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Sermon 11th December 2016 John the Baptist.
May I speak in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
I have to say that I approached this sermon with a good degree of trepidation. Whichever Sunday in Advent I have to preach on there is always the thought in my head that everything I can think of to say has already been said before. I can point out the materialism which has overtaken Christmas, I can talk about the watching and waiting for Jesus to come. If I’m desperate then I can take a tip from the television schedules and do a clip show of the year’s events and put a Christian spin on them. Mind you its been quite year to look at; Brexit, US elections, Olympic medals and recently Fidel Castro dying. On the plus side a Christian spin on those events will fill a sermon slot, well is filling a sermon slot, it also has the advantage that there are pages and pages of fact and opinion so there is no chance of running short. That bounty contrasts sharply with my Advent problem today - if only there was a much material in the Bible about John The Baptist! Despite Jesus describing him in today’s Gospel reading with the line “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” there is precious little to go on. As far as I can tell there are only really three stories to look at, John preaches in the desert, John baptises Jesus and then John is executed. I have to say that the clip show was sounding very attractive.
And then in the very first part of the reading today, God, as he so often does if you spend any time with your Bible, hits you with something so simple and yet so profound as to flaw you. Something in a story which has never revealed itself but suddenly pops out. Our reading starts :“When John heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing, he sent word by his[b] disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Is that just a throw away comment? The more I think about that question of John’s the better it gets. Its actually one of the all time great questions. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
If you, if anyone, believes in God, in any kind of god, what do you expect him to be, what do you expect him to do, and HOW do you expect him to do something? How does God inspire, how does he make you a better person, make the world a better place? If I can turn John’s question, rather than to Jesus but to all of humanity, who is the someone else we expect to be our saviour? In all the world, though out all of time, who do you have, if not Jesus, who should we expect? Who do we have and with what qualifications could we put forward? Maybe we start with church qualifications? How about me, doing this sermon? Diane? The Bishop? The Archbishop? Wider still perhaps - Mother Teresa, longer ago Saint Paul? Maybe we should cast our net wider perhaps great leaders outside the church? Julius Cesar, William the Conqueror, Henry 8th , Churchill, Martin Luther King, JFK, Mandela? What about the current crop of world leaders? Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump (sound exasperated!)? For humanity’s champion who have we got? Who else should we expect? As you see, the more I thought about it the more I realised John’s is a really good question.
To answer our question we need to understand what inspires us to be better people, for essentially to be saved or fixed or enlightened the person we expect should be one that moves us to be better in some way, perhaps better in every way. What are we looking for in them? I think this is the point Jesus makes to us about those we would look to when he talks to the crowd at the end of the reading. “Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone[d] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.” I think he is pointing out that things you can see and buy and wealth itself are going to be ultimately unfulfilling and unliberating. Jesus identifies that it is ideas that are what make us really burn. He says 9 What then did you go out to see? A Prophet? Yes I tell you.” Of course a prophet is someone who inspires ideas in us. So this tells us who John is, and although doesn’t answer his question does suggest that ideas are the key.
I am reminded of one of the other good questions and even better answers, that I’ve no doubt said before, brought me to faith. Its from right at the start of the bible, when Moses is talking to God in the burning bush. God tells Moses to rescue the Israelites from Pharaoh in Egypt. At the end of the conversation in Exodus (3:13) we hear the following : But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.
I’ve said before I like this, because God’s answer is perfect. He is so omnipotent, omnipresent, multidimensional and beyond our understanding that to try and explain himself to Moses in human frames of reference would belittle him, and so he has to simply answer that he is the great I AM. The only frame of reference that a mere human can understand of him is that we both ARE.
Humanity is faced with a similar problem in the face of John’s question. Who do we have that can redeem us in the eyes of the great I AM? If the only common ground between us and God is that we are, how are those of us trapped in space and time and fragile humanity to recognise the Messiah, what are his qualifications for the job?
Of course the answer is Jesus, and Jesus hits it on the head with his response. Which if you think about it is a list of his qualifications for the job as our redeemer, as our advocate and as our role model.
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Of course you can take Jesus’ words literally as he did actually do all those things, but you can also take them more metaphorically about someone who does inspire us. When we hear something which causes us to understand something, do we not receive sight or do we begin to intellectually run rather than be lame? There are parallels with many of the comments made by the leaders I mentioned earlier. There words have become famous because they inspired those who heard them, take some examples, We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall never surrender, Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, or simply I have a dream! Its interesting to note that many of these things involve not only giving people a vision but saying that they themselves are the action to change things.
In his response Jesus not only give his qualifications but also gives us that inspiration of what we are to expect, but also that we are to play a part in it. We come to church not because of duty or habit but because He inspires us. Of course that inspiration in Jesus is always there to challenge us to action. “And the poor have good news brought to them”. I think that is where we come in!
And so I will leave you with those words as a prayer, Jesus help us Go and Tell what we hear and see, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and we will bring Good News to the poor. Amen.
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