is Charles Darwin's birthday, and so preachers are encouraged to include some recognition of the importance of evolutionary science today. Here's my grab at it: about a century ago, when Fundamentalism was emerging, Christian thinkers did not set up an opposition of Bible versus science, as we see today. If the best scientific evidence was that the earth was billions of years old, then it was, and the Fundamentalists worked on ways to reconcile that evidence with the witness of the Bible. If you're interested, I can go into that more deeply sometime. But now the prevailing method among Fundamentalists is to declare that science is opposed to the Bible, and simply accept a certain reading of the Bible as fact, regardless of the evidence.
I'm quite a bit old-fashioned at this point. Although everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, none of us is entitled to our own facts. Facts are what they are, as best we can know them, and it is our task to decide what those facts mean, not to reject facts when we don't like them.
And so Jesus put the facts before John's followers, and left it up to them to decide if he was the Messiah or not. If he is the Messiah, then he is not quite what John was expecting, nor what many others were expecting. If he is the Messiah, then he is the One God intended us to receive.
So what do you think about Jesus? If you haven't examined the facts, it's time you did. I realize that a lot of our evidence is hearsay, so that you and I have to consider how reliable we believe the Bible to be. For my part, I find the witness of the Bible to Jesus to be strong, faithful, and very much in keeping with what I have experienced in the Church and in my own spiritual life. But it is impossible to come to a decision without examining the evidence.
And frankly it is possibly the most important decision you will ever make: what you think about Jesus. Your ideas of him will change over the years, and you will adjust what you think and what you do as your experience evolves and as the facts of our reality change. But the fundamental question, the one John raises, is "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" That's the important question for you to decide how to answer.
If you want a Bible verse to memorize from today's reading, go with the last line: "Wisdom is vindicated by all her children." That is, the wisdom of a decision is proven by those who make and follow it. It's easy to complain that we don't like the one we're given: John is too austere; Jesus parties too much. But wisdom examines the evidence and makes a commitment, even if we're not always happy about it. In time, experience shows the wisdom of accepting that Jesus is the One, even if Jesus isn't everything you expect of him. But isn't that true of everyone important in your life? "She's not the woman I married." "He's not the man I thought he was." Right. People are who they are, even if that's a disappointment to you. But what does the evidence tell you about them? And what does the evidence tell you about Jesus? Is wisdom vindicated by all her children? Is Jesus the One? What do you think?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master