A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on December 12, 2010.
Even people who aren’t movie fans have likely heard of the movie called, The Matrix.This 1999 blockbuster was not only enormously successful at the box office. It changed the way movies are made, especially when it comes to creating special effects. More importantly, it even caused us to reflect on the way we view reality.
If you know anything about the movie you know that “The Matrix” is the term used to define the computer-generated world human beings unknowingly live in. The world we think is real is actually a hoax, a creation of computerized machines that now control us and ultimately exploit us as their resource for energy.
In the first of three movies in the The Matrix series we meet only a few of the humans liberated from The Matrix. The leader of this small band is Morpheus who is determined to lead the rebellion that will free humanity from the cruel, domineering masters of The Matrix. But Morpheus knows that despite his formidable skills, he is not the one to free the human race.
The prophets of old have foretold the coming of a human being inside The Matrix who is more than a human being, possessing the skill and power and wisdom needed to conquer the monsters of The Matrix. Morpheus and his colleagues have been searching patiently thru the ranks of humanity held captive by The Matrix. And they think they have found their man.
His name is Neo. And they entice Neo to leave behind The Matrix, and join them in their fight to free humanity.
But there’s a problem. As he trains for the battles ahead, Neo is not convinced he is The One. Neo has a point because the evidence is admittedly inconclusive. One minute Neo looks like The One, the next minute he seems painfully ordinary. And while the evidence mounts throughout the movie that Neo is in fact “The One,” we don’t really know until the end of the movie when Neo is resurrected from the dead that he is indeed The One.
Now, even if you never saw The Matrix, this plot ought to sound very familiar to every Christ-follower. The fact is, Jesus is the original version of The One foretold by the prophets of old who would free humanity from a false reality of sin dominated by the Prince of Darkness. But from day one the number of people who doubted Jesus was The One was legion. Eventually, even John the Baptist, a distant cousin of Jesus, was one of those people.
It had all looked so promising early on. John the Baptist, for all his eccentric ways, attracted huge crowds at the beginning of his ministry. Wearing his trademark camel hair hide, and eating his locusts and honey, John preached fire and brimstone and called people to repent of their sins. If his listeners genuinely repented, John would usher them into the Jordan River and baptize them.
But John’s primary calling was to prepare the way for another, the Messiah who would come in power and scorch the earth with his fiery judgment. The Messiah would not only mow down the enemies of Israel, but consume in an unquenchable fire Israelites who refused to repent and be baptized. It would not be a pretty picture.
One day as John was baptizing in the Jordan River, the man reputed to be the fulfillment of John’s prophecy appeared and asked John to baptize him. John immediately recognized Jesus and said, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus insisted John baptize him, and John did. We’re not sure if John heard God say on the spot, This is my Son, whom I love; with whom I am well pleased. But even if he didn’t, we can be sure John was deeply impressed with his cousin whom he believed was about to shake the world to its core.
Well, Jesus did shake things up, but not in the way John expected. Jesus preached not the wrath of God, but the love of God. Jesus didn’t cast sinners into the fires of hell. He hung out with them like they had a shot at heaven. John expected weeping and gnashing of teeth. What he got was a love-in full of mercy and grace. John expected a ferocious Lion of Judah. What he got (or so he thought) was a sweet little pussycat.
Remember, false messiahs in that day were a dime a dozen. A few years before John baptized Jesus, a self-proclaimed Messiah named Judas of Galilee led a bloody revolt against the Romans that went nowhere. Two years before Judas a slave named Simon had done the same. Then came Jesus of Nazareth, and he looked and sounded like The One—at first. Now, John was beginning to wonder.
It didn’t help matters that John was in jail. John had the gall to criticize King Herod for stealing Herod’s brother’s wife and taking her for his own. That criticism didn’t sit well with Herod, and Herod had John thrown into prison. For John, who was accustomed to roaming freely in the wilderness, prison was a fate worse than death.
Day after lonely day, John sat in his small cell, thinking that The One he paved the way for, The One he baptized, The One who would set the world on fire and and restore Israel would surely come and set him free from prison. After all, John wasn’t a bit player in God’s drama of redemption. He was like Morpheus in The Matrix, the one who prepared the way for The One, and surely he wouldn’t perish in this pathetic prison.
Meanwhile, John’s disciples—yes, John had disciples, too—kept feeding John information about what Jesus was doing. And saying. John was growing more confused, and frustrated, and dubious that Jesus was The One. So he dispatched his disciples to ask Jesus one of the most famous questions of the New Testament: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
In Bud Blake’s “Tiger” comic strip two young boys are talking about Christmas. One says, “My folks got us an artificial tree this year.” The other fellow asked, “Doesn’t that bother you?” The first boy replied, “No, not as long as the gifts are real!”
John the Baptist was running out of time—he knew he had only a matter of days, or even hours to live. And it mattered to John—it mattered more than anything else to know Jesus wasn’t an artificial Messiah.
