Sermon: Mistaken Identity

Scripture: Luke 3: 15-22

Date: January 17, 2016


Some years ago, the great Christian pastor and writer, Frederick Buechner, wrote this about his 91 year old mother. Her arthritic knees had made it nearly impossible for her to walk and so her world had been reduced to her room and her bed. She read several newspapers a day and watched the TV news. And she kept up with the comings and goings of her children and grandchildren, staying somewhat tuned in to the things happening in the “outside” world. But the most important things that happened to her, were those things that happened to her in her room. She felt safe there and would become very agitated if people tried to take her other places. And if she perceived that something in her room was out of place, or even missing, she would not rest until it was found and back in place. Some of us have dealt with this with our own aging loved ones. And Buechner said that she was asked why it was so important to her to have everything in place in her room and she replied: If I didn’t have something to look for, I would be lost. In commenting on this, Buechner wrote: This was one of her most shimmering utterances. Our experience of God (and life) is often shaped by our expectations, by what we are looking for.

Last week as we began this journey to Discipleship, as we hit the road with Jesus, we thought about the old man Simeon who waited a good portion of his life in the Temple for the Messiah to come and that his wait had been fulfilled when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated, circumcised and consecrated. And we said that what separated Simeon from many of the other Jews was that he lived his life with the expectation that he would see the Messiah, and not the anticipation that had characterized the Jewish faith for thousand of years. Disciples are those who live their lives with great expectations. But there is a qualifier. It makes all the difference whose expectations we are living with. Sometimes we are expecting the wrong things when it comes to living a life of discipleship because sometimes we suffer from mistaken identity when it comes to Jesus. So before we go any further on our journey, I think we need to pause and consider whether it is truly Jesus that we are on the road with, or some false messiahs based on our mistaken expectations. Because when it comes to our expectations, they can either lead us deeper into a relationship with Christ, and further along the path of Discipleship, or we can become disillusioned and even lost, and in doing so we may cause others to be lost also.

In the late 1930’s the great writer, Orson Welles wrote a story called The War Of The Worlds, which was a story about aliens from outer space invading the earth. And he adapted it into a radio broadcast, which was the prominent media of the day. It was presented in a news report fashion and was so realistic that it caused wide spread panic among those who heard it. It apparently touched on people’s expectations of what an alien invasion might be like. According to the story, the center of the invasion was Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, which was a real place. Most of the population were farmers and when they heard on the radio that aliens had invaded and the invasion had started in their town, they grabbed their guns and headed for town. They were going to be the first line of defense. Now based on the radio reports, they fully expected to see the alien space ships hovering over their town. And sure enough, when they got into town their expectations were realized and they saw an alien craft hovering in the night sky. And so they opened fire on it, but when the water started pouring down on them, they realized that what they had shot was the town’s water tower which based on their expectations had become the alien space ship in their minds. Mistaken expectations. Thomas Long writes:

Expectation is a powerful force. Expectations can make us see something that isn’t there, but they can also blind us to something that is there, too. We see what we expect to see.

That’s true in life and it’s true in faith. Which brings us to the scripture that was just read. Of all of the Gospel writers, Luke is the one who is most concerned with John The Baptist. He is the only one who talks about where John came from. How the Angel announced His coming. The circumstances with his parents. The visit from Mary. How he was named. And in doing so Luke raises our expectations about John. So in telling of the story of Christ, Luke essentially skips ahead 30 years from Jesus birth to the banks of the River Jordan and Jesus’s Baptism. But here’s the thing. Though it is clear that Luke believed that John played an essential role in the story of Jesus, I think that Luke is conflicted about the nature of that role, and whether it was essentially positive or negative when it comes to understanding the nature of discipleship. In fact, Luke seems to imply that John was the object of many misplaced expectations and mistaken identity when it came to the people’s understanding of the Messiah. Let’s think about that for a moment.

If you are following along in your Bibles, look again at what Luke writes here about John. Three things stand out. First, his appearance, and his lifestyle and his message all call to mind the prophets of old. He looked like what the people expected a prophet to look like, and he lived the way they expected a prophet to live, and he said the things they expected a prophet to say. Secondly, the people flocked to hear him. And then the third thing that seems apparent from Luke’s telling is that John wasn’t exactly a people person. In fact he doesn’t seem to like people much at all. When they came to hear him preach, he was quick to point out their sins and he called them a “brood of vipers”. He preached a gospel of condemnation and the need to repent. He echoed words that they had learned from the prophecies of Elijah and Isaiah, who often implied that the precarious state of the people and nation was the result of their evil natures and sinful lifestyles. Luke tells us Now as the people were in expectation, they all reasoned in their hearts about John. John matched their expectations of what a prophet should be and say.  And often times the Rabbis taught that the Messiah would be the second coming of Elijah. And so when John came looking and acting like Elijah, he met many of the expectations of the Messiah. And so they said, “He must be the Messiah.” And so they came by the multitudes to see him and hear him and he baptized them in the Jordan River. “But wait,” John said, “in spite of your expectations, I am not the one you’ve been looking for. He will come after me, and if you think I meet all your expectations, wait until he comes. He won’t just use water to cleanse your souls, He’ll baptize you with fire.” In the words of one writer:

