Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Advent III
December 15, 2010, 10:20 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

Sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle, 12th December 2010.

Last week we thought about John the Baptist in the wilderness- preaching, proclaiming, calling the people to repentance. An outlandish figure, maybe, if we judge him against our own cultural background, yet in his own Biblical context a not unfamiliar figure. “Every inch a prophet,” you might say, with his camel-skin coat, living on locusts and honey. Looks like one, sounds like one, behaves like one.

This week, we have a very different picture. John is in prison, and the impression I get is that, at the beginning of today’s Gospel, John had been locked up for some time. He seems to be out of touch with events, although not entirely. Rumours filter in to him, and he can get the odd message out.

Rumours reached him that Jesus of Nazareth had now taken his place as a popular preacher; and yet Jesus did not seem to be following the path that John had expected. John had lived a very austere life, and had denounced sinners. Jesus was reported as visiting sinners in their homes, and having dinner with them- not only tax-collectors like Mathew, but Pharisees too. It was all very puzzling.

When Jesus had come to be baptised by John, John had recognised him as the Messiah, and had pointed him out to others. “I am not worthy to untie your shoelaces,” he said. Only under protest did he administer to Jesus a baptism he regarded as meant for sinners. He had regarded Jesus as unique, extraordinary. Now, locked up, what he hears about Jesus speaks of the ordinary, the commonplace. Could the Messiah be so, shall we say, homely? So familiar? So like us?

John’s own followers did not know what to make of it. They asked John for guidance, but all he could do was refer them to Jesus himself: “Are you he who is to come? Or are we still waiting? Are you just another “preparer” for the Messiah?” It reminds me of the wedding at Cana. The waiters went to Mary with their problem, but she simply told them, “Go to Jesus. Do whatever he tells you.” John likewise said, “Go to Jesus. Believe whatever he tells you.”

Jesus’s reply was, in effect, “Don’t just ask for words- look at the facts. See what I am doing.” Remember, this comes in the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. He has already told in the previous chapters how Jesus had cured a leper and a paralysed man, cast out demons, raised Jairus’s daughter, given sight to the blind and so on. The implication is that actions speak louder than words; but if the facts speak for themselves, you, the questioners, must still make up your own minds how to respond.

Christ’s works of bodily healing all have their spiritual counterparts, continuing in the Church today. There are spiritually blind who need to have their eyes opened, spiritually deaf who need to hear the Gospel. There are those who see and hear, but are lame, unable to make any progress, to walk in the way of Christ. There are those whose souls are rotting with spiritual leprosy, some who are as good as dead, spiritually. All of these are, in their various ways, the poor and destitute who need to have the Good News preached to them, the message of hope.

Our Lord said, “Blessed is he who does not find in what I do a stumbling-block.” It is strange, but there are sometimes self-styled “good” people who seem to resent the fact that sinners are being sought out and brought back. “It isn’t fair,” they think, “that those who have done wrong should get off lightly” (as they think) “while we have scraped and saved, fasted and denied ourselves, (and so on and so on…)” Well, all Jesus says is, “Blessed is the person who does not think like that.”

Then Jesus turned to his own followers, and asks them a question. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Of course, it was in the wilderness that John the Baptist had preached, and all the crowds from Judah and Jerusalem had gone out to see him. A few months before, John had drawn the crowds- some to listen attentively, some to scoff, but they had all “gone out”.

“Did you go out just to see the reeds blowing in the wind?” That is almost all that grows in the wilderness. “Or did you go out to see a man bearing the marks of worldly success?” An odd place to look for that. Jesus challenges them: “You did go out. What for? What were you looking for?” People were looking for something– not just the desert itself, still less a message that came from the comfortable world they had left behind. They were looking for a word from God. “A prophet”, a spokesman for the unseen and all too often unheeded Reality.

Then Jesus answered John’s question, by reference to John himself. John was not just “a prophet”, he was more. He was one who summed up and rounded off all the prophecy that had gone before, he was the last and greatest of those who had prepared the way. The implication is clear. With Jesus, something new has appeared, a new day has dawned. Jesus is “the one who is to come.” There is no other. The time of expectation is over, the time of fulfilment has arrived.

There is a corollary. If a new age of human history has dawned in Christ, then even the least of those who belong to that new age is, in a sense, “greater” than the greatest of those who belonged to the age that is past. Perhaps it would be clearer to say that it is a greater thing to belong to the new dispensation than to the old. As we prepare to celebrate again the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, we must see his significance in the whole panorama of history. The world before Christ (and there is an aspect of the world that is still waiting for him) is blind, deaf, crippled, diseased, dying and dead. When he comes, eyes are opened, ears are unstopped, men and women rise up healed and restored to life, and they leap and run. And it is our responsibility to work with Christ in achieving this. We must let his saving Spirit have free rein in us, and we must show the world, by the renewal of our own lives, that these things are possible.

As Isaiah says, the wilderness and the dry land can be glad, the desert can rejoice and blossom. This world can be made a highway to the City of God. (cf. Is 35. 1, 8, 10)

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