Maybe you have heard the name Stephen Curry? He has been the most valuable player in the National Basketball Association the past two years, and last year was the first player to win that award unanimously. He led his team to the NBA championship two years ago, they were runners up last year, and they have the best record in the league at this point in the season. He is one of the most popular and admired players in any sport.
Eleven years ago nobody had heard the name Stephen Curry. Those that had seen it almost all mispronounced it. He was a scrawny high school senior in Charlotte who everyone said lacked the size to play in college. No one wanted to take a chance on him. Even though his father had a great NBA career and his mother played college volleyball, their alma mater was not interested in offering him a scholarship.
Bob McKillop, the coach at Davidson College, looked beneath the surface of that scrawny kid and saw character, confidence, competitiveness, and unlimited potential. He offered Steph a scholarship and held his breath hoping no ACC schools would come to their senses and offer one. They did not, and he enrolled in school in the fall of 2006. A year and a half later he became a household name by leading Davidson to the elite eight and one basket short of the final four, and the rest is becoming history.
It is easy in hindsight to look back and shake your head at all those coaches who missed out on seeing the potential, but when you watch film of him playing in high school it is easy to see why. I shudder to think how many times I have misjudged people in my life. I think about a member of a previous congregation who was diagnosed with cancer. I had always seen her as very meek and passive, and did not expect the cancer battle to go well for her, but she surprised me daily with her strength, her faith, her fight.
Today’s passage is all about discernment and looking beneath the surface. The first person trying to see clearly is John the Baptist. He has been imprisoned, and clearly some of his followers were now following Jesus and keeping John posted about what Jesus was up to. To this point they would have brought him stories about Jesus recruiting an army of fishermen (??), tax collectors, and other assorted sinners; about Jesus preaching love and forgiveness and humility; about disputes with religious authorities over Sabbath laws; about healing a Centurion’s servant and raising a poor widow’s son from death in an out of the way village.
When John had preached and baptized at the River Jordan he told people that someone greater was coming, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, who would separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff. He was looking for the Messiah to do great things and to sort out the good from the bad and set everything right. My guess is he would have expected Jesus to come bust him out of jail. The reports he was getting didn’t show the kind of Messiah John had expected. So he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him point blank, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
In response, Jesus continued healing people in the crowd and restoring sight. Then he said to John’s disciples, “Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
The answer indicates that what John needs to look beneath the surface about is not Jesus but his expectations of a Messiah. This is who I am. This is what I do. Blessed are those who are not offended by the way I live out my messiahship.
After the messengers leave, Jesus uses this as a teaching moment for the crowd, which includes common people and tax collectors as well as Pharisees and lawyers. He asks a question about their discernment process. “What did you go out to the wilderness to see when you went to see John the Baptist?” Did you go to see a crackpot dressed in funny clothes and eating a terrible diet and railing against the establishment? Did you go to argue with him and try to silence him? Did you go with an open heart to hear him and respond to his message by being baptized? What did you expect to find? Well, he is a prophet, and is indeed the one sent to prepare the way for the coming one. He is a great figure, and yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. How can that be? Well, until John can embrace the kind of messiah Jesus is and the nature of the kingdom of heaven he brings, his feet are still planted in the old covenant just as surely as the Pharisees and scribes are. It is one thing to open the door to a new age for others; it is another thing to step through that door yourself. I hope the report his disciples brought him gave John the vision and the peace of mind to accept and not be offended by the ministry of Jesus.
The vastly different styles and ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus was jarring for people trying to form opinions about them and their value. Were they on the same team or not? John was stricter than the Pharisees in many ways, rejecting any creature comforts and living an austere life in the wilderness, rejecting the structures of society and of religion, focused only on repentance. Jesus was at the opposite extreme, it seemed. He enjoyed going to dinners and parties and hanging out with all sorts of people and accepting everyone and bending rules.
Jesus laid out the contrast in quoting what people frequently said about the two of them. He said, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and people say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and people say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ You have to look beneath the surface to see what we are really about and to find the value in the role we have to play. Jesus concludes, “But wisdom is justified by all her children.” It is in learning to find the value in each rather than choosing one or the other or rejecting both that we find the answer.
Table fellowship is a critical issue in the New Testament. Who do you eat with? What do you eat? When Peter went to the house of the Gentile Cornelius at Caesarea, people in the Christian community in Jerusalem went ballistic, not because he went there and not because he preached to them, but because he ate with them. This was a carryover from Judaism, which regarded Gentiles as unclean and taught that eating a meal with Gentiles would make you unclean.
Fred Craddock writes, “When critics of John say that he eats with no one they are saying that he has removed himself from the covenant fellowship of God’s people. When the critics say of Jesus that he eats with anyone they are saying that he violates the sacred distinctions as to who is and who is not within the covenant fellowship.” (Interpretation, Luke, p. 103)
The story that immediately follows today’s passage is an illustration of the point Jesus is making. It is about a dinner and includes Jesus, a Pharisee, and a sinful woman. We will be looking at that story next Sunday, so remember that it is an illustration to get today’s point across.
So why is this important for us today? Obviously, each of us must still discern for ourselves whether Jesus is the one we are looking for or whether we should keep looking. We also need to look more deeply at the kind of Messiah Jesus showed himself to be by the actions he took, the company he kept, and the teachings he left behind, not to mention by the death he died. And we are well aware of the tendency people have to make snap judgments about people based on first impressions rather than taking the time to look beneath the surface to discover who they truly are.
For today, with table fellowship being at the center of the passage, let’s remember these things: Jesus is frequently shown visiting people’s homes. Peter’s where he healed his mother in law; Mary and Martha and Lazarus, where he taught about priorities and later raised Lazarus from the dead; a banquet at a Pharisee’s house; a party at Matthew’s house; the home of the pariah tax collector Zacchaeus. He went into each of these homes with an open heart and an open mind and open hands to share good news, healing, and grace. It makes me think that today he would not be a stranger to a home filled with Democrats, with Republicans, with Black Lives Matter advocates, with illegal aliens, with the NRA, maybe even with Presbyterians. He would be himself, he would dispense grace and hope, he would hope to make a difference by his presence.
Fred Craddock writes, “If one says that Jesus is the Messiah, then one is saying that in the ministry of Jesus we are seeing what God is doing in the world, what the reign of God really is. And that, of course, is to say what we are to be doing in the world if we confess that Jesus is God’s Messiah. This is the crucial question raised by John, and Jesus cannot answer it for him. Jesus can only say, ‘Blessed is the person who takes no offense at me.” (Ibid., p. 101)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 12, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church