(Matthew 11: 1-13)
Fifty-six years ago, in August of 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. Rev. King and several members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference traveled to Birmingham, Alabama at the invitation of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to participate in a non-violent demonstration against the segregationist laws and policies of the City of Birmingham. As a result of their engagement, they were arrested and jailed in the Birmingham city jail where he wrote his letter.
In his letter he points out that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. He was responding to criticism that he and his followers were outside agitators to which he responded that anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider. In reading his letter you can feel his frustration that things were not moving fast enough and that the more they tried the more determined the powerful were inclined to resort to violent means of suppression. In the Civil Rights Movement, there was injustice everywhere and it seemed like good people were doing little, if anything, to help. Very little progress was being made and it just wasn’t right. The opposition was dedicated to the task of maintaining the status quo using whatever means possible. King observed that privileged groups seldom, if ever, give up their privileges voluntarily. He remarked that justice too long delayed is justice denied, and to him, the silence of good right-thinking people was appalling. He lamented about a time in history when the church was very powerful. Though small in number they were big in commitment and when they took on a cause, things changed. He viewed the contemporary church as an often weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound and, ironically, that the church was often the arch supporter of the status quo. He observed that the judgment of God was upon the church as never before. He warned that if the church of today did not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it would lose it authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. He said that he meets young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. Remember, this was the 60s when many of us were kids and some experts point to the 60s as the beginning of the decline of organized religion when numbers began going down.
You really can sense his frustration. His people were suffering and being denied justice and their basic human rights and dignity and, no matter how hard he tried to move the cause or his people forward, the opposition tried even harder to push them further back. And now he was in jail, at the mercy of his oppressors. His expectations were great, but the prospects now seemed so dim. Was there someone else better suited to set his people free?
And that’s where we find ourselves in our scripture reading for today. John the Baptist is in jail losing hope and having doubts. John had been boldly preaching and challenging the status quo but now he had been thrown in jail by King Herod. Herod had married his sister-in-law and John had publicly rebuked Herod’s flagrant sin. One of the things about sitting in jail is that, like Rev. King, it gives you plenty of time to think and it can create a crisis of confidence as in; Am I on the right track? As John sat in prison, he began to have some doubts about whether Jesus really was the Messiah. When John heard what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him; Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else? John wasn’t being disrespectful. He was just beginning to have questions. He was doing all he could to be an agent of change for his people. He had baptized this Jesus and had announced the coming of the kingdom of the Lord but so far it seemed nothing had changed. The expected change was nowhere in sight. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse. How could he prepare people for the Messiah’s coming if he was locked up? He should be out there preaching to the crowds, preparing their hearts and not in jail because he picked a fight with the king.
Jesus answered by pointing out what was being done within the kingdom of God. He said; 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, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me. Jesus is sending John a message to look outward and not inward at his plight. Look at what has been done and is being done in His name. Keep the faith John and continue to fight the good fight.
But here we are 2,000 years later and things don’t seem to be getting any better. John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus was crucified, and churches are closing almost daily. In our scripture lesson it was evident that those in power were just as willing to resort to violence to maintain their status quo by throwing John in a Jerusalem jail as they were in jailing Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama. And half a century later people right here in the United States of America are still struggling for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while those devoted to maintaining the status quo continue to work diligently behind the scenes and violently in the streets to keep the disenfranchised in their place. People are still suffering and the powerful are still in control and Dr. King was right; Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and justice too long delayed is justice denied. The status quo is still at work quietly passing laws behind the scenes and not-so-quietly committing acts of violence in the streets and ramping up the rhetoric aimed at the “other” who is jeopardizing their way of life just the way they like it. What kind of world can we imagine if this taboo of injustice and intolerance to people everywhere was eliminated? The kind of world announced by John the Baptist who proclaimed the coming of the Lord who will bring freedom from sin, peace to the peaceful and justice to the oppressed.
But how do we get there? Jesus was right when he predicted that; from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. Just as King Herod tried to silence John the Baptist in his efforts to proclaim the coming of the new king, men like Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the City of Birmingham, Alabama, strongly opposed the advancement of the American Civil Rights Movements for more than two decades, and others will forcefully lay hold of those working to advance the kingdom of heaven whenever and wherever they can to preserve their cherished way of life at the expense of the powerless.
But advance it will. We just have to look at the progress that has been made, progress that has come at a cost to many of the faithful who were brave enough to put themselves out there. We need to look at what has been done and what is currently being done in His name and ask ourselves what we can do to keep the faith and fight the good fight like John the Baptist, Dr. King, and countless others. I agree with Dr. King when he said; We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men (and women) willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. Think about that. If all we had to do was wait for the kingdom to come, we wouldn’t have to bear fruit worthy of our repentance.
He’s right. Jesus didn’t just come to be born so each year we can spend obscene amounts of money on meaningless merchandise, and John the Baptist didn’t suffer the fate of a beheading so we could live our lives in ignorant bliss going to church once a week to sing praises to God and then going on about our business until the next Sunday. As Jesus promised, the kingdom of God will get here, but it will get here a lot quicker if we take up our cross and bear the burden for advancing the kingdom as coworkers with God in the face of opposition put forward in countless ways by those who would deny their fellow human beings that which God desires for them as they long to live the life to which they are entitled to as a child of God.
Jesus said in verse 13; For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. Up until John came along, the coming of the kingdom was just talked about, prophesized about and dreamed about by the last, the least and the lost. John the Baptist was the catalyst. He got it started by announcing the one who was to come, and we shouldn’t expect anyone else. It’s up to us to carry forward the great expectation of the establishment of the kingdom of heaven right here on earth. It began with John and continues with us.
Pray with me.
The Lord of the sea and sky has heard his people cry and the Lord who has made the stars of the night will make their darkness bright. All who dwell in dark and sin, his hand will save but who will bear his light to them? Who shall he send? Here we are, Lord, is it us you will send, Lord? We have heard you calling in the night, Lord. We will go Lord, if you lead us and we will hold your people in our hearts. Send us Lord, in the name of your most precious son, Jesus Christ, send us Lord. Amen.