2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
A few years ago my family and I flew to San Antonio, TX to visit my sister. While we were there we took in all kinds of sites including the zoo, Sea World, the River Walk, and El Mercado, which is a huge Mexican marketplace downtown. But I think the most memorable part of the trip for me was when we went to the national cemetery at Fort Sam Houston where my sister’s husband, Fernando, is buried and where she will be buried someday since she served as a nurse in Vietnam. To see row upon row of these white markers stretching as far as the eye can see proved to be a very emotional experience for me because each one of those stones represented a veteran, a soldier, a nurse who may not have actually given his or her life in defense of our country, but who was willing to do so.
Which brings up a very important question on this Confirmation Sunday. And that question is, what are you willing to die for? Now you might think that’s a strange question to ask especially of our 10 confirmands who are so young and who have so much of life ahead of them. But it’s really not out of line to ask this question, especially in the light of 2 of the vows that they will be taking later on and that many of us made on the day we were confirmed. The first of those vows asks this question: “Do you intend to remain faithful to the confession of faith you have just made and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” The second one is somewhat similar: “Do you intend to faithfully conform all your life to the rule of God’s Word, to be diligent in the use of his Word and Sacraments, and in faith, word, and deed remain true to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – even unto death?” Those are two powerful promises, aren’t they? So this morning I want to spend our time talking to you about a kingdom that is worth dying for.
Now as we turn to our text, we find a very depressed and despondent John the Baptist sitting in a dark, dingy prison cell, plagued by all kinds of doubts about whether Jesus really was the Messiah. John, who had gone from popular, courageous, and confident preacher to poor, pitiful prisoner, was asking himself: “Was I right? Is Jesus really the Messiah? Or should we be looking for another?” So burdened was John by these questions that he sent some of his followers to Jesus to find out the answers.
And notice how Jesus responded. He didn’t get angry with John. He didn’t criticize him for asking those questions. Instead, he basically told John’s friends to go back and tell him that everything was going along as planned. And then he proceeded to describe the kind of kingdom he was establishing, a kingdom that was definitely worth dying for.
He first of all says, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear.” Which brings us to the first point I want to make, and that is that Christ’s kingdom is one in which the rejected are received.
No people were more shunned by their culture back then than the blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers. They had no place in Jewish society. They were looked upon as nothing more than excess baggage along the roadside of life. But those whom others called trash, Jesus called treasures. And why? Well, perhaps this wall-hanging that Marilyn and I have in our home will help to answer that question.
Notice the background. It’s part of a quilt, a quilt that Marilyn and I had for 40 years. That quilt got a lot of use during that time. In the process it became worn, torn, and faded. Recently we toyed with the thought that maybe we should just get rid of it. But we chose not to do that entirely because this quilt was a wedding gift from my parents. My mom made it. She spent hours and hours of putting all the right stitches and all the right colors in all the right places. So although it had lost a lot of its original beauty, it had lost none of its value. Or to put it another way, it was valuable not because of its function or usefulness, but because of its maker.
And so it is with us, my friends. No matter what imperfections or flaws we might have, we are valuable because of who made us. Listen to how David puts it in the 139th Psalm. Speaking to God he says: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Think on those words, my friends. You were knit together by God. You aren’t an accident. You weren’t mass-produced. You aren’t the product of blind, random, evolutionary chance. You were deliberately planned, specifically gifted, and uniquely and lovingly placed on this earth by the Master Craftsman. And because of that you have incredible value. In a world that can sometimes be very cruel, especially to those who don’t measure up to certain standards, God says, “I don’t care whether you’re short or tall, overweight or skinny, young or elderly. I don’t care whether you’ve got a bad case of teenage acne or the wrinkles of old age. Mine is a kingdom where even the most ignored and imperfect of human beings can find a place and feel welcomed and loved. It’s a kingdom where people have value not because of who they are, but because of whose they are.”
Then Jesus goes on in our text to say that his is a kingdom in which even the dead have life. Come with me for a moment to a tomb located just outside the tiny village of Bethany. Inside of that rock-hewn grave lies the dead brother of 2 sisters named Mary and Martha. His name was Lazarus. The 3 of them had been good buddies of Jesus. In fact, any time Jesus was near Bethany he would stop and pay them a visit. But then one day when Jesus was nowhere near Bethany, Lazarus became very ill. And things quickly went from bad to worse. So the 2 sisters sent a message to Jesus asking him to come as quickly as possible no doubt hoping that he would heal their brother, something they had probably witnessed Jesus do with many others. But the days passed and there was no sign of Jesus. Finally poor Lazarus couldn’t hold on any longer and he drew his final breath and died. Four days later, guess who finally shows up on the scene? That’s right, Jesus. And oh, did Martha ever have an earful for him! She said, “Lord, where have you been? If you had only come when we asked you to come, our brother would not have died and Mary and I wouldn’t be in this big mess.” Poor Martha! She felt as though the bottom had just fallen out of her life and as though Jesus was the one who had opened the trap door. And what did Jesus do? Did he scold her for her accusatory remarks? Did he turn around and walk away from her, leaving her alone in her grief, never to return again? NO! Instead, we’re told Jesus wept. He wrapped his arms of love around her and sympathized with her. Then he did what Martha didn’t even dare or dream to ask of him. He ordered that the stone be removed from the entrance to the tomb and in a loud voice that even the dead can hear he called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” I’m sure the people who were there that day must have thought he was crazy…until all of a sudden, the once dead, but now very much alive brother of Mary and Martha stepped from the darkness of that tomb into the light of life. And we’re told Jesus gave him back to his sisters.
Yes, he who referred to himself earlier that day as the Resurrection and the Life, proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is not only the Lord of life, but also the Lord over death. And that’s great news for us because death is the one enemy that the people of this world fear more than anything else. Just look at all that is being done in the field of medicine these days to prolong life and avoid death. For the faithful child of God, though, for those of us who are members of this kingdom that is worth dying for, death has no power, no mastery, no permanent hold over us whatsoever. Instead, it is merely a steppingstone from this earthly vale of tears to the most beautiful, magnificent, glorious life that we could ever imagine.
And that takes us to one more reason that Jesus gives us as to why his kingdom is worth dying for. It’s a kingdom where “The good news is preached to the poor.” And what exactly is that good news? It’s the good news of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness to those who are not the least bit worthy of it.
Aren’t you glad God doesn’t treat us the way we deserve to be treated? As I was thinking about that, I was reminded of something that happened to me years ago when I got in too much of a hurry one day. I was driving on Hawthorn Road from the direction of the hospital and I was going at a pretty good clip because I was running late for something and all of a sudden I saw the lights of a Salem police car in my rearview mirror. I pulled into our church parking lot and Larry Kelly got out of the patrol car. I had played some basketball with him and at that time I was the designated chaplain for the police force, so when he saw who this little speedster was, he just started laughing and shaking his head. He had every right to throw the book at me, to write me a ticket and make me pay a fine. That’s what justice demanded and that’s what I deserved. Instead, he gave me grace, which is undeserved kindness. He simply said, “I’m going to let you go this time. Just don’t do it again.”
Aren’t you glad God is like that? Even though by his book every one of us is guilty as sin, by his love and grace we get another chance, over and over again. Do you realize that no other religion in our world offers such hope and such a message? All the others demand the right performance, the right sacrifice, the right ritual, the right works. Theirs is a kingdom of trade-offs and bargains. You do this for God and God will do this for you. And all that leads to is a nagging sense of fear and doubt as to whether you’ve done enough or done it well enough to please and satisfy God.
Christ’s kingdom is just the opposite. It is a kingdom where membership is granted, not earned; a kingdom into which you are placed, a kingdom into which you are adopted at your baptism. And as a result you serve God, not out of fear, not out of duty, but out of gratitude. Like the woman who for years was married to a harsh and abusive husband. Each day before he went to work he would leave her a list of chores to complete before he returned home at the end of the day. If she failed to complete those tasks, she would find herself on the receiving end of his explosive wrath. Well, eventually the husband died. And sometime later the woman met and married a man who lavished her with tender love and kindness. One day, while going through a box of old papers, she came across one of her first husband’s work lists. As she read it, she was struck by a very interesting realization. She thought to herself, “I’m still doing all these things for my current husband, but now it’s different. He doesn’t have to tell me to do them. Now I do them out of love because of the love he has shown to me.”
And so it is with us, my friends. We don’t do good works to appease the wrath of an angry God. Rather we do them out of love and appreciation for the grace and kindness he has lavished on us.
So that’s the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. That’s the kingdom he wanted John to know about in prison. And that’s the kingdom he wants us to know about today. And guess what, my friends? The good news you can take home with you today is that this kingdom has a place reserved just for you. I pray that every one of us here today and especially you confirmands will always be and always remain faithful members of this kingdom for as long as we live on this earth, and that in the process we will discover what we’ve talked about this morning – that this truly is a kingdom worth dying for. Amen.