by David Baer, February 12, 2017
Text: Luke 7:18-35
When I was a kid, there was an older couple who lived across the street from us. Their backyard was hemmed in with a 10-foot hedge, and a somewhat shorter fence. As my parents came to know our neighbors, they learned that the couple were in their 90s and had come over as immigrants from Norway many years before. Every square inch of their hidden backyard was taken up with wall-to-wall garden—no grass, just vegetable beds. As nearly as they could, they aimed to be self-sufficient, growing their own food. As for meat, well… Put it this way: my mother was a gardener herself, and she appreciated the fact that any rabbits that wandered into the neighborhood always seemed to disappear before long.
Now, let’s imagine something. Let’s imagine our neighbors didn’t have a garden, but simply had it in for rabbits, condemning them as destroyers of all that is good and wholesome and edible. Let’s say they moved into the neighborhood with the aim of eliminating the cute, furry menace once and for all. If they succeeded, that would be an accomplishment. But I don’t think it would have been quite as impressive an accomplishment as the rows of peas, cabbage, and potatoes that, in the real world, they were trapping the rabbits to protect. The garden was their purpose and their accomplishment, and it couldn’t wait until all the rabbits were gone. This couple was nurturing life in their backyard—their own, of course, but also a beautiful ordered space of growing plants. There were always going to be rabbits, and our neighbors were going to do their best to eliminate the damage they caused. But in the end it was all for the sake of the garden.
If you’re going to do battle, you’d better be sure you know what you’re fighting for, not just what you’re fighting against.
It was a lonely life for John in the desert. Lonely but simple. Eating locusts and wild honey, John the Baptist consumed food that no human beings had produced, food that God provided for him as a gift. It was like the manna his ancestors had eaten when they journeyed through the wilderness. He took what nourishment God sent, knowing that he too was headed for the promised land. John brought others out into the desert where he was, and baptized them so that they could pass through the waters and enter the promised land afresh. Change was coming! Injustice and greed and oppression weighed down on God’s people, but no longer! The ax is lying at the root of the barren tree, John said. One is coming after me who is more powerful than me, he said. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and he will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire! It was all so clear to John—he was preparing the way for someone who would come with purifying fire to rescue the righteous and punish the wicked.
When he heard about all the excitement surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, someone he himself had baptized, maybe it gave him hope. But Herod Antipas, who ruled the region of Galilee, had thrown John in prison for condemning Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. As the weeks and months passed for him behind bars, John couldn’t help noticing that the wicked were still in control, and those like him who were doing their best to stick up for God’s ways were still getting crushed underfoot. When some of John’s disciples came to him and reported Jesus’ latest miracles, John decided to call the question. “Are you the one who is to come,” he wanted to know, “or should we be expecting someone else?”
What else are you supposed to do when you’ve been trusting, hoping, and praying for something, working for it, putting your comfort and freedom and even your life on the line for it, and yet you’re no closer now than when you started? Really, John’s question sounds far gentler and more polite than the one I’d ask.
Do you remember the story we heard a few weeks ago, when Jesus preached his first sermon at the synagogue in his home town? Do you remember what he said there? He read some words from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he said, “These words are coming true, now, today, in your hearing.” Jesus is not here to separate, cleanse, and judge, in the way John is expecting. He’s here to announce the year of Jubilee—to release, heal, and proclaim good news. Now, that’s not to say that Jesus is all smiles and sunshine. Sometimes the need to release someone from suffering puts him in conflict with religious authorities, like the time he healed a man with a withered hand on the sabbath. And let’s not forget that the people in his hometown took such offense at him, when he said God’s blessings weren’t just for them, that they tried to throw him off a cliff. But instead of the fiery judgment John was expecting, Jesus seems more oriented to new beginnings: not purging but redeeming.
So Jesus points to these new beginnings: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard—the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” He invites the messengers from John to test with their own senses–seeing and hearing—whether or not the Jubilee promises from the scriptures are coming true. (Though Jesus seems to have left out the bit about release to the captives—maybe that would have been a sore spot with John!)
John has every right to be discouraged. He’s suffering, and yet he’s been God’s loyal, faithful prophet. Jesus confirms this: No one born of woman is greater than John, he says. But he also says that the least in the kingdom of God is even greater. John came to clear the ground and chase off the rabbits. Jesus, and those who follow him, who feed, heal, teach, and raise the dead in his name—those are the gardeners. John is disappointed because Herod and Caesar are still sitting on their thrones and the leaders of his people are sitting on the fence. He’s disappointed because the cabbages and carrots aren’t safe, because God’s people are beaten down and oppressed. The garden isn’t secure, and the harvest will suffer.
Jesus doesn’t disagree, but what he wants John to understand is this: The garden isn’t secure, but it’s growing. Yes, the pests are poaching the peas and potatoes, but in the mean time people are being fed. Remember how Jesus, again and again, stresses the urgency of what God is doing through him. Today the scriptures are fulfilled. Today, even on the Sabbath if necessary, this man must be healed. The kingdom and its blessings are for today, even when they provoke conflict and opposition and violence. The kingdom can’t wait for some future time when it’s been made perfectly safe.
Jesus knows what’s at stake. And we’ll see how willing he is to suffer to protect it. But because he knows the value of what he’s fighting for, he’s going to do everything he can to grow the garden.
This week I’ve been reading A Public Faith, a book written by one of my seminary professors, Miroslav Volf. The book is his effort to encourage Christians to be active in their communities, in art and media, and in politics. He sees that so often people of faith go wrong when they venture into public life—either they try to impose their beliefs on other people, or they try to adjust their beliefs based on the things that are important in the world around them. Instead, he says, when Christians take their faith into public life, they should bring a vision of what makes for human flourishing. In other words, what makes for a good life, a life worth living? God is love, Volf says, and we are created for love. Volf points to Jesus’ Great Commandment: “We lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves.”1 Relating this commandment to the problems and challenges we face is how Christians ought to bring their faith into the public square.
This is the garden, isn’t it? This life of loving God and loving our neighbor is the garden that’s worth growing and, yes, worth protecting from everything that threatens it. For Jesus, love of God and neighbor is going to lead to the cross. The way of love may lead us to make costly sacrifices too. But what parts of God’s kingdom do you see with your eyes and hear with your ears? Can you bear witness to blessings you’ve received, as well as given, that are worth loving and fighting for?
Would you pray with me…
Mighty and merciful God, when you formed our first parents out of the dust of the earth, you called us to till and keep your garden. In Jesus Christ you have made us keepers of your new creation. Help us to nurture love for you and neighbor in ourselves and others, so that your kingdom might grow and flourish, yielding a harvest of blessing for us and for your world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011. p. 72