She told me that the magic part of these paintings was that they were all made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny little dots.
And these dots added up to make a whole picture.
And depending on where you stood – you could either see the dots – or the picture they created.
I didn’t believe her. But I was excited to see. I couldn’t imagine how something like that would work…how could it possibly be true?
So I remember vividly – on this bright sunny day – stepping into a dark room – where I was surrounded by these big paintings.
And so I ran right up to one.
And little kid that I was – I stepped on the ledge in front of it.
And set off ALL the alarms.
I was embarrassed – but I’d gotten to see it as closely as anyone ever could.
And I was amazed. And I believed.
Still – when I go to art museums – my favorite part is the impressionist paintings.
And I still go – and stand as close as I can. Without setting off the alarms – but still as close as I can.
And I soak in all the dots. The colors. The brushstrokes. The chaos of it.
And then I step back. And look at the picture. The whole picture.
And there, suddenly, is the order. It’s alive – to be sure – with color and movement. But it’s ordered. And it forms a fuller piece. That has meaning.
In today’s Gospel – we get to see a few distinct dots. But it’s harder to see the whole picture – unless we step back.
We begin with John.
At the beginning of this chapter of Matthew – John sends messengers to Jesus – asking “Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?”
It’s always seemed a strange question to me.
John was a faithful man – someone who was willing to die for his faith, in fact. And in the end, he did.
When we find him in this part of the Gospel, he’s in prison.
Herod – or more accurately – Herod’s wife – has seen to John’s imprisonment and will eventually, through some cruel trick, see to his death.
So John, sitting in prison, perhaps aware that the end of his life is approaching, sends messengers to Jesus to ask this important question:
“Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?”
The answer to which would confirm for him whether his life had meaning or not.
John – who was destined from before his birth to prepare the way for the coming Christ – now wonders if he has done his job well. If he has, in fact, seen the rising of the Messiah.
What’s strange about this question, though – is that we’ve been led to believe that John already knows the answer – so why ask the question?
This is the same John, after all, who baptized Jesus in the Jordan river.
Who looked into Jesus’ own eyes – and declared he was unworthy even to untie his sandal – let alone baptize him.
This is the same John who would have seen the Spirit – sweeping down from heaven like a dove to rest on Jesus at his baptism.
The same John who would have heard God’s own voice break through the clouds – to tell everyone in the crowd that this was God’s own son – with whom God was well pleased.
John had seen these things.
He had seen and experienced these moments.
Like the foundation of one of those paintings – he had seen the dots – the color – the chaos.
But at this moment of confusion in his life – this moment when he was most likely facing death – he wanted to see the whole picture.
He wanted to know – with some greater level of certainty – that the picture he was starting to discern was correct – that he had, in fact, seen the order – and the meaning of the kingdom of God – in the face of Jesus Christ.
Are you the one?
Even for someone who had seen – and touched – and been with Jesus – the whole picture was impossible to take in.
It was too big – and too grand.
God’s plan – God’s glory – revealed in Jesus Christ – the very Truth that John had been waiting for – and to which he had dedicated his whole life…even for John – the most faithful of all men – was too big.
His perspective – as a human being – still put him too close to the chaos – to see the larger image of grace.
In this urgent moment – one of his last moments on earth – when all the pressure of that reality was caving in…the grief, and the anxiety – he wanted to know – and to see how – and whether or not God was bringing order to this chaos.
And so he asks – “Are you the one?”
It is a faithful question. And a meaningful one – one that already indicates John’s hope – and John’s faith – even in the midst of this excruciating moment.
Our Gospel is a little deceiving today. It’s out of context – and there’s a section cut out in the middle. So it feels disjointed.
Jesus begins in our text by railing against “this generation.” He goes on, in the part that is cut out, to compare these pious places where he has done miracles – to other doomed cities of the past.
Because when he was there – performing miracles – they did not believe in him.
Their questioning though was different than John’s.
