15 December 2013
3rd Sunday of Advent
10.00 am Hadlow
James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
May I speak in the name of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I am sure that none of you good people here have ever and would never drink alcohol to excess but I am told by a very good friend of mine that if you drink too much it can cause a thing called a hangover. In fact, I kid you not, I found out only the other day that there is a patron saint of hangovers and her name is….St Vivian.
Anyway, my friend said that whilst hangovers can happen at any time of year they are particularly common on New Years Day and that when he was younger, before he had two children to look after, sometimes the whole of New Years Day could be spent hungover from the night before. In other words whilst we might like to start a new year with an entirely clean slate in reality what we have done and experienced in one year cannot help but shape our experience of the next.
Well, as you know, the season of Advent represents the start of the Church’s New Year and although we are now starting the third week of Advent and our eyes should be fixed on the coming of Christ at the nativity in 10 days, I am still feeling a sense of something ‘hanging over’ from the end of the last Church year which we celebrated with the feast of Christ the King. It was obviously a really good feast for the hangover to last three weeks!
So what is this feeling that is following me from one Church year to the next? Well, at the feast of Christ the King we thought about the end of the Christian story that culminates with Jesus’ returning as King to establish a new heaven and a new Earth. I am sure you remember the tone of the bible readings in those weeks which were all about faithfulness and patience as we watch and wait for the return of Jesus.
Perhaps it is becoming clear why I can’t quite shake off the influence of the last year – although the calendar tells us that we are in a new year and that we are back at the beginning of the Christian story in many ways we are still watching and waiting with faithfulness and patience for Christ to appear on earth – although rather than looking forward to Christ’s return at the end of time we are now looking back and, in a sense, remembering with anticipation the fact of Jesus’ birth.
So we have here an exciting confluence of expectations about Jesus – there is the remembered expectation of only a few weeks ago about the second coming of Christ, there is the expectation of the nativity which lies just around the corner and last week we had John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus’s earthly ministry – we are being told in every possible way to anticipate the presence of Jesus Christ – that Jesus was amongst us, that Jesus is amongst us and that Jesus will come again .
But this week, dare I say it, a slight note of doubt has crept into the narrative. Only last week John the Baptist was standing by the River Jordan and was berating the Pharisees and Sadducees and calling them to repentance with the message that one was coming after him who would fulfil the messianic prophecies. But in today’s reading John in no longer living in the wilderness and making straight the way of the lord – no, today we find John languishing in prison. But remember, although only a week has passed for us between these readings it is thought that John may have been in prison for two years at this point. Last week’s reading came at the start of Jesus’ ministry but today’s seems to come when Jesus had only a year of his ministry left – so John may have had plenty of time in prison to reflect on what had happened.
Why was John the Baptist in prison? You will recall that to be a prophet is to be in a dangerous business – speaking truth unto power always risks upsetting power and that sometimes carries consequences. Interestingly John was not imprisoned for preaching repentance or baptism – I have no doubt that such calls were fairly common at the time – but John took his call to speak truth unto power right to the top by criticising Herod and saying that it was not lawful for him to marry his sister-in-law Herodias, which indeed, under Jewish law it was not. So Herod had John clapped in irons and we know that it does not end well for him following the dance of Salome.
So today John is in prison but 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 metanarrative of John simply pointing the way to Christ.
Although they are sometimes difficult to grapple with I have to say that I find bits of scripture like this, and for example where the disciples show all the characteristics of being flawed human beings, deeply reassuring because they say to me that these scriptures have not been scrubbed clean and whitewashed – we are reading about real people in real situations grappling with their own issues of faith and we get to see how they cope and how God responds in their lives.
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 perhaps two years of sitting in Herod’s prison 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 two fold: 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.
Now of course 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”