They were looking for a prophet, something like a Jeremiah or an Elijah perhaps, and what they got was an itinerant preacher who said things like, “Blessed are the poor.” They expected a great judge who would shovel a pitchfork under the mixed stubble and stalk of history and burn away the enemies of the faithful. What they got was a roving preacher whose ministry was financed by women and who healed people, even on the Sabbath Day. They expected a hero king like David who would restore the fortunes of the nation. What they got instead was a teacher who wept over Jerusalem before riding into town on a mule, only to have Himself nailed to a cross.

Jesus was a victim of mistaken identity because He did not meet their expectations of the coming Messiah. And part of that was John’s fault. Luke would not say that, but he surely implies it. John fed into those false expectations of who the Messiah would be. So much so that when Jesus didn’t live up to his expectations, even John began to doubt. Remember the message he sends to Jesus from prison, “Are you the one? Or, (watch this) should we EXPECT another?” From the moment He was born, Jesus suffered from mistaken identity. He met no one’s expectations, except God’s. “You are my beloved Son; in You I am pleased” God proclaimed when He came up out of the Jordan river. Matthew adds an interesting element to the story of Jesus Baptism. He says that when Jesus first came to the river John balked at the idea of Baptizing Him. He expected the Messiah to baptize him. But I suspect that one of the reasons that Jesus insisted on Baptism was to try and change their expectations of the Messiah. The Baptism of Jesus is a moment of great intimacy. First there is this encounter between John and Jesus. Luke tells us that they were cousins, one or twice removed. Perhaps they had known each other growing up. But certainly Luke makes it clear that John knows who Jesus is as He comes into the river. Their exchange is a moment of intimacy. And then certainly, this is a moment of intimacy between Father and Son, God and Jesus. In fact, this is apparently the first moment of direct contact between God and Jesus. “You are my Son, whom I love.” Of all the things that the people expected the Messiah to be – mighty counselor, everlasting, prince of peace – everything the prophets had foretold – beloved Son was not what they expected. And finally it was a moment of intimacy with all of those others who had come to the river looking for salvation. Looking for the Messiah. In Baptism He became one with all of them. In fact, in the early church, the belief arose, and even continues today in the Eastern Orthodox Church, that those who are baptized in the same water became siblings, considered to be of the same flesh and blood, kin with one another. And so by stepping into the baptismal waters of the Jordan, Jesus became flesh and blood with the rest of those who came and were baptized by John. The people expected the Messiah to be a lot of other things, but they did not expect flesh and blood kin. But it was a case of mistaken identity. In the 53rd chapter of his prophecy, Isaiah described a suffering servant when he wrote:

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces we held Him in low esteem.

What the people didn’t understand was that in Isaiah’s eye the suffering servant and the Messiah were the same person because they were not expecting a Messiah who would live with them, and suffer with them. They expected a Messiah who would judge, not forgive. Who would rule not serve. Who would put an end to their suffering, rather than suffer with them. And because of their mistaken identity, they failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. If you are the Messiah, then you should meet our expectations. And so many fail to recognize Jesus today because He doesn’t really live up to our expectations. If Jesus is the Messiah then why doesn’t he heal my loved one, or put my family back together, or help me get that job, or give me a companion, or bring peace to the world. We expect a Messiah who will rescue us rather than walk with us. And so when difficult times come, we mistake Jesus for someone else. Not someone who will walk with us on this journey of discipleship. Not a Messiah who became flesh and blood with us when He stepped in to share the troubled waters of our life.

Many of you know the story of Joni Eareckson Tada – writer, singer, poet, inspirational speaker – who was paralyzed in a diving accident when she was just a young woman. In one of her books she writes about discovering the Savior’s true identity:

Jackie is a friend (from high school days) with whom I used to share homework, boyfriends and a lot of milkshakes. We were on the hockey team together and played for the County Championship against Parkville High School. We were so excited. It was a fantastic game. But just as the rain began to fall in the last minutes, Parksville slipped a goal by us, and we lost. We were downcast. (On the way home). . some cried. We had worked so hard. Jackie and I took the back seat of the bus. We were co-captains and felt responsible (for the loss) But being Christians we clapped our hands together and started singing there on the back of the bus . . “man of sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came.” We were glad we had a a savior who understood our heavy hearts.

