December 11, 2016 / DO THE TWIST / Sara Wolbrecht / Matthew 11:2-11
When it comes of movies, shows, our Netflix que, books we read – a question about what makes a captivating story? What keeps us binge watching? What keeps us turning the pages of the novel through all hours of the night? What makes a good story?
One of my favorite ways in which a story hooks me, is in the plot twists – whether in the story, or at the end. I think of Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects. Or that Christmas classic, Frosty the Snowman – for there must have been some magic in the old silk hat they found.
Moments of surprise, plot twists, the surprise ending – those “I did not see that coming! moments.” We eat that stuff up, right? Those moments make the stories work, and keep us hooked in to the story.
Our scripture text for today, the passage of scripture we’re looking at, is a moment that captures a plot twist in the story of God. And it all centers around who people thought Jesus, the Messiah, was going to be, and what he should be doing. Plot twist!
This passage is almost halfway through Matthew’s gospel, Matthew is one of the four biographies of Jesus, and so Jesus has not only been born, grown up, baptized, he’s given his best teaching ever – the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Beatitudes, the Blesseds, as well as where he says “You are Salt of the earth and light of the world.” He has healed, cast out demons, called his twelve disciples to follow him, reached out to widows, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors – the unseen and outcast folks on the fringes of society. And finally here, John the Baptist, who is stuck in prison, sends some friends to Jesus to put into words what many, many folks were wondering. Notice John’s question that kicks off this passage – and how Jesus responds, and wonder with me about how this connects with plot twists.
Matthew 2:2-11 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
So let’s dig into this text for a few minutes. Now remember, if you listened last week, John the Baptist is the guy, before Jesus shows up on the scene, is out in front of Jesus, saying: “Get ready! The time has come and the Messiah is coming!” Do you see what’s happening here? This same guy – who also happens to be Jesus’ cousin – John the Baptist is now having doubts about whether Jesus actually is the real deal. He’s in prison and so John sends his friends to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?
Why has John the Baptist had such a shift? What is going on here? You see, there was a script, a storyline that the Jewish people knew the Messiah would follow. And Jesus is not saying the lines they think he should be. And for John, specifically, John the Baptist thought Jesus should be another Elijah. A man of fire, who would sweep through Israel like Elijah had – Elijah swept through dealing with the pagan god many Israelites worshipped instead of YHWH. John waited for that kind of action, and also waited for the climax, the moment when Jesus would confront King Herod, topple Herod from his throne, becoming king in his place – and I imagine John was waiting for Jesus to do him a solid, and get him out of prison, and give John a place of honor. But it’s not going that way.
So of course John, who is stuck in prison, would send his disciples to Jesus and ask: um, excuse me. What the heck is going on? Its important to note that John is in prison essentially because he believed Jesus was it – John put himself out there and stood up to King Herod, announcing that God’s kingdom – and God’s true king – were on the way. When someone says to the king: Sorry it ain’t you; God’s replacing you – we can understand why Herod locked John up. John’s heard about what Jesus is doing, going around befriending the tax collectors and outcasts and the oppressed, healing people who are on the fringes of society. Jesus was gaining a great reputation – but not for what John wanted him to do. So John is wondering: what is going on?
So what’s happening here? How do we describe this moment in the story? It’s pointing out a huge plot twist. Huge. The Messiah is not a prophet like Elijah, nor a solider or general who rallies troops to set the Jewish people free from Roman occupation and Herod’s corrupt rule. That’s what the Jewish people thought would happen – but Jesus is changing the story.
Here’s the thing about a twist in the plot – in this story and any story. When the story goes left when we thought it’d go right, ultimately what are we in that moment? We are wrong! Ultimately, that’s what’s going on: we’re wrong. John the Baptist, under the question his friends ask Jesus, he is asking, Jesus, are we wrong? And the answer is: yes, absolutely. You thought the Messiah would be another prophet. But this Messiah has another agenda.
