Sermon for Sunday December 15
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
It is said that when the Bhudda was on his deathbed, he told his followers not to remember him, but to remember his teaching. Given the number of statues one sees around the world of the Bhudda, it seems that perhaps that counsel was not heeded.
Jesus on the other hand was quite specific, that in the night before he died, he took bread and when he had blessed it, he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘Take! Eat! This is my body which is given for you. Do this to remember me’ There is at once a teaching, a Command indeed – Jesus Commands us to take the bread and eat it – but the teaching has one purpose, ‘to remember Him’, which goes some way to explain the somewhat cryptic response that Jesus gives to John’s question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”.
For Jesus sends John’s disciples with the prophetic words of Isaiah ringing in their ears – and indeed with a demonstration of those words ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.’ Note that Jesus does NOT tell them – go and tell him what you see me doing – rather go and tell him what is happening in my presence. Where Jesus turns up Creation is healed in the most dramatic way – this is happening all around him. These are the promised signs of God’s arrival, God’s Kingdom breaking in. They are SIGNS revealing the presence of the Kingdom . . . and then Jesus adds these words of his own – ‘and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me’ For it is in Jesus, the Messiah, that the Kingdom is breaking in – he is not so much the agent of the Kingdom, he is its very embodiment – that in Jesus these things are coming to pass. His Presence is healing and transformation. His actions reveal his Being.
And yet it seems the church, as God’s people in the past, often misses the point. That the focus of our faith is Not the miracles of Jesus, it is not the teaching of Jesus, it is Christ himself. That without him there are no healings, and without him his teaching becomes but another set of dust dry lifeless morals, or as the society in which we live puts it, Values.
Jesus Over and over again calls his disciples and those with ears to hear Not to put their faith in the miracles – but in Him. Not in his power to Heal, but in Him, not in his words, but in Him. We long for the healing that he brings, we long for a world where his teaching is obeyed – but we do not long for HIM. We ask Jesus to make his world perfect, FOR US. However much we may say otherwise, deep down We are the centre of our faith, and thus frail uncertain creatures that we are we doubt – for who would believe in Us?
And missing this we fall prey to lives not of faith, but of doubt. Lives indeed where in our hubristic superiority we elevate doubt to a moral virtue, and perversely for some a signifier of authentic faith, mistaking as we do the centre of our faith faith for mental assent to a set of propositions about reality, as opposed to the one through whom all things are created and in whom all things hold together. This is not to say that Jesus’ words and works are of no value – far from it, but without Him they are nothing! The transformation of the world will not come about, as some romantically suppose because the world will come to its senses and everyone will come to follow the teaching of Jesus – the world will only transformed through faith In Jesus Himself. But failing to recognise this we put our faith in ourselves and above all our immensely limited power of reason, the greatest thing known to us – that which we exalt far above all gods. And thus we doubt.
At the beginning of the C19 a German theologian by the name of Frederich Schleiermacher set out to try and make such a faith ‘reasonable’ to what were termed the cultured despisers of his age – those who elevated their own powers of reason above everything. But now it seems we live in an age when the cultured despisers are live and well within the church – demanding Doubt as the only genuine authentication of faith.
And John’s question is paraded about as an example of doubt – yet it is far from it, it is THE question of faith. Here he is – languishing in the depths of Herod’s prison – unknown to him only days from his death at an executioners sword for slighting Herodias, reminding the King that his marriage was unlawful. Those in authority rarely respond well to being confronted with unwanted truth. But John’s question has one and only one doubt, one which counter intuitively reveals his Deep and abiding faith. For his question reveals that he KNOWS that one Is to come who will redeem Israel – his question is, ‘Are you the one?’ It is the question of one who believes – If you’re not, then we shall go on as a people, patiently waiting, for we Know that God WILL redeem his people. Although it had been 400 years, there was no question in John’s mind that God Would send One to save his people – we have waited 400 years, if you are not the Messiah, then we have learned patience – we can wait, we will wait – He Will come..
He KNOWS that one IS to come – his only question is “Are you the one?” He like the disciples of Jesus remains unsure, but he is in NO doubt that God Will come and redeem his people. He is one of The great examples of the Advent posture towards the world – that resolutely, and quietly and with infinite patience Waits, for the one who IS to come – except he is just a shadow of the person of faith . . .