A couple of months after that . . we graduated and a month later I dove into shallow water and broke my neck. Suddenly God didn’t seem so good. I wanted to believe in the goodness of God. (But) I was bent on finding answers, understanding the reasons for my paralysis. One night in the hospital I began to get claustrophobic. I felt that I was in prison. “Lord, I can’t do this.”

That was the night Jackie sneaked in to see me after hours. She hid behind a couch in the visitors lounge. When they turned out the lights, I was wide awake, still wrestling with God. I heard movement by the door and I looked and there was Jackie crawling on her hands and knees across the floor. Then she climbed into the bed next to me. She grabbed my paralyzed hand, lifted it high so I could see it. Mind you, my hands can’t feel. I can’t move. My fingers have no sensation. So she lifted high my hand, intertwined in hers and then turned her face toward me and began to softly sing, “Man of sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came. Ruined sinners to reclaim. Hallelujah what a savior.” It met my need like nothing else.

And so the next stop on this road to Discipleship with Jesus is the Jordan River, because when Jesus stepped into the baptismal waters of the Jordan, He changed the expectations of the Messiah. He changed judgement to grace. Condemnation to forgiveness. And in doing so He transformed the expectations of us on this journey of Discipleship. No longer a brood of vipers, but now brothers and sisters bound together by the love of Christ. And so what do we learn from our journey at this point.

First, True Disciples change people’s expectations concerning faith. That’s true in our own lives first. We approach faith with a lot of unrealistic expectations of what Jesus will do for us. Think about some of the things we pray for. For instance the prosperity gospel has become very popular in some segments of the church. (I wonder how many prayed that they would win the lottery on Wednesday night.) The examples of unrealistic expectations are too many to name. Disciples are those who approach Jesus with really only one expectation, that His will be done in our lives. When it comes down to it, in all circumstances of life there is only one prayerful response of Discipleship and that is “Thy will be done.” When we pray out of our own desires and expectations, we are seeking to impose our will on God. And then Disciples need to emulate Jesus in changing the world’s expectations of the Messiah. When Jesus was baptized Judaism came to a crossroads. They could continue to embrace John’s message of sin and judgement and salvation by repentance, or they could embrace Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and salvation through grace. Most of the Jews of the day, in the end, embraced John’s message rather than Jesus’. But there were a few Disciples who followed Jesus. And here’s the thing. When Jesus was Baptized, the Jewish people made up less than 2% of the world’s population. And now, 2000 years later, their descendants make up less than 2% of the world’s population. On the other hand, when Jesus went to Jordan only his mother believed in Him. But today His disciples make up about 33% of the world’s population. But there are still so many in our world who see the church more as followers of John – a place of judgement and condemnation rather than a healing station of love and grace. Disciples need to change those expectations, and we do that one person at a time. John expected the Messiah to be above the sinfulness of the masses, “I shouldn’t Baptize you” He said when Jesus came to Jordan. But Jesus jumped right in with the Brood of Vipers and said “I am not here to condemn you. I’m here to lift you to your best selves because we are all God’s children.” By becoming one of us, He invited all of us to become one with each other through Baptism.

And then secondly, Disciples live with a positive view of people and life. Jesus saw the same character flaws in the people that John did, but rather than condemn them and call down judgement on them, He called them to be their best selves. The Apostle Paul wrote of Disciples:  Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”Then you will shine like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” So to those who were brought to Him for healing, rather than condemn their sinful nature, He told them to go and sin no more. To a woman accused of adultery: “Does no one condemn you? Neither do I?” John preached from a negative Gospel, focused on the worst of human nature. But Jesus called us to be our best. John called on us to atone for our sinfulness. Jesus became the atonement. At Baptism, Disciples take on the positive nature of Jesus.

And then finally I would say that Disciples are ones who witness to Christ in all of the experiences of life. The people expected a Messiah who would take on the evils of the world and prevail. Who would lead the Jews against the Romans and restore the Kingdom to it’s glory under King David. A Messiah who would take back and inhabit the Temple. But instead Jesus was a Messiah, a Savior, who did not lift them out of the difficult circumstances of life, but rather who would walk with them, and sometimes carry them through, the difficult times. Disciples look tragedy and pain and hardship in the face and witness to the presence of Christ through it all. And rather than give in to self pity and even self condemnation that is often brought on by the things of the world, Disciples always testify “Hallelujah. What a Savior” in the midst of it all.

And so the next stop on this journey with Jesus is the waters of Baptism. If you have never been baptized, what are you waiting for. Come to the water. Or perhaps you need to spend a moment remembering your Baptism and the call that was placed on your life to cast aside the expectations of the world, and even your own expectations, and give yourself over to God’s great expectations for you. Whatever your need might be as we continue this journey to Discipleship, you come as we sing. Come and share in the living water that only Christ can offer.

© 2021 St. Luke UMC
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