Advent III Isaiah 35:1-6,10, Psalm 145(146):6-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
“Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saint John the Baptist is a hard man. Severe as the sun-cracked earth, coarse as camel hair. His words light up the world like sparks through the brush. For his food he eats only what the Lord provides him – Locusts from the ground and honey from the comb. John is a wild man, though his Levitical pedigree (his father was a Priest) could have see him in fine tunics and ephods ministering in the great Temple Herod had built in Jerusalem.
Like Moses on burning Mount Sinai or Elijah before the Prophets of Ba’al he declares to the people the mighty Word of God. He stands on the bank of the River Jordan where once his ancestors stood, passing through the waters to enter into the Promised Land to live in God’s covenant love. He offers a sign of a new beginning, a fresh start for God’s people.
Come to the water, come and be clean, walk through the Jordan and enter into the life God intended you for. Turn away from sin and vice, from selfishness and self-destruction. Start again, is the message of the wild man in the camel skins, rough hands stretched out pleading with the people, beard matted with honey and skin darkened by grime and wind and hot sun out there in the wilderness.
He rejoiced on that day his cousin came to the waters. Jesus, the Son of Mary who John had recognised in the womb, came to him to be washed! But unlike all others who came to the Jordan, God singled out his Son Jesus Christ with the seal of the Holy Spirit and a voice from heaven:
“This is my beloved Son, listen to him!”
How easy these things are forgotten in the time of trial.
We meet John today in his prison cell. His preaching, and the great renown with which it is regarded, provoked the anger of King Herod and Herodias his wife. John is a hard man with harsh words, but many had received his teaching with humility, sharing what they had with those in need; turning away from violence and extortion, living honourably in charity with their neighbours. For the Word of God lays a claim on our whole lives – not just where we spend Sunday mornings, but what happens on Monday morning at work and Friday night with friends too. Our time and our talents. Our bank accounts and our bodies. Our minds and our hearts.
Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, which is forbidden by Leviticus 20:21. This is why John is in prison. And from Herod’s cage that once-clear voice from God sounds faint, and the shining light has dimmed, and maybe all of it was wishful thinking after all.
“Are you the one who is to come, he asks, or have we got to wait for someone else?”
Faith is easy in a time of faithfulness. Confidence grows when churches are full, when leaders are full of compassion and integrity, when there is peace and prosperity. How hard faith becomes when it doesn’t work out, when illness strikes down the young and strong, when callousness or lovelessness make the family home desolate, when grief has emptied our eyes of all the tears they could offer and we have cried out so long that we are too hoarse to whisper a prayer.
“Are you the one who is to come”
It seems likely that John has understood that this prison cell is his last home before the Resurrection from the dead. After all, Herod’s father did not think it too much to slaughter every male child in Bethlehem in an attempt to murder the Son of God. John has faithfully preached the Word of God, he has played his part in the saving work of Jesus Christ the Son of God, the promised king of Israel, and all it has gained him is an untimely death.
‘Look, your God is coming, said Isaiah,
vengeance is coming,
the retribution of God;
he is coming to save you.’
Some salvation this is.
John’s preaching and baptising was in preparation for the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, who the prophets of the Old Testament foresaw. From the time our ancestors first fell from grace until John withering away in Herod’s prison the human race and indeed the whole of creation has been subject to disorder, disobedience, destruction, and death. And through it all God has called his people back to himself through the bringing together of a distinct people called the Hebrews, giving them the Law, appointing kings to govern them, and guiding them with the oracles of the Prophets. And yet, and yet death still reigns. When will God make it right? When will what is broken be mended and all our fears relieved? John had proclaimed this Jesus of Nazareth as the One who was to come. But instead of restoring the Kingdom and leading the people of God to repentance, King Herod has locked him up and the lawgivers and preachers of the day have resisted and oppressed those who God sent.
Jesus is deeply kind. He hears this question from his cousin John and he answers him honestly: Tell John what has happened, My disciples and I have healed, delivered, raised the dead, and proclaimed the Good News to the poor just as the Prophets foresaw. All that was said to happen IS happening.
Therefore be at peace and die knowing you have done your duty.
Only, that isn’t how Jesus ends this defence of his ministry.
No, he says “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”.
A curious phrase. It is as though Jesus is anticipating that the unfolding of the Kingdom he has brought will not advance according to what we could imagine, or even conforming to what we would desire. Indeed even John who loved him from the womb of Elizabeth his mother cannot comprehend what Jesus has come to do, else he would not have wavered and asked this question. Yes indeed there are miracles, and even in our own day they continue, as signs standing in judgement against all that is amiss in our world and as a foretaste of what will be. And the preaching of good news continues more or less in every pulpit across the land. Yet the same question about Jesus arises time and time again
“Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?”
And he answers “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me”
John is the last in the line of the great Prophets of old who looked ahead to the coming Messiah. Yet all prophets do so from the particularity of their circumstances. Isaiah had in view the end of exile which was completed by Cyrus the First of Persia, and yet his prophecy spoke of a deeper exile and a cosmic reconciliation. John preaches judgement and a need to repent, but what is amiss in us is not only that we do not act justly or live in purity. There is a far deeper wound beneath our warring and our wandering, one that goes back to our first parents who heard the whispering tempter and turned away from the God who loved them.
All our misery is rooted in this, that we have made ourselves enemies of God and have fled from his presence. We were made for friendship with him, and nothing else can take away the ache of that separation but to be found by him and to be loved by him.
“Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me” says the Lord.
The Messiah for whom John was the forerunner has indeed come, and his presence has brought healing, wholeness, righteousness, and liberty. Many of us here know how he has helped us in our need. But all these signs, the improbable things he does, are to show us that he will do the impossible for us. He will make us friends with God again. He will live with us, in our hearts and in our midst, in our communities and families, in all of our confusion and competence. He will make us his own.
And this is why the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John, because we who trust in Christ’s coming, death, resurrection, and ascension; who have turned from following our own path to follow Him, are filled with the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God. That bliss the heaven-starved world yearned for is ours, now.
Let us then be patient in waiting for the coming of the Lord in glory, in this time when so many do not know God as their friend for themselves. This is what he waits for, this is the precious fruit St James spoke of now growing, those who are even now coming to know God in Christ and those yet to do so.
We do not wait now as John waited, in desolation calling out for some word to cling to while we mark off our four score and ten hoping it’ll work out in the end. No, Christ has called us all to his friendship today, and soon we will meet him in that most intimate place, gathered at his Altar where he will feed us the heavenly food of his own body and blood.
But as his friend, know that he will be no less kind to your doubts and questions than he was to his cousin John, so come and meet him today and bring all that your heart carries
In the name of…