It is I must admit rather hard to imagine John as a shadowy character – isn’t he surely the most Full On individual we meet, Jesus aside in the whole of Scripture? With his powerful and merciless denunciations of the Pharisees and Sadducees, coming for Baptism for heavens sake!! – ‘you brood of Vipers!’ As always, fearfully trying to get it right – to get on the right side of God, and John lambasts them ‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?!’ And Jesus indeed picks up on this theme as John’s disciples return with the Good News to their master – Jesus turns then to the crowds and vindicates John and his ministry.
‘Tell John what you see’, Jesus tells John’s disciples – but then asks the crowds ‘What did you go out in the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind??’ It is hard to think of any less appropriate metaphor for John – you can see the smile on the faces of the crowds at Jesus’ joke. John’s ministry has been anything but like a frail reed moved around by the gentlest of breezes – rather he is utterly steely. His question of Jesus reveals that steel – even in the depths of the darkness of prison he is the same – interrogating Jesus – ‘Are you the one? Or do we wait for another?’
So quite clearly they haven’t gone to look at yet another reed flopping around in the wind. ‘What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?’ Again the crowd enjoy the joke, the hair shirted baptist has probably never felt the softness of fine cloth, and his diet was hardly the cuisine of the wealthy. ‘Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.’ What then did you go out into the wilderness to see? A prophet?’ The crowd nod back at him – there was no doubt in their minds about what John was – but Jesus now takes them further – ‘Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’’
John is more than a Prophet – he is THE prophet, the Prophet who is preparing the Way of the Lord – the Royal Highway of which it was said – ‘it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.’ The one who prepares the way of the Redeemed, of the Ransomed of the Lord upon the heads of whom shall be everlasting joy, the ones who will know the departure of sin and sorrow. ‘If you are willing to accept it, if you have ears to hear’, Jesus says, ‘He is Elijah who is to come’ John is the prophet of the end of the age.
And the crowd must have been brought from knowing smiles to almost stunned silence by those words – into which Jesus speaks words which radically calls into question All that his hearers have understood about God’s plans for his people. Surely after all, who can be greater than the one who announces the culmination of the history of Israel . . .
Jesus said you are right, and you are wrong – ‘Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist’ – ‘John’, he tells the crowd, a crowd which at this point is all too ready to believe him, ‘John is the greatest man who has ever lived’ but then as he keeps on doing, he demolishes all our categories of understanding – ‘yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’.
John is just a shadow of the person of faith – John belongs to the age that is passing away – and up to the coming of Jesus, No one is greater than John the Baptist, which in itself undoes some of our categories, in that this wild man of the wilderness is the greatest of those born amongst women – but let us not be deflected – John is the last of the age that is passing away – he is the herald of the age that is to come, and as John embodied the line of the Prophets, bringing it to an end, so, indeed more so, infinitely more so, Jesus Embodies the age that is to come. He IS the age that is to come.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, the age that is passing away comes under the judgement of God, and the age that is to come is revealed, and those who are In Christ are already beginning to participate in the fulness of the reign of God, something which even John could not do, ‘for as yet the Spirit had not been given, for Jesus had as yet not been glorified’
The Resurrection of Jesus releases the Life of God into the world – the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the risen one, making Christ present in all who welcome him, to all who believe in him . . . ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’
John, the shadow of the person of faith, yet what a shadow! For in his faith we see so much of what it means to be faithful people – resolutely and quietly with Infinite patience Waits in Advent Faith – Waiting for? Well waiting for God’s work in Jesus to come to fruition amongst his people – waiting for the Seed of the Life of the Risen one to bear fruit, 30? 60? 100 fold? However much fruit, waiting in faith for an Abundance of Fruit.
Just this week I was speaking with Andrew Scott as he spoke about this seed bearing fruit in Brockville, about how all of a sudden people are asking to become Christians, are seeking to be baptised – the Life of Jesus bursting forth, after 8 years of patient work and watching the field and waiting.
As James reminds us 7Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient.
And next week we turn our attention to Mary the Mother of God, who is the first to know this Life of Jesus within her and so who exemplifies for us the Waiting of those who belong to the age He has ushered in.
But for now, let us KNOW his presence amongst us – let us Take – let us Eat – let us Feed on Him, by faith and with Great Thanksgiving.