Meditation on Matthew 11:2–11
For the Third Sunday in Advent
Dec. 15, 2019
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, Ohio
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7 As 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly 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.
I had the opportunity, despite my busy schedule, to watch one of my favorite Christmas movies this week. I saw the 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Does anyone else like that movie?
This was the first movie director Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made since coming back from serving in WWII. Stewart had been gone from the Hollywood scene for nearly 5 years and had served as a pilot, including 15 months in combat. And he was struggling with PTSD, only they didn’t call it PTSD back then. He flew his last mission in February 1945.
He had become obsessed with fear of making a mistake—and someone losing their life because of it. He had nightmares, shakes, and sweats. He couldn’t eat. He lost a lot of weight. He was grounded until August and then sent home to his parents in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
About 10 days later, he got up the courage to return to Hollywood and look for a job. He didn’t have a place to live, so Henry Fonda, who just got back from serving in the Pacific, offered him a room. Neither of them was getting any offers. While they were gone, other actors, such as Gregory Peck, had taken their place as leading men.
Finally, Stewart was offered the role of George Bailey in a movie written and directed by his good friend, Frank, with whom he had made other movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He didn’t relish the role of George Bailey, which may have felt too dark and too close to home when he was already struggling with depression. George Bailey was a young man on the edge of despair, contemplating suicide because his problems seemed unsolvable, his life out of control.
It was Christmas Eve. Uncle Billy had lost the $8,000 bank deposit from the Bailey Building and Loan that George managed, having reluctantly followed in the footsteps of his father. His dad had died of a stroke just as George was prepared to leave for college, shaking the dust of crummy old Bedford Falls, the small town in which he had grown up. He dreamed of traveling the world, and doing big, important things—building bridges and skyscrapers, not nickel and dime stuff in Bedford Falls, building homes at not much more than cost for first time buyers, many of them hardworking immigrants, paying high rents for shacks to Potter, the richest and meanest man in town. The loss of the $8,000 would mean scandal and possibly jail for George, who had a young wife and small children. But Billy, an absentminded old man, hadn’t really lost the money; he’d accidentally handed it to Potter at the bank, wrapped up in a newspaper celebrating the heroism of George’s younger brother, Harry, in the war.
Potter chooses not to reveal that he has the money. He sees an opportunity to get George out of the way and put the building and loan out of business. He wants revenge on the one who once called him a, “warped, frustrated old man.” After the movie premiered, audiences wrote Frank Capra, complaining about the story. It wasn’t an instant box office hit. They wanted Potter to give the money back and feel badly about what he had done. But you know what? It is more believable, to me, that a man like Potter would keep the money and not care that he had hurt others to make himself wealthier, still. This would definitely fit his character.
George, after searching frantically for the lost money with Uncle Billy all day, goes home and has a breakdown, scolds his daughter’s teacher for her catching a cold, yells at his wife and kids for no good reason. This scene always touches me, especially now, knowing that Jimmy Stewart had PTSD. The feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger he was expressing seemed very real, didn’t they? Then, when he realizes he has messed up, he leaves abruptly to go a bar, gets into a fight, and crashes his car into a tree. He ends up at a bridge, considering jumping into a river to take his life. But his guardian angel, Clarence, jumps in, stirring George to dive in and save him. Later, George confesses to Clarence that he wishes he had never been born.
And the angel second class, who hasn’t yet earned his wings, gives George a gift. He is able to glimpse what the world would have been without him. He sees how his life is intimately connected with every other life in his community, and, ultimately, the wellbeing of the little town of Bedford Falls.
How does one person’s life affect so many others? Friends, this is the way of the Lord. This is why we were created—to care for one another and nurture each other. This is how each one of us will grow to become what God has planned for us to be.
George finally realizes that he has made a grave mistake with his request. He is back on the bridge where he had contemplated taking his life, but now asks to live again. In the original, black and white film version, George prays, “Lord, I am not a praying man, but, please, give me back my life.”
The Lord answers his prayer, returning him to his former life, problems, disappointments, and all. And yet, his heart has changed. “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” he calls out, laughing as he runs through the snowy streets. “Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!” He is ready to face his problems with joy, because it will mean being back with those he loves—and those who love him. For George really has had, as the angel had said, a wonderful life.
Today, we read of John in prison in our gospel in Matthew this week, asking Jesus through his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” I am, at first, confused by John’s sudden ambivalence about Jesus, when he had been so sure. Jesus was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and FIRE, not just water for repentance, like John, he said. John wasn’t worthy to carry the sandals of this one who would come after him, the one who would separate the wheat from the chaff with his winnowing fork.
How could the one who protests when Jesus asks him to baptize him in Matthew 3, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” now change his mind? How could he forget that when he baptized Jesus, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” ?
But now John is in prison. Could it be that he has sunk into despair when faced with his own execution? In chapter 14, we learn that Herod has arrested, bound and imprisoned him because of John condemning Herod’s adulterous relationship with Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John tells him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
In this moment of John’s weakness, if that is what it is, Jesus assures John and the disciples—and all of us in generations to come who hear the Word of God—that he is the one of whom the prophets spoke. The signs of the Kingdom are all around! “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says. “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus assures John’s disciples that no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, in spite of his doubts. And yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is greater than he.
I struggled with what he meant by that, too, and discovered that scholars don’t agree on his meaning here, either. What I think he may have been referring to is how human beings really get it wrong when we put a value on human life. We look judge some people as more valuable than others, depending on their looks, popularity, worldly status, wealth, accomplishments, or whatever we decide makes them good or better. We get it wrong, sometimes, don’t we? But in the kingdom of heaven, when all that Christ has redeemed will gather for the great banquet feast, to sing praises for all eternity to the Lamb, only then will we know how God has used us—every one of us—to change the lives of others and, ultimately, to accomplish God’s good plans for the world.
As John 3:17 assures us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Friends, like Jimmy Stewart’s character comes to understand at the end of what he would later say was his favorite movie, the one that put him on the road to healing from his PTSD, we all have a wonderful life! All of us are needed, and not just by friends and family. Because of the ways in which all of our lives are connected, our community and our community of faith’s wellbeing depends on each one of us. And our job—especially at this time of year when emotions are high and we are constantly reminded of our loved ones who are not with us—is to encourage one another. How’s that for a job? Build one another up! For as we build up one another, we are building up the Body of Christ.
For the health of the Body, we need to remind each other just how important we are in these last days, every day, as we wait and long for the one who is to come. And we occasionally may struggle, like John the Baptist, with doubts.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church! Your life is important! You are not insignificant! Nor is the city of Coshocton! All of our gifts and talents matter—to the church, the world, the Lord.
Will you turn to your neighbor to the right, right now, and tell them, “You are a child of God!” Will you turn to your neighbor to the left and tell them, “You are needed!”
And will you turn to both of them and say, “You are loved!”
Let us pray.
Holy One, we come to you with gratitude in our hearts for the good plans that you have for this church, for all of us in the Body of Christ. Let us feel your loving presence with us—here, now, and when we leave this place. Let your Spirit speak to us, again and again, reminding us that each one of us have a wonderful life—because you have redeemed us by the blood of the Lamb. We are children of God, called to reveal the Kingdom of God, witnessing to the miracles of healing in our midst. Give us courage to work for peace and justice. Help us to be generous in our giving, not fearing for tomorrow, and share what we have. We pray, Lord, that all will have shelter from the cold this winter in Coshocton County. And all who are hungry now will be fed. Stir us to preach good news to the poor not just by our words but through acts of kindness and love. May we have your patience to endure in hope and faith for the coming of our Lord. In His name we pray. Amen.