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Sermon given at All Hallows, Easton, 11th December 2016
“Lo, in the wilderness a voice, ‘Make straight the way,’ is crying.” On this third Sunday of Advent, our focus is on John the Baptist and his message.
John may seem a bit marginal to the Christian Gospel, so it might surprise you to learn that, even thirty years after John’s ministry, St Paul would find people who had heard about John – indeed counted themselves his followers – but who had scarcely even heard of Jesus? Probably they were Jews from far away, who in this crucial year had come on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem, who had heard John preach and been inspired to seek baptism from him, but had then gone back to their distant homes and never heard much about later events in Judaea, including the execution of someone John had pointed out as the Messiah. And all four Gospels give a prominent place to John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – surely a sign that their readers would know who John was. He was still famous. The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived only a little later, has more to say about John than about Jesus.
But before going further, let’s go back to our first reading, from Isaiah. Isaiah too talks about the wilderness. In the coming Day of the Lord, he says, the wilderness (or desert) will blossom like the richly forested mountains of Lebanon or Carmel, like the fertile vale of Sharon. The world will be changed! The weak will be made strong, the blind will see again, the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and the dumb will sing – it’s not just that they will regain their faculties, but they will be filled with joy. God is going to put right everything that is wrong with the world. Those who have been exiled far away will find a clear road – a King’s Highway, in fact – to return to their homes. Jews of a later age, still oppressed by foreign conquerors, clung on to this promise.
Our second reading is, as it were, an interlude. St James is also writing to a people who are in waiting for God to put the world to rights. Be patient, he says, waiting for the Coming of the Lord. The Judge is not far away, he is standing at the door. In Hebrew, a Judge was not just a legal figure, he was a champion of the weak against the strong, like those called Judges in the Old Testament. But until the Judge comes (he is referring to the return of Christ, of course), his hearers must be patient, like the old prophets who were persecuted for speaking the truth to the great ones of their day.
Now in the Gospel, John the Baptist is precisely in that position. He is in prison for denouncing Herod’s adulterous marriage. While there, he hears rumours of what Jesus is doing. Or rather, he hears about “the deeds of the Christ, of the Messiah.” He is inspired to send some of his followers, who evidently could visit him in prison, and who may have been more puzzled by Jesus than John himself was – he sends them to ask, “Are you He who is to come?” That in itself is asking, “Are you the Messiah?” Now this was a very leading question! A very dangerous question to ask in public! Herod was jealous of his authority – that is why John was shut up – and certainly would tolerate no rival King, which a Messiah was bound to be. Jesus therefore does not say simply, “Yes.” He tells the questioners to report what they see: the blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk and so on. In other words, Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled under their very eyes!
While we wait for the Coming of the Lord, people will look at us, at our little community – even at All Hallows – and ask, what are your credentials as People of the Messiah? Are people’s spiritual eyes being opened to see the wonders of God? Are their ears being opened to hear the Good News? Are we still spiritually lame, or leaping for joy? Are our mouths dumb, or singing the praises of our God? Are we marked out by the “deeds of the Messiah,” or must they go looking somewhere else?
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