So hearing this, I wonder, have you ever really considered: for you, do YOU think of the Bible as a juicy, plot-twisting, ‘didn’t see that coming’, story. Have you thought about it that way? …Is it something that would end up in your Netflix que? Because it is packed with plot twists! – at every turn. And yet, many of us don’t think of the bible as a real page turner, right? Yet there are so many moments we could turn to, that capture how God does the surprising thing.
Especially in Jesus. Jesus is notorious for going off script. Meaning that he doesn’t do the prescribed, anticipated thing that is normative for his culture, nor for the Messiah, for what the Son of God ‘should’ do. He’s sort of the champion of plot-twists. Here is just one of those places.
We miss that so much of the time – I think because the bible and the story of God has become domesticated, familiar, normalized. We’re so used to it. To seeing a cross-stitch picture of Noah’s ark, and a children’s book of Jonah swallowed by a whale, and Jesus standing up against injustice and walking on water and feeding the hungry and walking out of an empty tomb. We forget how surprising this story of God really is.
And this matters for us here, today, in this season of Advent and wonder, because the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus Christ, is the epitome of a plot twist – God came to earth. That alone – man, didn’t see that coming! But that God came to earth not as an adult with super-human strength and power and rallied armies and defeated Herod. But Jesus came as a baby, in manger, born to a teenage-nobody in Nazareth. Nazareth was a one stoplight, one liquor store kind of town. No one comes from there. The Christmas story is one of the biggest plot twists of all time.
And yet, it is just one little turn in this twisty story of God. And that story of God does not end when we close the final pages of Revelation at the end of the bible. The story of God continues, in our stories, in our world, throughout the continuing unfolding of time. And guess what? Is God done with the plot twists? Nope. Because our God is a God of surprises, because Jesus shows us a way of going off script and the not doing the prescribed, anticipated thing that is normative for our culture. We will keep finding ourselves in the plot twist, in places where our lives have gone in the opposite direction of what we thought, where the world feels backwards or upside down.
Which means we, again and again, find ourselves in the profound moments where we are wrong. And does anyone like being wrong? Anyone a fan of that? Nope.
But you know what? Here’s the really crazy thing in all of this: it is so good for us to be wrong. It’s good to be wrong.
Kathryn Schulz spent five years researching being wrong. I know right? Being wrong. You wish you’d thought of that career path. And we’re going to hear just two minutes from her TED talk (which is excellent) called, On Being Wrong. And this clip is in the middle of it, so we don’t have full context, but she’s coming out of a place of talking though how we get stuck I thinking we’re right. Hear a little bit about how good it is to be wrong.
VIDEO: Kathryn Schulz TED Talk, On Being Wrong
My friends, I wonder, what are the plot twists you’re facing in this season of your life now? A recent one, or something that has been playing out for a while. And I assume there must be something. It could be the continuing twists in our country’s political climate. It could be the amazing, surprising twist that we as a new church have been asked to sell some of our land for a 24-shleter for families and women experiencing homelessness. It could be a very personal twist in your job, a relationship, your children, depression, infertility, loneliness, a new love. The God of Israel, the God of Jesus – we are living this story in this world with this God – and there is always going to be something. What twists do you hold now?
Just one example from my own life. When I was in seminary I had to spend a summer as a supervised chaplain in a hospital – a very intense and fruitful formation time in seminary. Jason and I were living in Berkeley, and Jason was working at a church about 30 minutes inland from Berkeley. And so I looked for a position at a hospital in the Bay Area. I had interviews at two hospitals, and I was sure I would get the first one, which was in Oakland, at Alta Bates Hospital, pretty close to where I was living – it just made sense that that is the one I would do.
Well, I got a phone call letting me know that I was not accepted into that program, and essentially the supervisor said, “Yeah, we don’t think you’d be a good fit for our program.” And all I could think was: I’m sorry, why would I not be a good fit for your program when I live close by and I’m awesome? I was wrong.
But I thankfully DID end up getting a position at the other hospital. This one, though, was in the City. In San Francisco, which meant riding BART and then getting on a shuttle to the hospital. It meant when I served my 24-hour on-call shifts, that I had to stay at a hotel near the hospital, and not at home. Plot twist! That summer totally stretched me out of my comfort zone in ways I would not have chosen, in ways that now that I’m on the other side, I am so so grateful for. But if had I been RIGHT – I would have missed the entirety of that experience.
