Isaiah 35: 3-5; Matthew 11: 7-10
Feeble knees and uncomfortable clothes
Our texts tell the truth about our lives. They are a kind of mirror. Isaiah talks about weak hands and feeble knees and how they must be strengthened and so impresses upon us of the vulnerability of our lives. In Matthew Jesus tells the people that John is a man of uncomfortable clothes, reminding them that John is a prophet who should not wear soft robes. Isaiah tells the story of human life. John tells the story of Christian life. Let me explain.
In the long running PBS series as Time Goes By a couple who use to date in the early fifties and have lost touch due to a lost letter on the battle field in Korea, reconnect in the eighties and move in with each other. Their relationship is a source of great laughter. At one point the Lionel gets on a knee in front of the couch to ask the woman Jean to marry him. She says yes before he has a chance to finish his request and this annoys him. “But I didn’t want you to get hurt,” she blurts out as he protests sitting one knee. When he tries to get up he is stuck. “What’s wrong,” she asks. “My knee is locked,” he complains. Friends, knees are funny things, complicated machinery. Once while living in Southern California, I was taking a run along a residential street. As I crossed a smaller street, the car at the stop sign suddenly started moving and before I knew it I bounced off the hood. My knee has never been quite the same and I never know when it will act up again. Knees, they’re hard, they’re soft, they carry us, but then sometimes suddenly they give out. If we don’t have feeble knees now, we will some day. Knees are so complicated that just very recently a new ligament was discovered in the knee. That is just astonishing. How could the experts have missed that after centuries of pathology as a science. That’s how complicated the knee is. People don’t think twice about having their hips replaced, but a knee is an entirely different matter. The feeble knee. As the NFL season hurtles toward the playoffs, we see football players with bulging muscles display their strength in pursuit of an oddly shaped ball. We are amazed at their health and skill at the prime of their physical life. But a football player can go from being the best to being history in seconds. One moment they save the game, the next they are carted off to the MRI machine waving at the crowds with a sour smile. More often than not it’s the knee. The Bible has it right, friends, knees are a reminder of our frailty and of our vulnerability. They remind us how our life bumps into the world.
Then there are the uncomfortable clothes of John the Baptist. Someone tells the story of a school Christmas pageant that was held every year. In the manger was a plastic doll that of course never caused anyone any trouble. But one year a student brought her baby brother Trevor who was placed on top of the straw. The moment the baby’s skin hit the sharp uncomfortable straw, Trevor started howling and he howled consistently through the whole play. His sister got so exasperated that she started verbally abusing him by calling him all kind of names. In this run-up season to Christmas ads on tv are all calling us to purchase perfectly fitting clothes. The young people wearing them all look so comfortable and so pleasant and they move with such great ease through the fake snow. Behind them of course are nervous marketing executives and CEO’s desperate to cash in on this season. The year stands or falls with the holiday sales. For John the Baptist there are no comfortable clothes Jesus says. And neither should there be. John should be gruff, unyielding, uncomfortable with the world around him. Not of this world. Will we be happier comfortable in the our clothes or uncomfortable? It seems a dumb question, doesn’t it, friends. Of course we want to be comfortable in our clothes. But the message Jesus gives us is really deeper, it is not just clothes deep, it is skin deep or even deeper than that: heart deep. Maybe as Christians we are never comfortable in the clothes of the world. Or rather perhaps we are never comfortable in our own skin. Being a person who stands in the world and at the same time being a person with faith in Christ, perhaps that is not easy, not comfortable at all. Perhaps we cannot be comfortable in our skin.
John symbolizes that. His work was in the word but he did not care about it. His heart was somewhere else.
So, friends, we are reminded today of the truth of our vulnerability as human beings in Isaiah and we are reminded of the fact that as people of faith in Christ we are always out of sorts with the world, uncomfortable in our skin. Perhaps we should embrace that feebleness and that discomfort. Perhaps if we do we will in the end be happier and more fulfilled. We will no longer be chasing after the illusion that we are invincible. We will perhaps be more open to the working of God’s grace. May God give us such wisdom.
