Sunday the 11th of December 2016
Matthew 11: 1-15
In the season of Advent, particularly as we get closer to Christmas, the focus in the church becomes more focused on the gift that God has given us in the sending of his Son Jesus Christ. This time is often a time of joyful expectation and excitement leading up to Christmas where despite what the world around us focuses on, we focus on Jesus Christ.
In last week’s Gospel reading we heard about John the Baptist, the one who was called from the desert to prepare the way for Jesus coming by preaching on repentance. This is the one who stood confidently in front of the crowds proclaiming with certainty that one would come after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit. This is the one whom John would baptise and see the Holy Spirit come down as a dove from the sky. This is the one who knew with great conviction that Jesus was the messiah and he was faithfully preparing the way for him to enter his ministry. Can you imagine the sense of anticipation that John would have had; the expectation that the messiah had finally come and was on the eve of starting his ministry.
And yet some time in to Jesus’ ministry we have John in today’s Gospel reading asking the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This question was not from any ordinary person, this was John the Baptist! The one in the know, the one who was supposed to know, the very one who knew Jesus. How could he of all people ask such a question? Surely he did not doubt that Jesus was the messiah.
John had reached a point in his life where he was no longer in the wilderness, where he was no longer baptising in the Jordan River; where people were no longer coming out to see and hear him. However, we now find John in a different kind of desert, not one in which he was prophesying, but one in which he was questioning.
I get the sense here that John, who is now in prison, sees Jesus through the eyes of disillusionment. Maybe even through the eyes of great disappointment. I wonder if you have ever been in a place like this; a place or time in your life where you have been disappointed or even disillusioned with Jesus. I suspect that this has happened to many of us in our lives, if we are honest. In the ups and downs of our Christian lives we may see Jesus through different eyes. When our faith appears strong and things are going well then how we see Jesus may be very different to when life gets tough, when we face challenges when life gets hard.
As I was pondering John the Baptist’s question it occurred to me that John did not doubt who Jesus was. But rather he doubted the type of messiah Jesus was.
Was he disillusioned and disappointed because the promised kingdom didn’t come in time to keep him out of prison? Did he not like Jesus’ approach, perhaps wanting a fire-and-brimstone Messiah? He knows that the winnowing fork is in Jesus’ hand, but perhaps the chaff is not being burnt up soon enough for his liking? Whatever the reason John asked this question, Jesus didn’t match his preconceived ideas. For him, the expectation was that Jesus would do what all other messiahs—past, present, and future—would be expected to do: Get rid of our enemies and make us prosper. But Jesus did not come to do what all other messiahs were expected to do. Rather than go to the top and take his faithful with him as the new rulers, authorities, and powerful, he turns this common thinking upside down by going to the lowest—the blind, lame, deaf, poor (even the dead!), where he lifts them up.
It is like Jesus was saying to John, ‘You want to know what this kingdom of God is all about? The least will be served. Look! It is already happening!’
Jesus then turns to the crowd because their expectations also were not being met. John was popular. Crowds went out to him. But what did they go out to see? A celebrity? A man starting a revolution? Had the preaching of repentance by John done what it was meant to do? The crowds were not responding to Jesus’ ministry any better than John. The crowds’ praise and high opinion of John was not enough. He was the forerunner, the prophet promised at the coming of the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
What Jesus was saying was that this winnowing fork that John spoke of and which Jesus has was not intended for others. It was intended for them: he who has ears, let him hear! In other words, judgment is at hand! It is like Jesus is saying to them ‘You filtered out what you wanted from John and his message. And as a consequence you filtered out what you wanted from the Messiah spoken of.’ This raises the question: Do you and I have a filter that hears only what we want to hear? Again if we are honest the answer could often be yes.
But the reality is that Jesus does not fit the mould. He is not a messiah or Christ that we can shape into how we want him to be. To a certain extent the world around us has done this to Jesus. In their eyes there is nothing unique or different about Jesus. To them Jesus Christ is like all other religious leaders; his teaching is reduced to modern day spirituality and moral advice. When this happens he becomes comfortable, undemanding and easy to contain. Yet Jesus and the kingdom of God will not conform to the way we want and at times this is a great struggle for us. You and I cannot control or make Jesus into our own image, yet we try.
John was a great prophet. He came to announce the kingdom of heaven was near, and with that announcement a call to repent. This kingdom does not match expectations; neither our expectations of victory and glory, nor the expectations of those who wish to establish themselves as king and so seek to destroy the kingdom of heaven. But this kingdom will not be conquered. The kingdom will remain.
The thing about John’s question that he asked Jesus was that he in faith asked him. John had the freedom to ask Jesus the question. I believe that we need to have the same freedom to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is the question at the heart of Advent. I say this because in asking this, it gives voice to our hesitancy and the uncertainties that we like John the Baptist have, even in the midst of expectation and anticipation. It allows us to express uncertainty even though our viewpoint is on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It provides us with the words to articulate what our hearts, our souls, actually feel at times in our journey with Jesus. Like John we can ask our questions. But at the same time we need to be open to Jesus’ reply, because like with John the Baptist, his answers don’t always match our expectations of him.
Jesus calls us to trust him, to trust that he is the perfect Christ that we need, not the one we want. He calls us again to hear the message to repent, to turn to Jesus as our king and receive his forgiveness that he freely offers us through his death on the cross. And he calls us as members of his kingdom to take off the filters that we have on our lenses so that we can see what he is doing in this world, how the kingdom is growing, and what he is doing in our lives; and he calls us to walk with him.
Walking with Jesus does not mean that we will not have struggles or questions or times of doubt. During these times we have the freedom to ask and speak them but at the same time we need to trust that he knows what we need to hear. I encourage each of you to think about, in these last weeks leading up to Christmas, how you see Jesus and to ponder on what it means for you walk with him.