2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Do we have any Coke drinkers in here? If so, you might remember some of Coca Cola’s slogans throughout its history, which began back in 1886. Catch phrases such as “Refresh Yourself, (1924) “America’s Favorite Moment, (1937)”, “Things go better with Coke,” (1963), and of course, a series of slogans such as “It’s the real thing,” “America’s Real Choice,” and “Can’t Beat the Real Thing.” Part of what has made Coke so popular is the marketing techniques they use and still use today. Check out this commercial from the 1990s:
It’s catchy, colorful, and honestly, it really makes me want to have a Coke! I think that Coke did something brilliant when they started integrating this idea that Coke is “the real thing” into their marketing- why? Because we all want something that is real, authentic, pure- when we hear that Coke is “the real thing,” we might think, “if it’s the real thing, then why drink anything else?!” Did you also catch in the commercial that the lyrics said, “Coca Cola Classic is always the one,” which sends a message that you can’t go wrong with Coke- it’s always the correct choice- it’s always “the one.” And why not? It’s crisp, cool, refreshing, sweet…no store knock off brand will ever compare to the “real thing,” the “real taste” of Coca Cola.
But aside from the soda we drink, how do we live in this world and make choices about what is truly “the real thing” and what is “the one” amongst so many other choices, possibilities, and opportunities? How do we know today what is real and what is not? That is the question that today’s gospel story in Matthew wrestles with when even John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the one? Or are we to expect someone else?” Last week we encountered John in the Jordan River baptizing people and proclaiming a dramatic entrance of the Messiah, “the One” who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. But as Jesus actually comes onto the scene to begin his ministry, John sits in prison and with all that time to think begins to doubt whether or not Jesus is actually the one for which John thought he was preparing the way- and no one could really blame him because Jesus did not really fit the description of the coming Messiah. Instead of breaking onto the scene as a mighty warrior ready to topple the Roman Empire and exercising power and authority, Jesus comes instead to proclaim the kingdom of God, to teach, to heal the sick, to befriend tax collectors and sinners, and to challenge the religious authority with his message of God’s love even beyond the law and prophets. He is not the Messiah people expected- he doesn’t fit the person that John expected or the idea of a Jewish Messiah in general. So his question, then, is understandable: “Jesus, are you the one?” “Are you the real thing?”
Of course, Jesus’ answer is to not give an answer at all. This is typical of his responses throughout the gospels- that he does not proclaim himself as the Messiah, but rather he proclaims the kingdom of God (workingpreacher.org). His ambiguous response to John is one that could be posed to each of us- that we are to make up our own minds about whether or not Jesus is, in fact, “the one” or not- to examine what is happening in front of us, to explore the evidence, and to search our hearts for the answer. With this, Jesus presents his case: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” The rest is for John, and us, to decide. Jesus may not have been the Messiah that John expected or anyone else expected for that matter. But the words he chooses here still come straight from scripture- prophetic words from Isaiah that would have been familiar to many about the coming reign of the kingdom of God.
And based upon the evidence from Jesus that these things are taking place, John realizes that the kingdom of God is indeed “breaking upon the world,” just perhaps in a different way than anyone would have expected. Jesus is challenging John and his followers to expect the unexpected from “the one who is to come” and be open-minded about who and what “the one” is and what the Messiah is really about.
But it still begs the question- how do we know when something is the “real thing,” or “the One”- especially in a world full of uncertainty, false promises, failed expectations, and plenty of let downs? While I think this question is one we all have to search our individual hearts and lives to discover, I think that this example from one of my childhood favorites, “The Velveteen Rabbit” gives something for us to go on when we ask the question, “What is real?”:
“What is Real?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made” said the Skin Horse. “It’s something that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are real, you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
That’s just it, isn’t it? We know something is real when we feel sacrificial, undying, unrelenting love being poured out upon us to the point when we become real ourselves. We know something is real when we are so loved that our hair has been loved off, our eyes drop out, and we become shabby, and yet we are more beautiful than ever to the One who loves us and created us- and that One, is God through Jesus Christ. As the skin horse points out, sometimes being real and being loved so much hurts- Jesus never promises it will be easy when we take up our cross and follow him, but at the end of the day, we are still loved, we are still beautiful, we are strengthened. We can know Jesus is the real thing because we are loved so much that we, too, become real when we profess him as “the One”- the Lord of our hearts and lives.
So how can we become authentic and real followers of an authentic Messiah? How do we prove to the world that we are, in fact, “the real thing”? One way to be an authentic follower of Christ is to know the stories of Jesus and what God has done and is doing through him- know the stories of Nazareth, Bethlehem, Galilee, Judea- know about his miracles, his teachings and profound words- know the ways in which he came to earth to show us what God is really like- know the story of how he loves us so much that he chose the cross- know the story of how he was raised to give us new life. Know and tell the stories of what Jesus is doing in your life today. Tell how God is working. Know the stories of Jesus so that we can understand, to share, to help us to think, to help us to act and live accordingly.
Another way we show our authenticity is by loving God with all of our heart, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. As we wait in great expectation for the dawning of God’s kingdom on this earth, especially during this season of Advent, now more than ever, we need to show the world the love of God through the way in which we treat people, by the words we use, the choices we make, and what we choose to give of ourselves through our time, talents, and personal resources. We need to make the conscious choice to be the ones who begin the process of building the kingdom today- here and now- we need to prepare the way for the One who is to come.
We become authentic followers of Jesus when we know who we are as his followers and shine his light to the world each and every day. We do this by trusting the work of God within each of us to achieve God’s higher purposes. We confess with our lips and our hearts that yes, indeed, Jesus is “the One”- the One who loves us so much that we, too, become real, beautiful, and ready to be transformed by such a love as this. We become models of Christ by being our real and authentic selves as created in the image of God. That begins by knowing who we are and whose we are, and not being ashamed of it.
And finally, we become authentic followers of Jesus when we open ourselves to the harsh realities within ourselves and in our world, and we humbly kneel at the feet of Jesus and ask for healing. When John asks Jesus if he is “the One,” Jesus presents evidence of lives being transformed and healing taking place in one person at a time. We all have things from which we need to be healed. Perhaps we suffer from illness, depression, grief, addiction, greed, pride, uncertainty, fear, pain, loneliness, physical or spiritual hunger- just to name a few. There are millions of things and people in this world in need of healing: death, violence, poverty, hunger, oppression, disease, war, natural disaster- we are a world in need of healing. Jesus’ words and actions of healing give us a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God- they give us a glimpse of “the One” that gives healing, hope, and joy. Perhaps you have experienced some kind of spiritual or physical healing in your life- or perhaps you are waiting for that healing to happen. Perhaps you feel without hope in this season that is meant to bring hope to life. If so, I hope for you that you will ask yourself the same question asked by John to Jesus: “Jesus, are you the One? Are you the real thing?” and that you will find all the ways that Jesus is “the One” in your life- and that in this discovery, find a source of healing, strength, and beauty in the fact that yes, this Jesus, this “One” loves you so much that you become real, whole, and beautiful yourself.
And as we continue to contemplate this Advent season and move ever closer to the Nativity, may we seek and find this profound truth of the incarnation of Jesus: “that we, poor shabby creatures that we are, are finally honored above all by the One who created, saves, and sustains all of us” (Abington Commentary). Amen.