Reflection December 8
Isaiah 11: 1-5; Matthew 3: 7,8,9
To judge or not to judge
Many people love the show “Judge Judy.” Judge Judy is a kind of no nonsense grandma type who seems to make decisions by instinct developed over years of experience. The issues are usually about a few hundred dollars here and there and often pit parents against children, ex-girlfriends against ex-boyfriends. The defendants and plaintiffs are usually not very bright and the decision is clear-cut. The fact that someone would want to appear on a show like that to get berated is perhaps already sign of the absence of thoughtfulness. Much of the world is not as clear-cut, but because the world we live in is so complicated, we like to make it clear-cut and tv shows like that create the illusion that the world is that clear-cut. We too like to judge people, even though we do that in private only. Some of us do it more than others, according to our personality type.
Our passages today both touch on judgment. In Isaiah we are told that the Messiah “shall not judge by what His eyes see, or decide by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He shall judge the poor.” In Matthew John the Baptist gives the religious leaders of his day a tongue lashing. He calls them names. Judge Judy is very mild compared to that I suppose. So this raises the question: is it then alright to judge people, to give them a piece of our mind concerning the way they live and operate. I spent some time thinking about that this week and I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, we can judge people, but on the other hand what we can judge them for is very limited.
I sometimes go to a Dutch broadcasting website to see what’s going on in my country of origin. It gets me in touch with how the language is spoken and although it is no longer my first language, it still the most intimate, even after all these years. Lately once a week I catch a series called “Overspel,” which is most often translated with the word “adultery.” But that doesn’t do it justice. Yes, the central relationship is that of a lawyer and the woman he has an affair with, but “overspel” when translated literally means: “a game beyond,” or “a game over and above” or “a game too far.” This makes the title appropriate. What makes the show extra interesting is that it shows places I knew well when I was growing up. For instance the children of the lawyer go to high school at my sister’s old high school in the south of Amsterdam and sit for their stressful final national exams there. Only one of the children and of the police woman is completely blameless in this program. Pretty much everyone else is exposed as flawed or even evil. The lawyer of course cheats. His wife threatens to kill the girlfriend who of course is not an upstanding citizen although you sympathize with her. The wife winds up in jail for her threatening behavior. Her father is in cahoots with a corrupt city council man the lawyer is supposed to testify against. Then the lawyer gets kidnapped and is held in Belgium and is guarded by a bunch of former-Jugoslavian hired hands. The lawyer’s corrupt father in law puts up the $2 million ransom which is no problem for him becay use he has ordered the whole kidnapping himself anyway. Now the mistress’ scorned husband works for the DA’s office. He finds the site where the lawyer is being held but tells no one and tries to manipulate the situation to guarantee the lawyer never comes home. All these people are worthy to be judged, friends. They are judgeable. And I will tell you why. The Bible texts give us clues. The behavior that is worthy to be judged is the behavior of the heart and the intention. Isaiah says the Messiah will not judge by what He sees or hears, i.e. by appearances, but with will judge the poor with righteousness. In other words, He will look below the surface. In Matthew John the Baptist goes after the behavior of the religious leaders because of their greed and their corruption. They are really sins of the heart.
Now friends, you and I, we may be likely to be critical of people for all kinds of reasons: for the intelligence, their dress, their occupation, their family, their lack of involvement, their taste, their choice of life partner etc., but in the end we can really only judge people for their heart. It is hard to judge people for what the genes they were given or what life experiences they were exposed to as a child. We may not even be able to blame them for their lack of motivation, because there could be all kinds of reasons for that. What we can judge them for, and what we can judge ourselves for, is the heart and the intention. Do they care enough to live life within the limitations they are given, with the cards they are dealt with, with reasonable compassion, especially those who have been given much. This Advent may we search our heart and our intentions and find where we can justly be judged. May God give us insight and wisdom.