Address given in Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 11th December 2016, the 3rd of Advent.
In today’s Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) we have heard a question and an answer.
John the Baptist sent some followers to ask Jesus this question: ‘Are you the one who is to come’ – meaning the promised Messiah – ‘or are we to await another?’
And Jesus answered them, ‘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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
This exchange raises three questions for me, which I want to explore with you:
1. Why did John ask his question?
2. What did Jesus mean by his answer?
3. And what does this mean to us as Jesus’s disciples 2000 years on?
As a starting point let’s put ourselves in John the Baptist’s shoes – let’s imagine what it was like to be him.
John is under house arrest in the great fortress of Machaerus, on a barren hilltop looking out over the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley to the Judean hills and Jerusalem in the distance. King Herod Antipas has imprisoned him for publicly denouncing Herod’s illegal marriage to his brother’s wife.
It must have been hard for John to be so confined in prison – he was an outdoors kind of man, used to living in the open air of the desert, sleeping under the stars. I imagine a wiry, weather-beaten, driven man pacing up and down in his quarters. He is frustrated and longs to return to his old ministry, to continue preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and hell fire for those who do not listen, like a prophet of old.
John is convinced that God has called him to announce the imminent arrival of the promised Messiah, who will usher in the Kingdom of God, in which God’s people will flourish in justice and peace. And John believes his cousin Jesus is that Messiah. Remember, when Jesus came to him for baptism John saw the dove descend on him with his own eyes, and heard with his own ears the voice from heaven say, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’.
John’s disciples, when they come to visit him in his prison, tell him that Jesus is gathering his own disciples and travelling around preaching to crowds, just like John. But, they tell him, there is no sign of Jesus behaving as a Messiah should behave. Their expectation - and John’s - is that the Messiah will act like a king and lead an army of the people to overthrow the unrighteous and bring in God’s Kingdom of justice.
So why did John send his disciples to ask Jesus his question? We shall never know for sure. Some people suggest John wanted his disciples to see Jesus for themselves, so that they too would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Others suggest that John had begun to question his own belief that Jesus is the Messiah and is looking for reassurance. But most likely, I think, is this - John is impatient to see the Kingdom of God. He expects to see it, and by his question he seeks to encourage Jesus to fulfil his own expectations of the Messiah – essentially saying ‘Come on Jesus, time to start acting like a Messiah!’
Now let’s look at Jesus’s answer
From earliest times the children of Israel looked forward to a time when God would come to put right all injustice. Despite their trials and tribulations, they did their best to follow God’s law and they were sure that God had chosen them and loved them specially. So they fully expected that God, the God of righteousness, would act to restore their fortunes as God’s chosen people. And they came to believe that God would do so by raising up a Messiah, an anointed one, who would usher in God’s kingdom of justice.
But how would they know when the Messiah was arriving? And what would God’s Kingdom be like? Prophets tried to imagine it - the OT is filled with their attempts to put it into words, in catalogues of amazing things that would occur when God sent his Messiah to establish his kingdom. We have heard 2 of them today, in Psalm 146 and in the 1st reading from Isaiah (35:1-10). Here are some of Isaiah’s words again:
‘Here is your God. He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’
Every religious Jew of Jesus’s time would be able to quote some of these wonders and signs. So Jesus answers John’s question by quoting from Isaiah - not just from the passage we heard, but others too:
‘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.’
‘Look and see’, he is saying, ‘I am doing what the prophet says the promised Messiah will do’. John and his disciples would have understood very clearly that Jesus is claiming that he is indeed the Messiah, ‘the one to come’.
And Jesus prays a blessing on those who are not offended by his claim. Jesus does not live up to the popular idea of the Messiah leading an army to overthrow the unrighteous and impose the Kingdom of God on the world, because that is not what Jesus has come to do. He is an entirely different kind of Messiah. And there were many who took offence at him.
So, what does this mean to us as Jesus’s disciples, 2000 years on?
John and his disciples could see with their own eyes the first signs of God’s Kingdom breaking out around them, in Jesus’s ministry. They could also see how few had yet experienced it. But they lived in expectation and hope that God’s Kingdom would spread to the whole world.
From apostolic times, through the insight of St Paul, the Church has seen itself as the body of Christ on earth. The Church has continued Jesus’s ministry to spread God’s Kingdom, following his great commission to the Twelve, ‘Proclaim the Good News: the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’. The Church has never ceased to look forward in expectation and hope to growth of God’s Kingdom, and its final completion, to be marked by the return of Christ in glory. And for all its many faults, over the centuries the Church has by God’s grace done so much good work to build the Kingdom – healing the sick, freeing the slaves, relieving the poor, educating the young, acting as a yeast in society to make things better – as well as proclaiming the good news. But we all see how much more there is still to do.
The fact is God’s Kingdom is not like an earthly kingdom. It cannot be brought into being in an instant by winning a battle or voting in an election. It is a continuing process, a growing organism. Jesus is the kind of Messiah who forms God’s Kingdom through the action of many willing, loving, human beings – his disciples - by showing them what it looks like, and what they must do to make it grow. And this will take time. We cannot know when the Kingdom will be complete, but we can hope that it is soon and pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’
So it is right that in this Advent season Christians should not just look back at the baby in the crib, but also look forward in expectation and hope to the continuing growth and final completion of God’s Kingdom. Let us resolve to do our bit to further it, and pray for God’s help doing so:
O Saviour of the world,
lifted up on the cross to draw people of all races and nations to yourself:
bless the witness of your Church in this and every place,
and help us to finish the work you have given us to do in the world for which you died.
We ask it in your name, our living and victorious Lord. Amen