Sermon preached by
Mrs Jennie Cappleman
13 December 1998
The gospel reading today is about expectations. In 1970 when I was at school an English teacher asked us to think about our lives in 2000 and what we expected to be doing. I expected to be married and have children but did not expect to be getting ordained in 2000.
Sometimes it's people who don't meet our expectations.
It was difficult for John. He had not seen Jesus' ministry for himself because he had been in prison from soon after Jesus' Baptism. He relied on the stories his disciples had brought him. Jesus' ministry was not quite what he had been expecting. John's preaching—
"I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." · Matthew 3:11-12 11
The baptism of fire would have been understood to mean judgement—fire which purifies or destroys. The winnowing fork was about separating the wicked from the righteous. We are told by Matthew that from the time John the Baptist was in prison Jesus began to preach 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near' but this was not the main thrust of Jesus' preaching and ministry. John might even have expected Jesus to speak out against Herod in the same way that he had done. He almost certainly expected the Messiah to be a powerful political force who had supernatural powers. Perhaps it's understandable that he asks:
"Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matt 11:3)
Jesus does not proclaim himself—'yes, I am the one'—he simply states the evidence of the kingdom breaking through: 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. To some extent these phrases are based on the prophecies of Isaiah (29:18f; 35:5f and 61:1f) though the curing of leprosy and the raising of the dead are new. So Jesus is more than fulfilling these prophecies by curing lepers and raising the dead. But this is a very different ministry to the one John spoke about and was expecting him to have. There's nothing here about bringing judgement and sorting people out, of taking an axe to the root of the tree. Jesus is describing a ministry of forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is really not the kind of Messiah that John and many others were expecting.
Is Jesus the person we expect him to be?
First of all are we like John who having recognised Jesus as the Christ have had to rely on hearsay since that moment? Maybe we rely on what others say, on the services and sermons at church rather than our own daily living encounter with Jesus himself. One of my favourite verses is
Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD Hosea 6:3
Knowing Jesus is not a one-off. Just like any relationship it needs time spent with him to get to know him. Let's make sure we know him for ourselves and not second-hand and go on to know him more and more. Re-read the gospels over and over—try Mark at one sitting. But when we know him is he the person we expect him to be?
- Perhaps our picture is the one of the judge who is always calling us to repentance and we need to discover the merciful healer.
- Perhaps it's of the gentle Jesus, meek and mild and we need to discover side of him that calls us to repentance
- Perhaps Jesus is distant and we need to know what it is to have him as our friend and brother.
Jesus adds, after telling John's disciples to report what they have heard and seen: Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me. In other words, blessed is the one who does not lose their faith because I do not meet their expectations, because I am not the Messiah they had been looking for. In other versions this is 'blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me' the Greek word is actually 'skandalizo' so blessed is anyone who is not scandalised by me.
Might people be scandalised or offended by Christ?
- In our secular and materialistic age it is hard to accept a Christ who calls us to a life of simplicity and humble service.
- When success is valued it's hard to belong to a minority group who follow a saviour who calls us to take up our cross and follow him.
- In the context of new age spirituality a cosmic Christ who is simply a positive force in the universe has so much more appeal than a dying saviour who calls us to lay down our lives too.
- In these individualistic times it is hard to accept Christ who asks us to submit to him as our Lord.
Dare we have any expectations about Jesus' Second Coming? We can only take Jesus' own words, which are not always easy to understand. They tell us:
- He will come again
- We don't know when it will be
- All nations will know about it
- He will separate the sheep from the goats
While we are waiting, Jesus is longing for us to be
- those who are not scandalised by him
- those who are prepared to take the risk of following him
- those who 'press on' to know him better and better what ever the cost to us personally
- those who fully accept that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
If we are not offended, scandalised or fall away then Jesus promises us that we will be blessed—we will receive all the good things that he has promised us in this life