Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 12 December 2010
12 December 2010 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster
Readings: Is 35; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
In the Gospel reading this morning John the Baptist has a wobble. Last week, we heard last week about his ministry in the desert. We heard his clear, prophetic voice crying out, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’. This week, we hear a very different tone. John has been imprisoned. Doubt has begun to creep in. John baptized Jesus because he recognized in him God’s Messiah, his messenger; in his prison he has begun to wonder if it was all a big mistake.
The way Matthew tells the story raises several questions. Here’s the first. We are told, ‘When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s not clear whether this use of the word ‘Messiah’ – ‘what the Messiah was doing’ - is John the Baptist’s way of speaking about Jesus or the Gospel writer’s way of reminding us, despite John’s doubts, that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. If it’s John’s way of speaking, is John now saying that, so far as he is concerned, Jesus is the wrong sort of Messiah? John had warned people God’s messenger would bring God’s wrath and he would be separating out the good from the bad. But Jesus seems to have reserved his wrath for the religious and deliberately to have sought out bad company to share his good news with them. John has been left wondering whether he got the wrong message or the wrong man.
Jesus’s reply to John is clear: ‘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. And blessed is anyone – including John – who takes no offence at me.’ Both Jesus and John would have known the passage from Isaiah we had as our first reading; ‘Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you”. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’ Isaiah was talking about the wonderful day when God would set his people free from exile, when ‘the ransomed of the Lord [would] return, and come to Zion with singing’ – but he was also talking about more than a return from Babylon. He was talking about a great deal that hadn’t yet happened. Jesus says it is happening now, and so he sends a coded message to John. ‘Do not fear. Here is your God.’ There will be judgment, there will be recompense, but not without healing and joy.
This raises another intriguing question. If the blind are receiving their sight, and if the lame are walking and if the dead are being raised’, surely it wouldn’t have been difficult for Jesus to have paid Herod back for imprisoning John and to have set John free. We know what happened later: when John denounced Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, the wife told her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a dish. John was left in prison to face a lonely and painful death. Sometimes the ways of God are very hard to understand.
In our Gospel reading Jesus goes on to speak to the crowds who went out to see John in the desert. Jesus tells them straight that John was the last and greatest of the prophets, the one Micah wrote about when he said, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Then Jesus says something really surprising, ‘Truly I tell you among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ Is he saying that John is not in the kingdom of heaven? Apparently so. Jesus seems to be saying that the Kingdom of heaven begins with the Messiah. The signs of the Kingdom are that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. John never claimed to be bringing in this kingdom, but Jesus did. And this is what Christians believe: ‘When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death thou didst open the kingdom to all believers’ including, no doubt, John the Baptist.
One question in all this that intrigues me comes from Jesus’s words ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see.’ The Gospels bear witness that during Jesus’s ministry the blind received their sight, the lame walked, and many wonderful things took place. There are so many stories in the Gospels about miracles like this that if we are to take the New Testament seriously we have to accept their testimony. Jesus was more than a holy man and if God was uniquely at work in him it is not surprising that extraordinary things happened. Jesus said, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see.’ We live in a different age and we see different things. Or do we? What I hear and see of the wonders of God could always, it seems to me, be spoken of in a purely natural way: this wonderful event that could so easily be a coincidence; that brilliant recovery, which amazes the doctors, could be attributed to outstanding medical care. And yet when you or I have prayed, hoping against hope, in a seemingly impossible situation, and the impossible has happened – when someone you love has made a fantastic recovery; when a life has been spared; a disaster has been averted; a new way forward has opened out – what can we do but say that these are indeed for us the wonderful works of God? Often, we say little about these experiences because they are personal and very precious. This is holy ground. Yet, there may be times, as in this story of John the Baptist, when something should be said, when we should tell what we hear and see of God at work in his world.
So often our deepest experiences of God’s working leave intellectual questions. Why in this situation was there something like a miracle and why in that situation was there not? Why is it that it always seems to make sense to say with the God-denying philosopher, ‘I have no need of that explanation.’ Perhaps, because the Kingdom of God is not an explanation. The Kingdom of God, as John had to learn, is life and health and peace and it is for those who desire above everything else God’s life and health and peace. Those who enter it are the shaken, the destitute, the doubtful and the lost. When John allowed Jesus to see how lost he had become in his prison cell he was perhaps closer to the kingdom than he had ever been before. When Jesus sent him the coded message, ‘Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God’ perhaps his eyes were opened to see as he never saw before, his ears to hear as he never heard before, the good news of the Kingdom. Once he got the message, I hope that in his prison cell John could at last say, like Simeon, that other early witness to God’s glory, ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’