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“Two Kingdoms” on Matthew 11:1- 15 by Joe Ellis - Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2022

We’ve been talking about the word vocation recently, not vacation. If you’re not familiar with that word, as Christians we use it to refer to what God is calling you or me to do in this life. Often when we talk about vocation, we think about the job we’re paid for, but it's not limit to your job at all. Last week we talked about how our general vocation as followers of Jesus, is to reflect God’s glory back to Him — we do that through prayer and worship. We talked about how our vocation is also to reflect God’s glory out to the world —we do that by modelling what we see Jesus do in the Scriptures. Today, I’d like to reflect on our vocation, or calling, as a church.

Now, the passage we just heard isn’t about that at all — It's about how Jesus was living out his vocation. My hope is that we’ll see Jesus more clearly, and how to apply that to be his Kingdom on earth. Today, all of us together are Jesus’ hands and feet here on Earth — so Jesus’ calling becomes our calling together, to all of us.

So, let’s look at this passage to understanding what Jesus was saying about his own calling, then we might see how we can mirror Him in what we do as a church. First, let’s set the scene in Matthew 11. Jesus has been going from town to town living into his vocation as the Messiah. He’s going from town to town, making his royal proclamation: The Kingdom of Heaven is arriving. (The word Messiah has a kingly component to it as the deliverer of the Jewish nation.) Jesus is preaching to a crowd. Jesus’ disciples are probably there.

As He’s teaching, suddenly a small group of men shuffle in and take their seat. It's obvious they’ve come as a group, and they have come with a purpose. Maybe Jesus read their faces that they had a question, or maybe these guys just interrupted. In any case, as they ask their question, we learn that it actually isn’t their question at all. It was the question of their teacher, John the Baptist. Now John had a very good reason for not being there in person to ask Jesus his question. John is in a dungeon. He had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas — Herod Antipas was the ruler in Galilee and Perea. Herod the Great, who was in power when Jesus was born, was a different Herod. Herod Antipas like to be called King Herod or Herod the Tetrarch. Now, there were at least two reasons why John the Baptist was bound and chained in a dungeon. Matthew tells us that Herod married Herodias, who happened to be Herod’s brother Philip’s wife — It says in Matthew 14:4 that John repeatedly told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife.” That was the official reason John was in jail.

But there was likely another, a darker reason for Herod to imprison John in that dungeon. Remember that John, like Jesus, was preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” We typically think of that sort of message as Good News. For Herod, this was anything but Good News. After all, King Herod doesn’t feature at all in this Kingdom that John is announcing. If you’re a king, and you start hearing that someone else is announcing the arrival of a kingdom that has nothing to do with you — you’re not going to take it lying down. This language was deeply concerning to Herod and perhaps he followed in his dad’s footsteps in how to deal with this sort of thing. King Herod’s dad, ‘Herod the Great’ was the one who met the Magi when they came to Jerusalem looking for the one who had been born “King of the Jews” because theMagi saw his star rising in the east. Herod the Great was beyond flustered. He demanded to learn from his chief priests where the Bible prophecies that the Messiah would be born. Herod the Great wanted this information precisely so that he could kill this child — this child who was now a threat to his kingship and his kingdom. When Herod can’t find the child, he has all the boys around the right age killed just to make his kingdom more secure (Matthew 2:16-18).

You may have noticed that whenever someone recognizes that Jesus is Messiah (the long awaited for king), Jesus quickly says, “Tell no one.” It's not because Jesus is embarrassed. It's just that Jesus needed to fly under the radar long enough to accomplish what he set out to do before getting crucified for being King of the Jews. That, you’ll remember, is what was written on the sign on the cross when Jesus was crucified. Are you getting an idea of the political climate they were in? That’s why so much of the conversation we read this morning that took place between John’s disciples and Jesus was said in a sort of code. It wasn’t safe to talk about these things.

You’ll notice in Matthew 11:3 that John’s disciples didn’t simply say, “Tell us plainly, are you the Messiah?” If they did, Jesus could not have simply said, “Yes.” Even though that’s precisely what they were talking about, if you have the ears to hear it. So John had them say, “Are you one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Knowing what John meant, Jesus responds not by saying “Yes, I am the Messiah, the one you have been waiting for,” but instead he quotes two messianic passages from Isaiah 35 and 61. Jesus is saying “Yes” without actually saying “Yes".

