Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to [Jesus], “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:2–15ESV)
This Advent time is a busy time and I’m not talking so much about the chaos of getting presents, wrapping presents; getting the menus ready, the food preparations; doing what can be done now to lessen the chaos the days before Christmas–the tree up, the decorations out, the Christmas cards and letters organised and sent; what to do with work parties, cards at work, work itself. There’s travel to organise. And invariably there is pressure so that it is not uncommon to hear after Christmas ‘never again’ but that doesn’t necessarily pan out the following year and we’re at it again. How’s your busy time?
And in this 4 weeks of preparation, the Christian Church wants everyone to focus on the ‘reason for the season’– the baby in a manger without the tinsel – and hear a story of God’s action to rescue humanity and all creation – the gritty, grimy, even gruesome story. Over the centuries, the Christian Church itself has its traditions to make this preparation time more meaningful so that the Christmas time is more meaningful –advent candles, muting the liturgy, echoes of sorrow with the colour purple, echoes of hope with the colour blue –things are tough but they will get better–but we live in a time and place when cute, cheesey, and commercialisation dominate and where there is a feeling that the core has been hollowed out and people often don’t know what to do with the bauble of what’s left.
Maybe the Church has contributed to the current state by downplaying the life and death dimension of its story, its message, its life, its existence. Because that is at the heart or centre –God and life –and yes, there is a corollary–strike out on your own, push away from this God, reject this God, live on your own, so to speak, with your own rules as your own god then the consequences are serious –death –not like an electrocution or poison –but true and real. We live physically and with things we see, hear, and touch; stuff we measure and monitor; but the planet is surrounded, awash, full of stories about living that is more than the physical, the here and now, and which is called the spiritual, the transcendent, the mystical, the religious. The problem for the materialist is that this religious or spiritual realm requires tools or access that are too flimsy and too open to abuse –trust and truth –‘faith’ to use the religious jargon. But this is what the Christian Church is about –yes one aisle in the supermarket of religions but claiming a uniqueness and a truth that is a life and death matter –focused on Jesus and his cross and empty tomb. The entire Biblical account has the same message –humanity’s dissent and death and our self deception and delusion that we ‘in charge’ and God’s response of grace and life –and the mechanism for the reception of this Biblical account is truth and trust. And Advent is the time when the ‘Jesus’ focus’ is on his arrival on Planet Earth –God among us –and the preparations required and we meet life and death –why wouldn’t we?!
Today it is in regards to John the Baptist –the voice in the wilderness from last Sunday (Matthew 3:1-12) is now languishing in prison. He has upset the powerful –notable Herodias about her marriage –and is languishing in prison but he is possibly encouraged by Herod visiting him and asking questions, building rapport. In prison, in the solitude, you get time to think and he wonders whether he’s got the message right that God wanted him to proclaim and so he makes enquiry of Jesus. Are the one? It is a very human question about God.
Is there a God? God, are you there? Is [insert name of a god] the right God?
These are understandable questions! Is my life meaningful? Does it have purpose? Everyone asks such questions.
But how are you going to answer them? Surely every ‘god’ will say ‘yes’? No religious teachers–or very few –are going public with “I don’t believe and my god is a lie”. Nevertheless I guess that honest reflection will reveal that ‘on the inside’ so to speak questions arise for anyone with a belief and particularly a religious one and even if the person has something dramatic in their life–something like a miracle or some experience –as the years roll by it is the interpretation of that moment that raises questions–did I interpret it right at the time? Yes, we, too, can understand John the Baptist’s question.
It is fascinating what Jesus did. He didn’t say ‘Yes’ back to John. He didn’t say, ‘Oh you of little faith, John, of course it’s me’. Instead he pointed to evidence that needs to be interpreted. Both of them were living with God’s Word in mind –of God with his people, of people rejecting God, of God coming back to his people to rescue –again and again –that’s what the prophets were on about. And Jesus points to the evidence –it is in God’s Word –and leaves it to John to join the dots. The Word of God will hold John and give him the answer he seeks.
It is also interesting that Jesus speaks to the crowds about John and highlights John’s ‘hinge’position between the old and the new –time before God walking on Planet Earth and time with God walking on Planet Earth and Jesus draws on the prophet imagery –tough,annoying, bold, blunt, controversial, confrontational –and on the expectation and hope that before the Messiah arrives Elijah will return and Jesus makes it very clear, that as far as he was concerned, John the Baptist is the Elijah figure. So even in prison, John the Baptist, is doing what he was called by God to do –point to the Coming One, point to the Lord among his people, point to Jesus and say, ‘He’s the one’!
Jesus also pointed out that in this world this message of God’s action is a life and death issue and so much so that the world that feels threatened will attack it. These words, these people talking about this God, this Jesus are dangerous to a world that believes it is accountable to itself and the response will be ultimately a violent one if the world can’t get the message muted or morphed.
For us, however, who are not hearing Jesus for the first time, the sad truth, is that for over 1,000 years the Christian Church –the followers of Jesus –have themselves used violence against their opponents and this history of times and places needs acknowledgement, reflection, and repentance.
•How do you maintain truth when you believe there is untruth around?
•How do you live with others when the others’ world view or ethics or legal system you regard as fundamentally flawed or simply wrong?
•What does one do when confronted with evil?
Such are good questions about living today –each generation needs to find its answers –and Lutherans have always said but not necessarily practised that the State may wield the sword but the Church is called to carry the cross and use the Word of God to speak about death and life.
Advent is a preparation for reality –not fairytales; for true news not fake news; and calls out to Christians reminding them –and to the world if it is listening, proclaiming to them –that the coming God who is Jesus is all about life and death. The goal of Jesus’ birth is not his long life or happiness and self fulfilment but his death. The goal of his death is our life. And the goal of our life is discovering such grace and mercy that our happiness and fulfilment is found in him, in Jesus. And that message is very threatening to the world and to our human nature. Is it true? Can it be trusted?
Yes, when we hear it again and again dressed with water or bread and wine –when pointing to Jesus who was dead but is alive, who was born to die –and the consequences of forgiveness and mercy shape people to live that way as well no matter whether we live or whether we die. It is the truth and this truth takes hold of us and Jesus can be trusted.
- Matthew 11:2 - 15