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.