Now as John’s disciples head back to the dungeon to give their teacher Jesus’ answer, Jesus contrasts His sort of Kingdom with the kingdoms of this world. Talking about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:7-8, Jesus says to the crowd, “What did you go out to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” Again, Jesus is speaking in code. He’s speaking in a way to get across his meaning without saying it directly because what He’s saying is literally life-threatening.

For me, this passage clicked into place after learning that Herod Antipas chose as his symbol ‘the reed’ and had it stamped on the coins that people used. Today, people have found these coins with Herod’s name on them and little pictures of ‘reeds’. Coins were both propaganda and the mass media of the culture back then — a way for rulers to make sure people remembered who was in charge as they bought their daily bread.

With that in mind, remember that John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness that the Kingdom of heaven was near. So, as the people went to check out this Kingdom that was being announced, Jesus asks them, “What sort of Kingdom did you expect? Did you expect a kingdom like that reed Herod? Did you expect the kingdom to be like Herod’s, who rules from on high in his soft and fancy clothes?” No. The people knew what that sort of kingdom was like. These were kingdoms in which kings would secure their own political goals by crushing indiscriminately those who threatened their position. These were kingdoms like those of Herod the Great, who had all the male children in Bethlehem who were under two killed to make sure the baby Jesus was killed. These were kingdoms like that of Pilate, who in Luke 13 is reported to have attacked and killed worshippers while they were offering sacrifices in their temple. Jesus was speaking to a people who didn’t need to be reminded of what these rulers were like as they watched John the Baptist’s followers trudged back towards Herod’s fine palace, to deliver Jesus’ message to John who lay in the palace depths, languishing in prison.

About this, Jesus says in Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent have taken it by force.” Jesus is speaking of those who like Herod, are trying to take down the Kingdom of God by force, trying to destroy it with violence, trying to imprison those who are a part of making God’s Kingdom a reality here on earth. We’ll be reminded of this a few chapters later as Jesus is led away to be crucified for being King of the Jews. Where do you see it today, the violent trying to take down God’s kingdom by force?

So, if the people listening were hoping for a kingdom different than the kingdoms of the world, what were they hoping for? “A prophet?” Someone proclaiming that God is doing a new thing in this messed up and broken world? “Yes, a prophet, but more than a prophet,” says Jesus in Matthew 11:9. “John is he of whom it is written in book of Malachi, ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you…’ “if you are willing to accept it, (John) is Elijah who is to come.” Jesus again is speaking in a sort of code. Jesus is letting the people in on what was really going on with John’s baptisms — yes, John was announcing the arrival of a whole new and different kind of Kingdom. John the Baptist was the one that the King had sent ahead of Jesus, announcing to those with ears to hear that there’s going to be a regime change. That’s what this prophecy in Malachi was pointing to — the day when God Himself would return to His people and bring about His everlasting Kingdom. John is the last of the Old Testament Prophets, and he is definitively announcing, “Look, God is doing a new thing! Prepare the way for the Lord. Make your hearts ready for His arrival!” Here is a Kingdom utterly antithetical to the kingdoms of this world. A kingdom not built on lies, corruption, and brute force — under the precept of “might is right.” Here is an altogether new thing that has begun, in which all the prophets and the law until the time of John the Baptist were pointing to. Now, is the arrival of the King, His Kingdom and your God. All this would’ve been dangerous to say as straightforwardly as I just did. Instead, Jesus says all this without saying it directly. He’s speaking under the radar. That’s why he says, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Wink wink, nudge nudge — read between the lines, says Jesus. The Kingdom of God is here. It's an altogether different sort of thing than the Kingdom of that Reed Herod and the like.

He had announced the arrival of the Kingdom, but John himself was in danger of missing it! There John was, in Herod’s dungeon hearing about these messianic goings-on, but they didn’t quite fit his picture. It's hard to say entirely what sort of picture John had in his mind, but John was troubled with doubts. Jesus wasn’t bringing about the sort of Kingdom he expected. John, in describing the one who would come after him was expecting someone to come with a baptism of fire, to burn up the chaff, so he was likely expecting the kingdom to come on a warpath.

