|Minister's Sermon - Friday 13th December 2019|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Sermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church |
Friday 13th December 10.30am
Matthew 11: 2-11
Today’s Gospel reading seems strange when Christmas Day is less that 2 weeks away. Some of us have our decorations up, most of us will have sent our Christmas cards, and some might even have finished Christmas shopping! And we expect similar progress in the stories we read as we approach Christmas. Last week it was John the Baptist. So, surely, it’s time for Mary and angels, or Joseph or something else that will help to get us into the Christmas spirit? Well, I’m sorry, but no. We have this story instead.
John is in prison. He’s in prison because he’s taken his role as the last prophet seriously, and told Herod it wasn’t legal for him to marry his brother Philip’s, wife. His cell will have been dark, and he was probably chained to a wall, so he couldn’t walk far. But I think his were the least of his worries. It’s his doubts and misgivings that bothered him most. As far as John can tell, the one he thought was the Messiah, the promised one, seems to have changed nothing. He was supposed to have made the world new. To have brought justice, fairness and order, so that tyrants like Herod could no longer wield power. He should have finished the work John began in the wilderness. But nothing is as John expected. And all he has left, is one question for the one he thought would be the Messiah, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
If you know John the Baptist’s story, this crisis of faith will seem surprising, since there’s so much in it that we would have expected to reassure him. John was conceived after the visit of an angel to his father Zechariah. He leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, when her cousin Mary, came to visit. His fiery preaching drew huge crowds to the wilderness. And he saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descend like a dove on the newly baptized Jesus. He was a charismatic figure, with a large number of followers, and he had the confidence of someone who knew his destiny was to be the prophet to announce the arrival of the long-awaited, long-hoped for, Messiah. Yet now, what we seem to be witnessing, is an anti-conversion, a backwards journey. This is nothing like the classic journeys people make, from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy. He seems to be journeying backwards from certainty to doubt, from knowing to unknowing, from boldness to hesitation, from hope to disappointment, and from the light of the heavens opening to the darkness of a jail cell.
But I don’t think John the Baptist is alone. All around the world, there are people longing for the coming of the new world – long- promised. Some are living in refugee camps or in the midst of violence. Others are living on the streets, in poor housing or hostels, or need to use food banks. Others are still waiting for operations - postponed again. Day after day, we know from the news headlines, that peace, goodwill and justice are scarce. And today that will be confirmed again for many. So, I think that John the Baptist’s story is important, because it invites us not to deny the dark, the terror, the suffering. But to speak openly of our fears, our disappointments, and our doubts, because it’s only when we accept life as it really is, that anything will change.
When Jesus hears John’s question, he says to them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” It sounds wonderful! The problem with Jesus’ answer, was that John already knew what Jesus was doing, and it was those things that provoked his doubts in the first place. What John looked for – and what many people look for today - is a strong Messiah. Someone who helps those who help themselves. Someone who stand up his group and his nation. Someone who really will bring about change whatever the cost. But what John gets is Jesus. And measured against John’s hopes and expectations, Jesus falls short, of the mark. The people he is preoccupied with - the lame, the deaf, the poor, the ill, and the dead - aren’t the people he thinks will change the world. They’re the social outcasts and economic losers of John’s day. The kind of people who can barely fend for themselves - let alone help anyone else. So, John must have wondered why Jesus was making such a fuss about people like this, when what he’d asked for a sign that Jesus is the One he was waiting for. So, what was he to make of Jesus’ answer, and what are we to make of it? I think there are two answers to this. The first comes from the point of view of the Gospel writer. The second is an invitation from Jesus to John and to us.
Matthew was writing 40-50 years after Jesus’ death, when the Christian community was separating from its Jewish roots, and some were being persecuted. Like John, they also wondered when the kingdom of heaven would come, and when Jesus would return. Matthew doesn’t answer these questions, what he does is to tell them what Christians were called to do and be, while they wait. And he does this using the parable of the sheep and the goats. You’ll recall that when the King divides the people into the righteous and the unrighteous, the criteria they’re judged by only becomes clear when the King responds to the question asked by the righteous. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The king replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” This is exactly what Jesus was telling John. God changes the world by changing the circumstances of the outcast, of the weak, of those ignored by the world’s powerful people and leaders. And the message for Matthew’s community was the same. This is the way the kingdom of heaven is coming. It’s where we’ll see it now. And it’s what we must keep doing until Jesus returns and the kingdom comes to earth as it is in heaven. So, that’s the first way of answering John’s wondering, about why Jesus is making such a fuss about these people.
The second way of answering it concerns John himself. It was probably harder for him to hear, because Jesus was inviting him to notice that like all these people, he was in need. That like other people in need, he has nothing to boast of, except his dependence on God’s grace and mercy and protection. And because Jesus knew this would be challenging, he adds the last sentence, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This is the clue to why this reading comes so close to Christmas. For there is no way we can worship Jesus – who is God-with-us, born-as-one-of-us in a stable, laid in a feeding-trough, to a mother and father who are soon to become refugees, and who will ultimately be hanged on a cross. There’s no way we can worship this Jesus at Christmas - if we cannot let go of a view of ourselves as self-sufficient without need. Of course, we’re all at different places on the journey from believing that we do not need anything we cannot earn or make or horde for ourselves, to knowing our need for help and identifying with those who depend on God. And it isn’t an easy journey in a world that dismisses those who are weak. So, we’re taught from an early age to hide our insecurities, and fears. But there comes a time in all of our lives - and it usually come when our lives don’t turn out as we expect them too when we have to accept that we’re as fragile and vulnerable as anyone else. And at those times Jesus’ answer to John offers us some comfort - if we can see ourselves as God see us.
I don’t think that John’s backwards journey from certainty to doubt, knowing to unknowing, hope to disappointment is unusual, and it certainly isn’t something to be ashamed of. One of the main reasons people give up on the Christian faith, is that they seem to believe that God has given up on them, when they encounter pain, disappointments or suffering. Yet John’s backward journey is the story of most Christians. And it’s not the story of the end but of new beginnings. A few year ago, Martin Scorsese directed a film called “Silence,” which is based on a classic novel by Shusaku Endo. It’s set in 17th century Japan, where Christians, were being persecuted and killed. Scorsese said, “Silence is the story of a man who learns - so painfully – that God’s love is more mysterious then he knows, that God leaves much more to the ways of humans than we realise, and that God is always present… even in God’s silence.” I think that’s close to what John the Baptist will have learnt, if he took Jesus’ message, to heart. For not only will he have learnt that the kingdom is seen when those who are need have their lives changed. He’ll also have recognised God’s grace and presence and love, even when God appeared to be silent. For the way God’s promises are fulfilled is not always as we imagine they will be.
This is what makes it possible to look forward to Christmas with hope. For in Jesus, who is God-with-us, born-as-one-of-us, as a human being, God’s promise to be with us and for us is fulfilled. So, while Matthew’s picture of John and his doubts may not be what we wanted to hear today, if we can manage not to take offense, it is full of promise. It’s a story for when we struggle with faith. It’s for when we can’t see the kingdom. And it’s for when we’re disappointed with ourselves, the world, and even God. For like John, we can know that whatever our misgivings, whatever our disappointments, God is not disappointed in us and comes to us anyway. God is eager to be with us in our weakness. To hold onto us in our insecurity. And to comfort us in our fear. For God in Jesus came not for the strong and the proud but the weak and vulnerable. In other words, God in Jesus, came for us. Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
Thursday 12th December 2019