One truth taught by The Matrix is that we human beings are easily fooled. In the movie most people are convinced that their reality is true when it is nothing but a computer-generated counterfeit. In real life many people are convinced that what we can perceive with our senses is all that’s real, and what we can buy with our money is all that matters.
No wonder we wonder about Jesus, just like John the Baptist. In fact, I’m convinced that John the Baptist represents all of us who have wondered from time to time if Jesus really is The One, The One sent to save us from our sin, to transform us into new creations, to protect us and guide us and ultimately deliver us into eternal life.
We’ve accepted Jesus as our Savior and Lord. But the sad truth is we still find ourselves sinning, sometimes in embarrassing ways. We’ve asked Jesus to change us, but it’s easier to get rid of crabgrass in our yards than the weeds of certain self-defeating behaviors. We’ve prayed for protection and still been hurt. We’ve prayed for loved ones who were sick and they still died. Occasionally we wonder if Christianity is nothing more than a clever hoax. And we ask in our heart of hearts, “Jesus, are you who you really say you are, or should I start looking for answers somewhere else?”
Let me be personal. Very few things in my life have gone exactly the way I expected. Somewhere in my head I wrote these fantasy scripts about my marriage, my children, my ministry, my fame and fortune. Don’t get me wrong— I have been blessed far more than I deserve. But there have been wide gaps between what I expected and what I have experienced. There’ve been disappointments I never counted on. And privately I have heard myself asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
That’s why I’m so interested to see how Jesus answers John’s audacious question. How does Jesus react when his authenticity is questioned? Growing up I was taught that wondering aloud if Jesus was The One was forbidden. But here’s Jesus’ advance man asking this very irreverent question. Will Jesus zap John on the spot and throw him into the fires of hell?
No. We see no temper tantrum, and hear no hint of hurt in Jesus’ voice. Instead, Jesus offers a response that has intrigued people for centuries. Had I been Jesus, I might have performed a miracle on the spot just to prove my power. But Jesus doesn’t opt for a flashy miracle. Nor does he offer a straight answer to John’s question.
Instead, he points John’s disciples to evidence that he’s The One. And what is this evidence? Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
What do we notice about this evidence? First, the activity described by Jesus reflects many of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. Read Psalm 146 and Isaiah 29 and Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 61, and you will find that Jesus is fulfilling the very prophecies that predicted his coming. Second, we notice that the gospels record Jesus performing every one of these actions. This isn’t just some self-promoting language used to pad a resume. This is the gospel truth about Jesus.
Thirdly, and maybe most interesting, all these acts involve ministries of compassion and restoration for people who live on the margins of society. In that day the blind, the deaf, and the lame were all forced to beg for money to survive. The lepers were considered unclean, forced to live as outcasts. The poor were folks whom God had clearly overlooked, and the dead were…well, dead and gone. Obviously, none of these folks was considered part of the mainstream of society. Yet they’re the ones Jesus restored to newness of life.
Now to be fair, Jesus’ track record as “Messiah” wasn’t just surprising to John. Virtually all Jews, even Jesus’ own disciples, were puzzled by things Jesus did and didn’t do. He battled with the preachers of the day, and partied with the sinners. He had no army, and no plan to run out the Romans. He was supposed to be the King of kings, but hung out with the lowly riff-raff like prostitutes and tax collectors. He said over and over he was The One, but even his own family couldn’t help but wonder if he was a false prophet or worse yet, off his rocker.
Years ago a woman named Barbara Bartocci was searching for the perfect birthday card for her husband. She came across a promising one. On the outside it read, “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.” Then she turned to the inside, which bore this inscription: “You’re not what I prayed for exactly, but apparently you’re the answer.”
Jesus is no dummy. He knows he’s not exactly the Messiah the Jews have prayed for. But unlike Neo in “The Matrix,” Jesus is confident he’s The One.
Friends, we need to take this to heart. Maybe Jesus isn’t the Messiah we prayed for. But with all due respect, Jesus is still the The One today, as he was yesterday, and will be tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, it’s our expectations of Jesus and what it would be like to follow him that are off target.
Maybe we thought that to follow Jesus would mean being nice to everybody, make a lot of money, have a well-adjusted family, and live happily ever after.But that’s not what happened to John. John did exactly what God wanted him to do. In fact, Jesus called John the greatest man ever to live prior to the coming Kingdom of God. But John wound up being imprisoned, and ultimately beheaded for his faith. Not exactly a happy ending…at least for John’s life on earth.
Today, we often look for a middle-class, American-style Messiah who would make us healthy, wealthy and wise. Meanwhile, Jesus is looking not for artificial followers but real disciples with real commitment who will get out of their comfort zones, roll up their sleeves, and minister to the least and the lost, the blind and the deaf, the lame and the leper—to his people wherever they are. He’s looking for real churches that preach the real gospel and care about real people having a real relationship with a real Jesus.
Jesus is The One, alright. And the only gift he wants this Christmas is the real you.