The Third Sunday of Advent
15 December 2019
James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
May I speak in the name of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I sat down to write this sermon on Thursday morning, having just cast my vote in the general election. As I wrote I was acutely conscious that by the time I come to preach on Sunday morning that the results of the election will be old news – we may still be processing what they mean but they will be well known. Do we have a Government with a majority, are we back into hung parliament territory or are coalitions being created at this moment? I promised myself that whatever happens I shall not come back and edit these words.
So, as I write, I inhabit a weird in-between place. I don’t mean my study, although that is partially true. I mean a rather isolated place of unknowing and uncertainty. A place of waiting, of not quite being there and not quite sure what being there even looks like or means. To use the theological lingo, a liminal space.
The reason I wanted to enter into that feeling of liminality is because that is where we find John the Baptist this morning. Last week Nicky preached on John the Baptist from Chapter 3 of Matthew’s gospel. Although John was out in the wilderness, which we usually associate with being alone, it is clear that his ministry of preaching and baptising was thriving – the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him. John was physically in the wilderness but spiritually he couldn’t have been clearer that he was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing – he was preaching his message of repentance, he was making straight the way of the Lord and the people were responding, not necessarily with Gaudete joy, but responding with the desire to be cleansed and start again. John was an Old Testament prophet in New Testament times and his ministry was on fire, the sort of fire in the belly that comes with absolute certainty.
What a difference a week and 8 chapters makes. Today’s gospel is from chapter 11 of Matthew’s gospel and, today, we find John in prison.
Why was he there? To be a prophet is to be in a dangerous business; speaking truth to power always risks upsetting power and that sometimes carries consequences. Interestingly John was not imprisoned for preaching repentance or baptism but for criticising Herod and saying that it was not lawful for him to marry his sister-in-law Herodias. So, Herod had John clapped in irons and we know that it did not end well for him following the dance of Salome, but that comes a bit later, in chapter 14.
Although John is in prison we know that he was not in total isolation because we are told that he had heard about what Jesus was doing and was able to send and receive messages via his own disciples. And what message does John send to Jesus?
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
If you recall John the Baptist is said to have leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when the pregnant Mary visited, he recognised Jesus and proclaimed him as Messiah and the Lamb of God – the angus dei, when Jesus came for baptism and at the moment of baptism we are told that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and God proclaimed Jesus as his beloved son. And yet John now asks: “Are you the one?”
These are potentially quite shocking words because they interrupt the story of John simply pointing the way to Christ.
Looking at John’s question it seems to me that there are only two real possibilities here: either John’s time in prison has caused him to really doubt whether he has proclaimed the right person as the Messiah and he is seeking some kind of confirmation or reassurance or he does not really doubt and there is something else going on here – I will look at each of those in turn.
First let us consider the possibility that John had come to doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. In a way this should not be as shocking as it first appears. We know that the zealous Jews, who of course included John, that the Messiah they were expecting was to be a militaristic, fully human and non-divine descendent of David who was to liberate the Jews and to usher in a new Age. If you remember the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday they also acclaimed him as Messiah but they soon melted away when he turned out not to be the type of messiah they were expecting, as indeed did the disciples themselves when push came to shove.
So after sitting in Herod’s prison for some time, with the corrupt and immoral Heriodians still in power, John could not help but notice that the Messiah he had baptised with water had not overthrown the current regime and he can hardly be blamed for wondering whether he had got it wrong. And so John sends his disciples with the message: “Are you the one or is there another?”
How does Jesus react to this doubtful sounding message? It is interesting to note firstly what he does not do – Jesus does not condemn John’s apparent doubt any more than he condemned the doubter-in-chief Thomas or any more than he condemned Peter who denied him. I have known some Christians and some Churches where to express any level of doubt about anything is to be cast into outer darkness. But that is not the reaction I ever see in Jesus to people whose faith is less than perfect and his reaction to John’s message is twofold: firstly he tells John’s disciples that they are to report back what they see and hear Jesus is doing – the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead and the preaching of good news to the poor – all those things that Isaiah had said would be the hallmarks of the Messiah. However it is interesting what Jesus omitted one thing from that list – he did not say anything about setting the captives free – he does not hold out false hope to John.
And having sent off John’s disciples with that experience of seeing Isaiah’s prophecies being fulfilled by Jesus he then seeks to bolster John even further – Jesus says that John is not someone who changes their opinion every time the wind blows in a different direction but he is a prophet and even more than a prophet – that he is the greatest of men born on earth, and a little bit further on that he was the promised Elijah which the Old Testament prophets said had to return before the Messiah would come.
So if John’s doubt were real doubt then it is clear, to me at least, that Jesus understood and forgave that and still reinforced John’s status as a prophet and forerunner of Christ.
The other possibility is that John was not expressing any real doubt at all but that something else entirely was going on. We know that John was an extremely popular figure who drew large crowds and had his own band of disciples. After Jesus commenced his ministry John the Baptist said (in John 3:30) that “he must become greater and I must become less”. We also know that some disciples of John, including Andrew, became disciples of Jesus. One interesting possibility is that by sending his disciples to meet with Jesus John was actually, gently, pointing his own disciples away from himself and pushing them towards Jesus – perhaps a sense of ‘stop hanging around me in prison, my time is done, go and see what Jesus is up to – go and find out if he is the real messiah.’ It is an interesting idea that John was preparing his disciples for his own demise by pointing them in the direction of Jesus.
None of us here knows which is right because we don’t know what was going through John’s mind when he asked the question. But, as we go through this season of watching and waiting for the messiah – we should take comfort from the fact that if we ever have any doubts or worries or impatience or disappointment or if we are ever less than totally perfect in our dedication towards God then there is nothing that we can do or say or think that has not been expressed before, even by those who appear on the pages of the bible, and which Jesus cannot understand, forgive and transform. If you have ever doubted God then know that the saints and prophets have been there before you but God still made them into saints and prophets.
And although we are only 10 days from Christmas we are still journeying through Advent and the letter of St James calls us to patience if we can:
“Be patient then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near”
Of course, James was not talking about patiently waiting for Christmas, but about the Lord’s return in glory. As we make our pilgrimage through Advent we are not simply preparing to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus but, much more importantly, we are called to prepare ourselves for the return of Jesus and, yes, that waiting and preparing can feel like being with John both in the wilderness and in the prison cell of unknowing. But, in the midst of our unknowing the church, which is all of us, has a companion and a counsellor in the form of the Holy Spirit, who points us most assuredly towards Jesus and who gives us many gifts, more valuable than any brought by Father Christmas, including the gift of joy, which we treasure on this Gaudete Sunday, a day of rejoicing.