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Matthew 11:1-19

by Patrick Lines

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you do out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.”

Once again, Jesus addresses a crowd that does not yet seem to understand what he’s trying to say. These are people who had made the journey out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist: the radical, countercultural, hairy, smelly prophet. Perhaps some had been baptized by John in the Jordan River. And yet, the prophesied coming of the Messiah appears before them as if they are entirely unprepared. They have heard of the many miracles this Nazarene claims to have performed, yet even John’s own followers are led to ask if Jesus really is who he says he is. After all, where is his pedigree? His respectable education? His reputation?

I’ve found myself distracted from reflecting on this Scripture over the past week by something that seems entirely unconnected, but bear with me here! This Sunday marks the kickoff of the most famous sporting event in the world, where some of the most skilled athletes will compete for a glory achieved by few. I am of course talking about the World Cup, in which 32 of the world’s best footballing (soccer-ing?) nations come together every four years for a tournament unlike any other. I find myself drawn to the World Cup because there are always moments when the impossible becomes legend: underdogs Costa Rica beating current champions Italy to top their group, South Korea besting Portugal, Italy, AND Spain into the semifinal, Diego Maradona single handedly delivering World Cup glory for Argentina over the England team of a lifetime.

These unexpected moments are so fascinating because they are a subversion of the expectations and reputations of the powerful footballing giants. Brazil would NEVER lose a crucial game 7-2 because they’re simply the best team around. And yet, they did. England have all the superstars and seem DESTINED for success, and lose to a determined Croatia. At the World Cup, the reputations of teams, of nations, only get you so far.

In this Scripture, Jesus, like the Croatian team who defied the odds four years ago, does not have the reputation that fits the expectations of the crowd. He’s a skilled speaker, sure, but he lacks the training expected of teachers of Scripture. He spends his time out in the world, wandering and meeting with unsavory characters instead of studying in the temple. His hands are rough. It is only when looking back do some begin to see the connections to a reputation far larger than they could have imagined. Not only does this man seem to heal the sick, care for the poor, and feed the hungry, but he speaks of the fulfillment of the words of prophetic ancestors. This out-of-towner who spends far too much time with tax collectors and sinners is also declaring the coming of the Kingdom of God! I imagine these clashing reputations were difficult for many to reckon with.

Many essays and think-pieces were written about how, with hindsight, the success of 2018’s Croatian National Football Team should have been clear to see all along (their talented veterans formed the backbone of a team that wholly trusted one another, when many more flashy teams struggled to play well together, but I digress). Similarly, when we reflect on Jesus’s works we see the reputation of God at hand. And yet, it is a reputation that subverted the expectations of many of Jesus’ contemporaries and in some ways continues to do so to the present day. Much of Jesus’ ministry involved a critique of the way the world works; calling out the powerful and helping the vulnerable. But he also chose to live in relationship with the powerful and the vulnerable; with government officials, soldiers, religious zealots, Pharisees, and fishermen; all while also bringing these groups into relationship with one another.

I’ll leave you with some questions I’ve been pondering as I write: What does it look like for us, as Englewood Church, to subvert the expectations of a church in a way that better shows the presence of God at work? What is the reputation of a (mostly white, Protestant, English speaking, American) church? What are the positive aspects of that reputation that we can embody, and are there harmful connotations we need to acknowledge and move away from?

As we continue to follow along the Jesus trail, looking at the mile markers within his ministry, I believe we are called to continue examining the ways we wish to both live into and subvert expectations; from within our community and from the wider world in which we live.

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