BRIXTON HILL, 12 December 2004
Hanging in There
I do love both the readings we had today. They are both so very encouraging and uplifting, and the passage from Isaiah is beautifully lyrical, as well. But I want us to look first at the passage from St Matthew’s gospel, as this Sunday in Advent the lectionary has traditionally suggested that we look at John the Baptist.
Now, you know who he was, of course. He was Jesus’ cousin, born to Zechariah and Elisabeth in their old age. He was the unborn baby who “leapt in the womb” when Mary, carrying Jesus, came to visit Elisabeth. We know absolutely nothing about his childhood, how well he knew Jesus, whether they played together as kids, or whether they only saw each other once a year when the holy family went up to Jerusalem. What we do know is that, when he grew up, John disappeared off into the desert for awhile, to study and pray – whether alone, or with a community such as the Essenes, we also don’t know. When he came back from the desert, he was a prophet, just as Luke alleges that his father foretold: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. “
For the people of Israel, that was rather exciting. They hadn’t had a prophet for many centuries, not a proper one. And John looked the part. He dressed like a prophet, in camel-hide clothing. He ate locusts and wild honey, just as they expected a prophet would do. He gathered a small flock of disciples around him. And he preached God's message: "Repent and be baptized and get ready for the coming of the Kingdom!"
Well, you can imagine, the crowds absolutely flocked to hear him! Better than the cinema, this was – such an excitement. But what they wanted was to see the prophet. They didn’t really want to hear what he had to say.
Few of them were really willing to repent, to turn right round and go God's way. Not even the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Not that they interfered with him, mind you - could have been nasty, if they had. But they didn't want to know! Very frustrating.
But there were the other kind of people, too. People who really did want to listen to John, to hear what he had to say and to act on it. People who came to him, asking to be baptized in the river Jordan. And one day, his cousin Jesus comes to him and asks for baptism.
And at that moment, John knows that this is the One he has been waiting for, the One for whom he has been preparing the way. And yet he wants to be baptized - surely not! Surely it should be he, Jesus, who baptizes John? John's always known that when the Messiah came, he wouldn't be fit even to undo his shoes and wash his feet, slaves' work, that. John mutters something to this effect, but Jesus says, "No, let's do this thing by the book!"
And as he enters the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the shape of a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven, "Behold my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!" And John says, so we are told, “He must increase, and I must decrease”, and he spends his time pointing people to Jesus, as well as preaching the message of repentance, of turning round, of going God’s way.
And then John preaches against scandal and sleaze in high places once too often, and the powers-that-be have had enough, so they put him in prison to try to shut him up.
And then the doubts start. Is Jesus really the one God was going to send? Could John be mistaken? This is his cousin, after all – Aunty Mary’s son. John had thought so, but everything’s gone so totally pear-shaped he can’t be sure of anything any more. So he sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus sends John a message of reassurance: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” In other words, “Hang in there, mate, you’re doing great!” And then Jesus tells the crowd that John is just about the greatest of God’s servants that there ever has been, or ever will be – yet while he’s on earth, even the least of those in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is.
Sadly, as we know, it all ends tragically – the king’s wife seizes the opportunity to have John killed, and he is beheaded. Jesus is devastated by the loss of his cousin, and goes off by himself to pray, but the crowd follow him and he has to feed them all, and then he sends the disciples off ahead, because he really, really, really wants to be alone with his Father to try to come to terms with John’s death – and ends up walking across the lake to join them, later on!
I love this story – the affection between the cousins, the respect that John had for Jesus, but the fact that John was also human enough to doubt, and secure enough to express his doubts.
Because we all have our doubts, from time to time, if we’re honest. And that’s as it should be. There are times, and I wish they came more often, when God is as real to us as bread and butter, when we couldn’t doubt his existence and his love for us if we were paid to do so. But at other times, all trace of God seems to vanish from the universe.
Perhaps dreadful things happen, either personally or on the world stage – I remember hearing someone on “Thought for the Day” saying, on the 14th September 2001, that the smoke rising from the collapse of the World Trade Centre seemed to come between her and the face of God. I knew exactly what she meant! And for John the Baptist, it was personal circumstances – being thrown into prison, deprived of his whole reason for being, which at that time was to preach repentance and to baptise people.
John is actually quite a good model of what to do when doubts strike. He does absolutely the right thing – he goes to Jesus and asks, outright. And Jesus reassures him. But the interesting thing is that Jesus actually reassures him by saying “Look around, and see what’s happening! Look for the signs of the kingdom!” He doesn’t just say “Yes, of course I’m the Messiah, you silly little man!” Or even, “Don’t worry, mate, I’m the Messiah!” What he does is say, “Look, see what is happening, see how the blind receive sight”, and so on. And maybe that is his answer to us, too, when the doubts happen, when we wonder whether it’s really a load of nonsense, whether it’s just wishful thinking. Look around and see the signs of the kingdom.
And sometimes, when we doubt, it’s good to come back to those lovely words from Isaiah 35. For me, this is one of the most lyrical and beautiful passages of the Bible. So often, if I’ve been praying for my church, or in a time of darkness, I’m drawn back again and again to these words:
“The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendour of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendour of our God.”
And so on – I’m tempted to quote the whole thing, but we’ve already heard it once this morning! It is such a wonderful promise that, no matter how black the present may seem, things will get better. One day. Maybe not in this life, but one day.
Of course, sometimes it happens that external circumstances get worse and worse. John was in prison, and would soon be executed. We see all sorts of crime and injustice, terrorism and hostage-taking, mistrust and suspicion. We reckon bad things always happen in threes, which is superstition, but it does seem that way sometimes! And yet, and yet, and yet – there are signs of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes very tiny signs – parents bringing their children to baptism, a young couple choosing to be married in church, even what I’ve heard described as “random acts of senseless kindness!” I personally think beauty is a sign of the kingdom – whether beauty in nature, or in music, or in words, like these words from Isaiah. I don’t believe that there’s beauty where the Kingdom isn’t!
And, of course, at this very dark time of year, we rejoice that in a very few days we will be at the solstice and the days will start to lengthen. It’s no accident that the early Church fathers put the festival in which, above all, we celebrate the coming of the Light of the World at the very darkest time of the year.
Jesus sent a message to John urging him to hang in there, not to despair, for there were signs that the Kingdom of God was coming. And we, too, can hold on to those signs in the middle of our busyness in the run-up to Christmas, perhaps in the midst of sorrow or despair, perhaps even in the midst of happiness and excitement. The Kingdom of God is coming, the Light of the World will come, and there are signs of hope. Hang in there!