This generation – and these cities who didn’t believe – they didn’t come asking for Jesus – or even waiting for Jesus.
Instead – they rejected John.
They looked upon his righteousness – and decided he had a demon.
The scribes – and Pharisees – and the leaders of the people didn’t want to repent like John was asking them to.
They were quite happy manipulating the system – manipulating God’s law – to live happier – easier lives.
So when John came – calling them to repent.
To live more fairly.
To care for the poor instead of ignoring – or even taking advantage of them.
To care for the sick and lonely – to include the outcasts – to stop ruling as if they were better than everyone else because of their piety or their wealth – they simply said, no thank you.
That man must be crazy.
And they branded him an outcast – to make it easier for them – and everyone else to ignore him.
And then came Jesus.
He was different than John, to be sure.
But he too sought to lift up the poor. To reach out to the lonely.
To include the marginalized and liberate the oppressed.
There were no outcasts he would not touch – and love – and eat with.
And because he didn’t follow all the rules that the Pharisees had made up – to separate themselves – to make themselves feel holy – and better than the common man – they branded him a drunk.
And dismissed him – even as they made it easier for other to dismiss him as well.
Their questioning of John – and of Jesus – had a goal.
And it was not a faithful one. The goal was to discredit. To dismiss.
To avoid that to which God was calling them.
Often John’s question has often been used to signify some crisis of faith – some lack of judgment.
But I think this is terribly unfair – and perhaps entirely untrue.
Which one of us has never asked a similar question?
Most of us, if we’re being honest with ourselves have had moments of profound grief – when we have wondered– are you the one who can save me? Who can spare me this pain?
Or in a period of doubt? Are you really the one?
Or even – at the beginning of one’s own faith journey – the first few moments of contemplation about whether or not to give our lives over to Jesus – is he really the one? Can all of this really be true?
Or is it in fact – just too grand? Just too wonderful?
Or perhaps most commonly – I can’t understand it. I can’t even see it. So how can I believe that he is the one?
Like John – these questions do not make us anything less than faithful if they are asked in hope – in a desire to know Christ more deeply.
It is no accident that Jesus finishes our Gospel text today with one of his most beloved quotes.
The very folks he is railing against – in the text we can see – and in that which has been left out – are the folks who refuse to take on the yoke of God’s love.
A yoke that is easy.
Instead – they were happy to live for themselves. To prioritize their own human interests.
Yokes, by the way, are interesting things. You see – they bind two oxen together. Or two cows. Sometimes more than two.
And in some ways, the yoke, steered by the farmer – keeps the oxen in line. And in others – it frees them to do their work.
And no matter your perspective on the yoke – it sees to it that the oxen work together – to fulfill the vision – or the work – of the farmer.
The oxen may not be able to see the whole field – or even to understand what they’re doing – but they’re given what they need to tend to the work in front of them.
You know where this is going, right?
Like oxen – we aren’t able to see the whole field.
Or the whole painting.
We can only see what’s right in front of us.
The chaos of the moment in which we live.
Only God can see everything – the whole history of salvation – the whole history of creation as it bends towards justice – and love – and mercy.
But we are permitted to see moments – glances – patches of the field that are right in front of us – as we wait for God to reveal the way – and the work – that God has set before us.
And in the mean time – when we do feel the need to ask those faithful questions – to ask for reassurance – to ask Christ to be more present with us…for whatever the reason is – we get the same answer that he gave to John on that day.
Jesus said to those messengers, ‘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 offence at me.’
Or in other words – there are miracles all around you.
Get up close.
Come to me – in the chaos – and see the brushstrokes – look for the foundation of grace that already lives among you.
Trust that the whole picture is ordered – trust that you’ve been given partners for the work.
And then focus on your part of the field.
And before you know it – those dots – that color and chaos – will begin – in your own life – to turn into the peace – and the rest – that only the yoke of Christ – the way of the cross – can offer us.