Thursday, March 16, 2017

Advent 3 Year A

Advent 3 Year A

If asked who John the Baptist was most Christians would answer that he was the one who came to prepare the way for Jesus.  And while this, undoubtedly, is true, we often say it in a somewhat dismissive way, as if he only had a minor role, and fail to see how important John the Baptist was in preparing the way for the coming of our Lord.  The lectionary, however, gives more days to John the Baptist than any other person apart from Jesus himself except, that is, for one other person: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Outside the Gospels, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, pays more attention to John than he does to Jesus.  Indeed, as Paul discovered John’s influence extended way beyond Israel so that when he went to Ephesus, 20 years or so after the crucifixion, he found disciples of John there.  This, in other words, was someone who had influence in his own right.

Turning to the Gospels themselves, we sometimes miss how significant the Gospel writers see John as being.  Mark begins his Gospel:  ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’ and then straightaway goes on to talk of John.  Luke describes John’s birth before Jesus’ and, again, begins his account of Jesus’ ministry with John’s ministry and his baptism of Jesus.  Matthew does likewise.

John in his Gospel gives us yet more information.  He tells us that Jesus’ first disciples were disciples of John the Baptist.  Luke suggests that John and Jesus were related and in John’s Gospel the ministry of Jesus initially overlaps with John’s suggesting that Jesus’ own ministry very much grew out of that of John’s.

This morning, however, we read that John has been put in prison.  His ministry is coming to an end.  This is the start of Jesus’ independent ministry.  Knowing that he is about to die, John wants to get one thing sorted out.  His ministry has been to prepare people for the ‘ONE who is to come’.  The Gospels all agree that he had thought Jesus was this ONE.  Now, however, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus ‘are you the ONE who is to come?’  This is not a question you ask if you are sure; it suggests doubts in John’s mind.  It is this doubt that he needs to sort out before his death.  Had he perhaps got it wrong about Jesus?  You can understand why he may have thought this. 

John’s ministry had been one of challenge and warning.  Even his way of life and style of dress challenged people.  His message was uncompromising: people needed to get ready for the coming judgement of God.  Already the axe was being laid to the tree.  The wheat would be separated from the chaff.  People needed to repent and have their sins forgiven, or they would find themselves on the wrong side of the judgement. 

Jesus at first sight seemed to take a different line.  Jesus himself talks about this difference later in the chapter (see Matthew 11.  His first miracle is to create wine for a party.  His own lifestyle is one of eating and drinking so that he gains the reputation of a drunkard and glutton, someone who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  This is in stark contrast to John’s lifestyle and while Jesus takes judgement seriously, he emphasizes the present experience of forgiveness.

John, then, begins to doubt whether Jesus is the ONE for whom he was sent to prepare the way, he asks: ‘are you the ONE who is to come or do we seek for another?’

Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer.  He points to what is happening in his ministry: how the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.  The significance of this is not simply that these are amazing things to be happening, but that these were the things that the prophets said would happen when the Messiah came. 

Jesus concludes his answer with the words:  ‘And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

The implication being, of course, that John might at least be tempted to take offence at Jesus and his ministry. After all, many did!

But what does all this have to say to us this morning?  Well, first of all, it says to me that it’s OK to have doubts and questions.  Many Christians are frightened to admit to problems with their faith.  Firstly, because they fear being looked down upon by other Christians.  Secondly, because they worry that it may mean that they are not really a Christian. 

There are two equal problems with doubt.  The first is not admitting to it.  The second is not doing anything about it.  Most of us are reluctant to admit to doubt and, therefore, are not in any position to do anything about it.  There are, however, those Christians who are only too happy to admit to doubt, but rather than do anything about it, see being in a permanent state of doubt as rather cool.  It does fit with the spirit of the age somewhat:  an age in which where certainty is often equated with bigotry. 

So let’s be clear: doubting, asking questions is good and normal.  But our doubts and questions should lead us to want to find answers and a resolution of our doubts.  John faced his doubts and asked Jesus directly:  are you the ONE who is come or do we seek for another?

Jesus encouraged people to discover the truth for themselves.  He promised:

‘Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’ (Matthew 7:7-8)

Secondly, Jesus says: ‘Blessed is the one who takes no offence at me.’  Jesus offends people: he was in danger of offending John, he certainly offended the Pharisees and the religious authorities and offended them so much that they had him crucified.  He offended Paul so much that Paul dedicated himself to destroying the movement Jesus’ death had given rise to.  Paul was himself to go on to offend both Jew and Greek with the message of the Gospel.  Jesus offends people. 

I have to say that the message we often preach is not likely to offend anyone.  Now I am not suggesting for one moment that we go out of our way to offend people – quite the reverse.  But all too often we have domesticated the Gospel, tamed it, and robbed it of its power and cutting edge.  In our preaching, Jesus doesn’t offend anyone because what is there in our presentation of him that is in anyway challenging.

John and Jesus and Jesus both called on people to repent.  This can be an offensive message because if you tell people that they have to be change the way they are living by implication you are telling them that they are not alright ‘just as they are’.  You are implying that not all behavior is acceptable and that life is not about people’s own personal choices.  And that offends.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this.  Jesus said:

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’ (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus was the ONE who was to come, but maybe we would have preferred another!  One not so challenging and demanding!

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