St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Are you the one?

Are you the one?

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 3rd. Sunday in Advent, 11th Decem­ber 2016

Read­ings: Isai­ah 35.1–10; Mat­thew 11.2–11; James 5. 7–10

Last week we spent some time look­ing at the char­ac­ter of John the Baptist, the man and his mis­sion. The John we met last week was con­fid­ent and fear­less, denoun­cing the wicked­ness of his age and call­ing even the reli­gious lead­ers to repent and pre­pare for the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah. Mat­thew also records that Jesus him­self came to be bap­tised by John and when John met Jesus he said that he was not worthy to bap­tise him and sug­ges­ted that Jesus bap­tise him instead! How­ever Jesus insisted and when Jesus came up out of the water, John heard a voice from heav­en declar­ing, “This is my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.”

So today’s read­ing about John the Baptist comes as a sur­prise. John is in pris­on because he had the temer­ity to denounce the loc­al ruler, Herod Anti­pas, for tak­ing his broth­er, Philip’s wife, Hero­di­as, as his own. From pris­on John sends word to Jesus by his dis­ciples with the ques­tion, “Are you the one or are we to wait for anoth­er?” Why would he ask this ques­tion? At the time of Jesus’ bap­tism John had recog­nised Jesus as the prom­ised Mes­si­ah and had heard the word from heav­en announ­cing  God’s approv­al, so why the sud­den doubt? Vari­ous explan­a­tions have been offered but it would appear that the ques­tion had to do with John’s expect­a­tions about the Mes­si­ah. Our text begins, “When John heard in pris­on what the Mes­si­ah was doing, he sent word…” John expec­ted the Mes­si­ah to be a lead­er like Eli­jah who called down fire from heav­en and became an instru­ment of God’s judge­ment against evil doers. But Jesus’ min­istry is not like that. The Romans remain in power; Herod who put John in pris­on is still on the throne, the reli­gious estab­lish­ment in Jer­u­s­alem are unchanged in their oppos­i­tion to both John and Jesus and soci­ety gen­er­ally seems unchanged. Fur­ther­more Jesus has acquired a repu­ta­tion as a man who likes to enjoy a good meal with tax col­lect­ors and oth­ers on the mar­gins of soci­ety, so what kind of Mes­si­ah is he? Lan­guish­ing in a Roman pris­on, with the pro­spect of exe­cu­tion any day soon, John is hop­ing to see more action from the Mes­si­ah and a bit more hell fire and judge­ment. We can feel some sym­pathy for John’s situ­ation and there are some Chris­ti­ans today who seem keen to wish God’s judge­ment on those who reject the Chris­ti­an message.

Jesus’ response is simply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” What had they seen and heard? “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 list echoes Old Test­a­ment proph­ecy, includ­ing our read­ing this morn­ing from Isai­ah 35.1–10. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like deer, and the tongue of the speech­less sing for joy.” (vs.5,6) Pas­sages like this were taken as por­tray­ing the Mes­si­an­ic age when Israel’s days of exile and pun­ish­ment would be over and peace and prosper­ity would be enjoyed. From what John’s dis­ciples have seen and heard the Baptist should be reas­sured that the mes­si­an­ic times have arrived even though the final judge­ment is still future. But Jesus also adds a word of bless­ing for the troubled John. He adds the words: “And blessed is any­one who takes no offence at me.” The word for offend is skan­dalizo from which we get our word ‘scan­dal’- its lit­er­al mean­ing was to cause someone to stumble and in this con­text hints at words from Isai­ah 8.14, : “He will be a stone to stumble over and a rock to trip over and a trap and snare to the inhab­it­ants of Jer­u­s­alem.” Even today Jesus remains a stum­bling block for some because he refuses to con­form to our expect­a­tions; he asks so much of us and does not always say and do the things we would like him to. He con­tin­ues to chal­lenge and dis­turb our com­pla­cency. His min­istry was to the whole per­son and every per­son mattered. Des­mond Tutu wrote: “I don’t preach a social gos­pel; I preach the gos­pel peri­od. The gos­pel of our Lord Jesus Christ is con­cerned for the whole per­son. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that polit­ic­al or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry per­son is bread.”

The first part of our Gos­pel today focuses on the ques­tion of who Jesus is and the second Part (7–11) focuses on who John is. The ques­tion of who John is becomes part of the answer to who Jesus is. Even though John expressed some doubts in regard to Jesus, Jesus has noth­ing but affirm­ing things to say about John. He begins by describ­ing what John was not like: he was not some fra­gile ascet­ic, nor was he some kingly fig­ure, rather he was a proph­et but more than any ordin­ary proph­et. He was the fore­run­ner to the Mes­si­ah, the one spoken about by Mala­chi: “See I am send­ing my mes­sen­ger ahead of you, who will pre­pare the way before you.” But Jesus says even though John was the greatest of the proph­ets and indeed great­er than any­one else who had gone before him, the least in the king­dom of heav­en is great­er than he.

What did Jesus mean by this state­ment?  Jesus was offer­ing a new way of under­stand­ing God’s timetable. Israel’s long his­tory from Abra­ham to Moses and from King Dav­id through the proph­ets to John the Baptist was one long peri­od of pre­par­a­tion. But now the pre­par­a­tion was over and the real­ity of the new king­dom of God had arrived. John was the greatest of the pre­parers but his task was now com­plete because the new era had begun. In a not very subtle way Jesus was declar­ing that he, Jesus, was the one who had brought the king­dom of heav­en to ful­fil­ment. To be part of his king­dom would be bet­ter than any­thing that had been exper­i­enced before. Hence, John as the last rep­res­ent­at­ive of the old era was in a sense, worse off than the lowli­est mem­ber of the new age that had dawned in Jesus. It goes without say­ing that this was a rad­ic­al, dis­turb­ing mes­sage to many of Jesus’ listeners.

Mat­thew is telling us that John is great, but Jesus is even great­er. At the begin­ning of his Gos­pel, Mat­thew describes the dream that Joseph had when he was con­sid­er­ing divor­cing Mary because he had learnt that she was expect­ing a child. In the dream Joseph is told that he is “not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child con­ceived in her is from the Holy Spir­it.” Mat­thew then adds the com­ment that all this took place to ful­fil what was spoken through the proph­et: “Look a vir­gin shall con­ceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means ‘God is with us’. The Advent mes­sage is that with the com­ing of Jesus, God is with us today and every day. Through his Holy Spir­it we can exper­i­ence his pres­ence any­where and every­where but par­tic­u­larly as we gath­er togeth­er for wor­ship and share in the Eucharist.

So when James in his epistle tells us to be patient ‘until the com­ing of the Lord’ he is not sug­gest­ing that God is dis­tant and removed from us but he is speak­ing of the day when Christ will be revealed to the whole world as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Of that day we know not the day or the hour but we wait for it with patience.

Let me con­clude with our Advent col­lect which expresses the theme of Advent so well:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of dark­ness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mor­tal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came among us in great humil­ity, that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glor­i­ous majesty to judge the liv­ing and the dead, we may rise to the life immor­tal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spir­it, one God now and forever. Amen.


Philip Brad­ford