I invite you to aware of your own current twists, and ways in which you have been wrong, as we take a moment to look back at this text again. Two quick things we see in this that speak to us in our own plot twists and in ways we may be dealing with being wrong.
First, we take great comfort in knowing that John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin who is in prison because he thought the plot was going left and it went right – John the Baptist does this too. He gets it wrong! Isn’t that encouraging?! The Bible is not a book filled with infallible people who show us perfection – but with messy, moody, problematic, imperfect, whiny, get-it-wrong folks who demonstrate for us that living a life of faith is not a life where we have all the answers, get it right. John the Baptist shows us – we will get it wrong. And in those times, to not pull away and hide, but to come out and be honest about our questions. It is good to ask the questions – and I love that this is in the text. For us, in our own twists, we consider: What do we need to ask?
Second, I love Jesus’ response to the question. There’s no eye roll, no ‘are you kidding me?’ No scolding. No: Don’t you have it figured out? But Jesus says: look around. Jesus says: tell John what you see and hear. Yeah, it’s not what you expected, but pay attention to what God is actually doing. Jesus says to John (and we absolutely hear it for us): use this moment where you feel stopped in your tracks, use it as opportunity, opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, with new perspective, with the humility of knowing that you are wrong, and see what God is doing in this and around you. For us, in our own twists, we consider: What do we see and hear – what is God up to in this?
And I’ll add the important footnote that not all plot twists in our life are “from God.” God does not give us cancer, or break up our marriage, or cause the car accident – whatever it is. We live in a world of plot twists - some of them emerging out of the very real brokenness in our world – and that ain’t God. But you can bet that God will be in the mix of those times, so yes, we still ask, what is God up to in this? Even when living through times that are not “from God.” Know what I mean?
If you have been here for the last two weeks of Advent, then you know our experience of wonder has been marked by this painting. It began as a blank canvas – then Dani Dodge has been painting it, live, during the sermons. The first week it went from bold colors to this muted night sky. Last week the earth and the first signs of stars emerged. And today, what do you notice? Plot twist. Right? There is no Dani (she happens to be in New York for the week). But you didn’t see that one coming (unless you’re friends with her). So are we wrong – will the painting not be changed today?
Oh, it will be changed. But the plot twist is that it will be changed by you. Because being wrong, being in the plot twist – as Kathryn said, when we become obsessed with figuring it out, that is the source and root of all of our productivity and creativity. Good thing happen when we’re wrong.
We’ll have the chance to come forward during Communion and dip a finger or thumb in the white paint and dab our prints on this canvas, as our dots become stars in this stunning sky. And as we do it, we embody the creativity that is birthed when the story changes. We embody how we believe that beautiful things can emerge from the shocking, embarrassing, hard times when things don’t go as we expected. Beautiful things emerge! We embody that as followers of Jesus, we believe in a God who is full of surprises – and because of that, it is good for us to be wrong. We embody all of this – in a few minutes when we become painters, together. And we also will come forward, holding the tension of all the current twists in our lives, believing that God is up to something in the unexpected times.
And the final thought for us today, is to come back to how this connects with wonder. And to do that through a quote from Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk. Near the end, she says this:
"If you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, 'Wow. I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong.'" - Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong, TED 2011
(Leave quote on screen). If you really want to rediscover wonder…to say: maybe I’m wrong. Jesus’ invitation to John and to us is to see and hear – to look around. And to see that the story of God unfolding in our world and lives now, continues to surprise us. Wow.
The challenge I would offer us today, is to be people who step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, 'Wow. I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong.'" Friends, can we try to be people who do that together? Can we be people who reclaim Augustine’s line: “I err therefore I am.” This needs to be on post-it notes on our computer, and cross-stitched on our wall. Can we reclaim the practice of being wrong as central to who we are as God’s people? Let’s pray: