Called to be disciples, not admirers

November 1st, 2019

Matthew 11:2-11

In 1964, I had one of the most extraordinary experiences in my childhood. My aunt and uncle took me to see the World’s Fair. The closest thing to such an event I had experienced was my hometown’s annual carnival. We drove all the way to Newark, New Jersey, and stayed with my aunt’s sister in Berkley Heights. From there we traveled for a one-day visit to the largest World’s Fair on record in the United States. I will never forget my reaction when arriving and having my picture taken at the centerpiece of the fair, the Unisphere. You could have put my hometown’s carnival on the quad where the stainless-steel model of the earth was erected. I think I must have used the word wow with each breath I took as we meandered through the various exhibits.

As a small-town Virginia boy, I faced New York as one entering an unknown wilderness. I faced it with all the gusto a twelve-year-old could muster. What did I go to see? I went to see New York City’s carnival, of course. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the shock I felt when we got out of the subway and entered Corona Park.

Jesus said to the crowd that day, regarding John the Baptizer, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?” (Matthew 11:7-9). I have a suspicion the people that day were just as taken aback by what they saw along the Jordan River as I was when arriving at the World’s Fair. I went expecting to see a show that would take an afternoon to survey; I found a mammoth fortress of exhibits that a week’s visit couldn’t traverse. The people that day went out to the river probably expecting to see a madman putting on a religious show. What they got was a man announcing the advent of God’s Messiah. Many weren’t ready for what they received. Perhaps we’re still not ready.

The 1964 World’s Fair was a showcase of mid-twentieth-century American corporate culture. The scene that day along the Jordan River could be described as a showcase of God’s call to redemption—John the Baptist–style. It was probably a pretty good show. Can’t you see the religious dignitaries’ heads popping up over the heads of the locals and trying to get a glimpse of the long line of people responding to John’s message and requesting baptism? They went to see a showcase of Israel’s popular religious culture. Instead, what they found was quite disturbing. It didn’t take long for folks to determine it was not a sideshow. In fact, what they witnessed was life-changing. They went thinking they would find a local minister doling out religious tracts and favors, a religious carnival of sorts. What they didn’t realize was they were witnessing the very forerunner to God’s Messiah. John wasn’t calling them to a once-in-alifetime experience of God’s redemption and then a quiet return to their religious comfort zones. John was calling them to live redemptive lives— the rest of their lives.

As we read this episode in Matthew’s Gospel, we too are challenged to reconsider what we expect to find when we leave the safe and acceptable confines of our sanctuaries on Sunday. What do we expect to find in our neighborhoods once we leave church? Who do we anticipate will be the recipients of our ministries? Do we expect to move and work in settings that meet our expectations of the good life, where people think, act, and dream like us? As Christ’s disciples, do we manipulate our worlds so that we are comfortable and have all the amenities and creature comforts of the American way of life? Are we, the church, speaking truth to the powers that exist in our day and time, or do we fear ridicule and chastisement of those who pay the bills? Do we turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to injustice so that we won’t upset the people who are the power brokers in our congregations?

If the answer to such questions is a painful yes, then we seek to treat ministry as “a reed shaken by the wind” or “someone dressed in soft robes,” as Jesus put it. The image here is a soft Christianity that lacks any spiritual backbone to confront injustice. Jesus’ cousin was in prison because he, as one writer puts it, “was incapable of seeing evil without rebuking it. He had spoken too fearlessly and too definitely for his own safety” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2, rev. ed. [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975], 1).

The twenty-first-century church is being called once again to leave its safe and unthreatening confines and enter the world, shocked by what it finds. Our shock is to motivate us to speak truth to injustice just as John, Jesus, and his would-be disciples did in their own day. But let’s be honest. It will take disciples, not just admirers of Jesus, to do this.

Matthew 11:7 is quite revealing. It says, “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John.” I find the statement both disturbing and encouraging. It’s disturbing because God’s gospel, although it is intended for “whosoever,” in reality is not for everybody. God will not force good news upon us. We have a choice in the matter. Many left Jesus that day, perhaps because he was too demanding. They preferred a life more defined as “a reed shaken by the wind” or “someone dressed in soft robes” than a life of servitude marked by sacrifice and compassion. What John and Jesus were bringing was too risky, too demanding. They preferred “admirer”-ship over discipleship. Consequently, they walked away. I find the news that some walked away encouraging because we are called to discipleship by a Christ who won’t dilly-dally with us. He wants us to know up front what we can expect when we follow him. To follow Christ is to find a “world’s fair” instead of a carnival of experiences. To follow Christ is to speak truth to injustice and be willing to accept the consequences. To follow Christ is not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To follow Christ is a journey even “the least” among us can take.

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