There was certainly some of that in Jesus’ ministry, like when he cleared the temple of the money changers, but mostly not. Jesus’ reply to John’s doubts go like this: “I’m bringing about a different sort of Kingdom, and good on you if you’re not offended by it.” This is the kind of Kingdom Jesus is bringing about: the blind receive their sight. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised to life. The poor have Good News preached to them. That’s the sort of Kingdom that Jesus is bringing about. He’s bringing about a Kingdom that’s Good News for the blind and deaf. It’s Good News for those who can’t walk. It’s Good News for those who’s skin is falling off. It’s Good News for those who are dead or wish they were dead, crushed by poverty. Jesus is saying to John, “This is a picture of the Kingdom that you were so faithful in announcing.” It's here. I’m the one. Good on you if you’re not offended by it.

Now, Jesus literally healed the blind, deaf and mute. He cleansed lepers. He raised the dead. The joy associated with these healings is a picture of true joy. Restoration of persons to wholeness is the sign of what the Kingdom shall be like. But there is something deeper going on in these healings that we can often miss because our culture doesn’t associate disease with sin. That was a cultural belief in Jesus’ day. Jesus was healing people who would have been considered under God’s judgment and outcasts. They thought that disease was the result of sin. In one of the stories about Jesus healing a blind man, the Pharisees openly state their belief that this man had been born blind because he was born in total sin. When Jesus heals a person, He is doing more than just a medical shortcut — He is tangibly showing that these people, who were considered sinful outcasts, are welcomed into God’s family. Jesus responds to John the Baptist by quoting Isaiah 35, a passage about healing the blind, deaf and paralyzed. Then the passage says in 35:8, “and a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it.” The unclean shall not be walking on God’s highway, not because their kicked off, but because they’ve been washed clean. All of us. We are healed into the Kingdom, we are washed clean and welcomed into the family. That’s why Baptism is such an important symbol for the church — we are washed clean into God’s Kingdom and His family, no matter who we are or what we have done. When, Jesus heals a blind man, or a deaf man, he says, “Your sins are forgiven” — he’s showing us all who His Kingdom is for — those who everyone else considered as outsiders. Jesus takes the outcasts, the dirty, the castaways, the condemned, the impure, and the untouchable, and He welcomes them into God’s family. He says to us, “Your sins are forgiven, welcome to the family of God.” Jesus is not like the Herod’s of this world, who imprison those deemed too inconvenient to his kingdom. Jesus heals us into His Kingdom. So, as we read the Gospels and see Jesus restore sight to the man living under condemnation because he was born blind, he is saying, “Welcome friend, welcome into God’s family.” When He raises the little girl from the dead, He is saying, “Welcome daughter, welcome to God’s family.” As he touches the lepers, cleansing them to return to their own families, he says, “Welcome, welcome to God’s family, my Kingdom.” He does the same for us — he washes us clean and welcomes us into His family. So, Jesus says to John, “Yes, John, I am the one you are waiting for, and this is what my Kingdom looks like. I am restoring God’s family, one person at a time — I am inaugurating my Kingdom”.

Now, at the onset, I said that this sermon would be about our calling as a church. Here I am almost at the end of the sermon, and I’ve said neither the words calling, vocation or church throughout the whole sermon. So here goes.

We continue the Kingdom work that we see in Jesus — the joyful work we see Jesus do in welcoming the untouchables into His Kingdom — the outcasts, the sick, the irritating, the immoral, the wrong, the culpable. We welcome each of us into the Kingdom. We offer each other a family to be part of, a family of cleansed outcasts, a ragtag family who are washed clean — and we do that in the name of Jesus. That’s who we are — the church. As we gather, we pray for healing — we pray for the healing of the image of God in each of us. So that together we might journey deeper and deeper into our true calling, which is reflecting God’s glory back to Him and reflecting His glory out into the world. That’s our calling, we who are a bunch of ransomed outcasts. We join in this work together, praying that the church might be a place where we can be healed into this Kingdom work — reflecting back glory to God and reflecting that glory out into the world.


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