Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 15 December 2019.
• Old Testament: Isaiah 35: 1-10 (Be strong, do not fear, here is your God)
• Epistle: James 5: 7-10 (Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near )
• Gospel: Matthew 11: 2-11 (‘Go and tell John what you see and hear’)
The last few weeks [of General Election campaigning] have treated us to a full array of fake news, assertion, exaggeration, deception, posturing and theatrics. For some it has all been about creating the spectacle and striking the attitudes, offering either too much detail of which little is credible, or too little.
The effect has been confusion rather than clarity and the messengers themselves are sometimes suspect.
So this is a good time to think about John the Baptist in prison, hearing the reports, rumours and probably the exaggerations about the life and ministry of Jesus, whom he knew and had baptised in the River Jordan.
The questions were there: was this the Jesus he knew personally? Which of the reports were true? And above all, was Jesus really the One of whom John had spoken as the coming prophet, or was another to be expected?
Jesus could have answered with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ leaving little room for doubt or equivocation. He could have adopted the Rabbinical method and answered one question with another, or perhaps quoted an appropriate verse of the scriptures.
Instead, He pointed to the things of His ministry and invited John’s disciples to draw their own conclusions. What do you see? How do you understand it? What do you believe? Which of these impressions and observations leads to the most credible and reliable conclusion?
Jesus was not going to offer a kind of comfort blanket of a simple assertion which others might question. Rather He would appeal to the observations and convictions of John’s emissaries who would be able to explain to John how they had come to their conclusions.
In the same way He also meets us. He is there in the sacraments and in the ministry of the word. He is there in the fellowship of believers and in their prayers, in the encouragement and support that they offer to one another.
And so any visitor is invited to make his or her own observations and to come to their own conclusions.
This is where faith overrules assertion for it is personal and it reaches the heart and personal life and convictions.
It has already been processed by the senses that observe – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – and then been filtered by the understanding and emotions.
Finally, it must find its response in the will and the motivation, the innermost sanctum of life, the place where memories abide, where relationships and attitudes and priorities are formed.
When we are presented with so many alternatives, philosophies and political creeds, religious traditions and social attitudes, we also have to come to some conclusions on what we believe to be real.
So: is the gospel message of Jesus real? Is it reliable? Is it for me? How will I respond? What will it cost me? How will it affect my life and prospects? What about my friends, family, colleagues?
The questions that John was asking are also the questions that all of us will ask or have already asked. And yet Jesus also replies to us – well, what have you already seen and understood? What have you learned and experienced? How does it meet you in the places where you are most vulnerable and sensitive?
Jesus never attempted to manipulate or deceive anyone.
Indeed, he needed a pure and uncompromised personal response from each of them. A response conditioned by fashion or social conformity was more likely to buckle under pressure.
But then there was another aspect of Jesus’ meeting with John’s disciples. When they had left, He put it to His own disciples and the crowds around Him.
John was not just another holy man – he was the last and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. But since John died before Jesus then he died under the dispensation of law which Jesus had come to replace.
I often think that when Jesus Himself died on the cross the first person to greet Him in Paradise was John the Baptist.
John was far more than a man who bent his preaching to the opinions of the time like a reed blown by the winds of what is fashionable or ‘appropriate’ or acceptable in the public square, or indeed in the digital media.
Neither was he a man of fashion, striking the right artistic poses and virtue signaling his wonderfulness. There are plenty of such people around today.
No, John was indeed the fore-runner of Jesus, speaking forth as it came to him and accepting the consequences. He was the herald of the king and it has been pointed out that what happened to the herald would also happen to the king.
And it did.