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Sermon on John the Baptist preached by The Reverend Charles Royden

Advent 3

The passage today from Matthew’s Gospel today reminds us of John the Baptist. That wonderful prophetic figure who came proclaiming the coming of the Jesus. It is a challenging passage for many reasons but this morning I want us to consider how it makes us think about where and how God is at work in the world.

So let me ask you a question, where do you see God at work ?

Some people might say that we don’t really see God very much at all. Certain types of people might say that the world is in a dreadful mess and God is absent. They would point to all manner of unbelief, the dwindling Christian congregations and feel very down in the dumps.

John the Baptist was somebody who had high hopes for what God was going to do in the world. He proclaimed that wonderful things were going to take place with Jesus, but then he looked at Jesus and found him to be a great disappointment.

A lot has to do with how we see God at work in the world

A major themes in this part of the Book of Matthew is the problem of unbelief among Jesus people.

  • Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum face a day of judgment (11:20-23)
  • The Pharisees oppose him (12:1-6)
  • He is rejected in the synagogue (12:9-14)

But much, much worse, John the Baptist has doubts!

John was very disappointed with Jesus

John was really disappointed with Jesus. John had said that God was going to do a whole lot of judgement and punish the wicked. Instead he had been incarcerated in prison. Why had Jesus not roused a rebellion and overthrown the wicked and unjust? We can perhaps sympathise with John. He was a man waiting for God to work in certain ways and Jesus had failed to live uo so his expectations.

Jesus has not taken an axe to any trees, and has not burned any "chaff" with "unquenchable fire."
He has not led a revolt, nor caused any prison walls to fall.

No wonder that John asks.. "Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?"

John associated God with certain types of action, judgement, punishment. Jesus was very different and instead of judging people he met he understood them and preached forgiveness. It was the opposite of what John expected.

I was listening last week to an interview with Robi Damelin. She is an Israelie woman whose son david was called up to serve in the army. He never wanted to go but he of course had to and he found himself on a checkpoint where he was shot by a Palestinian sniper. The sniper has since been caught and is imprisoned. We might expect Robi Damelin to be very angry and want justice to be shown in punishment for this man who killed her son. Instead she works for peace and reconciliation and has written to the man expressing her forgiveness for him. She has said that she would like him released in exchange for an Israeli soldier.

It was interesting listening to her speak and to hear he understanding for what had caused the killer of her son to be the way that he was. She said the forgiveness is willingly giving up you right to justice.

Of course this is the kind of model which Jesus lived out in his life and it is disconcerting and we do not expect it from God. Yet it is an astonishing glimpse of the divine attitude towards humanity. We might expect God to work in certain ways but looking at Jesus we realise that God is not like us, our expectations are going to need to change.

This was the case for John the Baptist. He expected thunder and lighting, the wrath of God from above and Jesus said he had to see God in other ways.

Jesus’ said,
“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.”

John was thinking of the kingdom in earthly terms, in terms of power and authority. If this was the Kingdom of God then Jesus was spectacularly failing.

Jesus as we have shown was the rejected the lowly, the weak. But what Jesus was doing was starting a different way of looking at things, a new set of values

In a sense this was not something new, the way of God is described over and over again by the prophets:

  • Take care of society’s most vulnerable (the widow, the orphan, the immigrant);
  • Limit the gap between rich and poor (the Year of Jubilee),
  • Do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends;
  • Do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor.

So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand

  • The blind receive their sight,
  • The lame walk,
  • The lepers are cleansed.

This is the way of God—definitely not the human way of establishing your authority. John was expecting Jesus to do something different, the result was that the Messiah was there in front of him but he never saw.

So what does this teach us today ?

Are we often looking for Jesus in the wrong place?

Let me give some examples

  • We would see signs of God active in the world if the Church was growing fast. We would see signs of God in terms of human success.
  • We expect to see Jesus in religious places. When there are beautiful religious building people often look for God.
  • Perhaps personally we would see God if our prayers were answered the way that we want

This is often a mistake which we make.

  • Lots of people coming to church is not necessarily a sign of God. Even Jesus did not have lots of people at the end of his ministry and he was frequently sent packing.
  • Jesus showed that the religious places were sometimes the very last places to find God. He was born in a stable. God does not need to be surrounded by stained-glass windows and organ music?
  • What about prayers, well , God is not Santa Claus and we should not expect God to just give us things we want, that is not prayer

Conclusion
Some folks are still looking for signs of God in the way that John the Baptist was, and like John the Baptist they will be disappointed. If we want a Messiah with earthly success then we will always be disappointed.

The life of Jesus shows us that he acts unexpectedly,

  • He is born in a stable, not a nice religious place - very unexpected
  • He spends his life with the lost and the lonely, not establishing a powerful following
  • He preached forgiveness and God’s compassion, not punishment
  • He dies on a cross rather than killing wrongdoers.

All of this is unexpected

Yet Jesus is God and this is how God works. God is at work all round us, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Surely he is at work in Robi

So we have to look for Jesus at work in unexpected places.

It is rather like when Jesus told he would reward those who visited him when he was sick and in prison. They said but we never saw you sick, or in prison. and jesus said yes you did. When you look after those without clothes, those who are hungry, those who are sick, you look after me.

God is at work all around us and so often we fail to see, just because we are looking for

In January of 2007, The Washington Post videotaped the reactions of commuters at a D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the music of a violinist. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of bills into the violin case of the street performer. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the Metro. Except it wasn't an ordinary day. The violinist wasn't just another street performer; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world's finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston's Symphony Hall with people paying $100/seat to hear him play similar pieces.

Now this challenges us to ask questions of ourselves of where we see Jesus, where we see God at work in our world. Do we walk past sometimes unawares? We need to be prepared to recognise God in unusual and unexpected places. Perhaps all we have to do is open our eyes. Amen