Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
The question was urgent and desperate: are You the One to come? The questioner was languishing in prison, wondering if it had all been worth it, or whether he had been misled and had followed a train of wishful thinking.
He was at a low ebb: confined and lonely, with only his thoughts for company. Yet these thoughts themselves were under strain as depression probed him. He was being sorely tempted to give up, but in his isolation and confusion was able to send his visitors to Jesus.
John was like many of us who have found ourselves lonely, and prone to doubt and anxiety. Anyone who has been depressed – and I mean more than just tired or run-down – will know that they have just had a vision of the outer reaches of hell and of the land of no beginnings or endings, where there is no conversation and no fellowship. There are certainly no parties or jokes.
Some of us have just visited that realm and others have wondered whether they have been made unwilling permanent residents, with no hope of even seeing an exit, never mind going through it. And when their “comforters” tell them to snap out of it, they might just as well say “Go and do yourself, for all I care.”
But Jesus’ response is open and willing and He appeals to what John had already been able to see and hear. He does not appeal to doctrine, for that could come later.
Rather Jesus points to what others will confirm, and not even to His own assertions. See how the blind and lame and deaf have been healed, and how the lepers have been both healed and restored to their community.
See how the poor who were the most vulnerable and the most abused have been given new self-respect, and condemnation has been replaced by forgiveness and restoration.
See how they may no longer be used to support twisted political dogmas but have been enabled to see and to understand for themselves. They do not have to be indoctrinated or patronized or infantilized, for they are given the message of forgiveness and renewal, which none can take from them. Blessed indeed are those who are not offended by it.
In appealing to what John’s disciples could see for themselves, Jesus appeals to direct empirical evidence. The proof of who and what He was could be seen directly and personally, and so John’s messengers would be able to return with both the evidence of their own eyes and with the understanding of their own hearts.
It would be here that the truth of who Jesus was would be able to reside and to flourish and to bear fruit.
In his letter to the church, James, who is one of the most direct and practical of all the letter-writers of the New Testament, calls on the people not to be discouraged or down-hearted. They might be undergoing times of trial as the church came under persecution, and they may no longer have the excitement of Jesus’ direct ministry among them but they still had other forms of support.
First, they had the accounts of Jesus life and ministry, which we also have in the writings of the New Testament. These they could read and ponder and study. They could draw encouragement and teaching from them, and they could draw upon them as they also read the works of the Old Testament. The comfort of God’s word was to be mighty among all who dared to trust in Jesus Christ.
Second, they had one another. They were not isolated, and they now belonged to one another. When one was down, he or she could be supported and encouraged by another who was not so pressed. They had the freedom and the privilege of sharing their burdens together and of the power of prayer in their lives together. These are not small or trivial forms of support and strength.
Third, they had the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus had promised another comforter, He was not offering a mirage or a piece of the sky. This was no form of wishful thinking or encouragement to delusions. The Holy Spirit was given so that the church may grow and prosper in the things that were part of Jesus’ life and ministry.
He would be their support when pressed, and He would be their teacher and guide as they worshipped and prayed and studied together. He would lead them inwards as they reflected on the qualities of their personal lives and He would lead them outwards as they sought to show who Jesus was and in the course of their contacts with other people. They would meet Him in the scriptures and the sacraments as they looked for the face of Jesus in their personal lives and in their life together as a church.
None of these forms of support is idle or trivial. None tries to escape the pressures of daily life, the business of managing relationships in the home or at work or anywhere else. None seeks to avoid the difficult questions of life, like why me? Why now? Why here? Why could it not have been avoided or its effects diverted?
John’s questions to Jesus are as direct and relevant to us as they ever were 2000 years ago. But Jesus’ answer is equally direct and relevant: it is not about what you feel or perceive in yourself, but also about how you are willing to open your eyes to the things that God is doing in your midst.
And in this, He has not stopped and He is here for us, as much now as He ever was before.