Advent 3 – sermon preached by Canon Prof Paul Foster – Sunday 11th December

Matt 11:2-11

I do not like waiting. It just seems like a total waste of my time. I have so many things to do and so little time to do them in. So waiting just seems to rob me of opportunities to get on with my “to do” list and to make real progress. The type of waiting I hate the most is the unplanned or unforeseen waiting, when circumstances beyond my control seem to delay the things I want to achieve. In particular, I remember making a plane trip from Edinburgh to Australia. Everything was arranged, the itinerary was straightforward. Edinburgh to Heathrow, just under two hours to change planes, then on to Australia. At the last minute, I was informed that the Edinburgh-Heathrow flight had been cancelled. Instead, I would fly to Manchester, then from there on to Australia, and, oh yes, the email also informed that there would be a seven and a half hour wait between planes in Manchester airport. Now I do not know if any of you have been to Manchester airport? Those of you who enjoy dining at Burger King might not have been as frustrated as me. However, if that is not your number one culinary choice then perhaps you might have some sympathy with my sense of being incarcerated for an intolerable length of time and losing autonomy over my own existence – for nearly eight long hours.

Our gospel reading takes us to the scene of a more severe and unjust incarceration. Despite, or probably because of his successful preaching ministry and critique of those in power, John the Baptist found himself imprisoned by Herod Antipas after questioning the legitimacy of his marriage to his brother’s wife. John had been a busy man. Actively and repeatedly beside the Jordan river he called people to better way of life. He castigated the religious teachers and leaders of his day (that is people like me) and he called-out the abuses of power of political leaders. His activism engendered in him an expectation of God’s sudden and soon intervention to bring about a better and more just mode of existence. And then he found himself imprisoned with nothing to do, with no activity, just waiting, left to his own thoughts. It is at this stage our gospel reading picks up the story.

Despite his imprisonment, John was still able to receive news from the outside world. He was informed about the ministry of Jesus, but his isolation made him uncertain whether Jesus’ actions were truly bringing about the kind of change for which John had been agitating. Consequently, John sent some of his own disciples to seek greater clarity from Jesus – was he really the coming one, or just another pretender? There is more than just a neutral enquiry for information in John’s question, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It appears that what John had heard of Jesus’ activities neither aligned with his own fiery preaching of coming judgment, nor with wider expectations of a political and militaristic messiah who would rid the people of the Roman overlords. In this sense, John’s question comes with implied confusion and disappointment. John the busy man, who when left waiting with his own thoughts, pondered whether the one he had baptised and upon whom he had seen the Spirit descend was truly God’s messiah.

Th answer that Jesus sent back through John’s messengers is enigmatic, and we do not know how John responded to the answer. What provoked the question in the first place was the report John had received about the deeds of the messiah. Jesus response to John’s disciples is they should report to John the things Jesus is doing. In other words, it is simply more of the same without a clear answer. Jesus recounts six types of activities in which he has been engaged – I won’t list them, you can check them in the first paragraph of our gospel reading. They are also actions described in both of our readings from the Old Testament. Before listing similar activities in the Book of Isaiah, that list is prefaced with the statement, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.    He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’” The judgment that John may have regarded as the hallmark of the coming one is only part of the scriptural vision of Isaiah. Isaiah sees such recompense as a precursor to God coming to save the people. Similarly, our reading from the Psalms presents actions of the type that Jesus reports to John as being those that demonstrate that God is at work among the people, giving hope and bringing about justice. Therefore, both by reporting his actions to John and describing them in ways that align with prior biblical texts, Jesus provides scriptural warrant for a redefined view of messiahship that rejects popular political and retributive understandings of the expected deliverer. Thus, what characterises the works of the coming one is healing rather than retribution, hope instead of hatred, and justice in place of judgment. Is Jesus the coming one as John asked from the bleakness of his prison cell? Jesus simply gives him the evidence to work the answer out for himself. Jesus rounds off this section with a challenge not to John, but to the crowds. It is a challenge that is perennially relevant to all who hear about the deeds of Jesus. He says, ‘blessed is the one who takes no offence at me.” The challenge is to apprehend the reality of God’s workings in Jesus without demanding undue proof. John’s doubts from his prison cell, and at times our own doubts, are understandable. However, Jesus calls people not to remain in a state of unbelief, but instead to reflect on his transformative actions that every day open eyes and impart life. By doing so, unbelief is replaced with a deeper understanding, and despair is transformed into hope.

As John’s followers exit the scene, Jesus speaks directly to the crowds about John’s role and status. Whereas John had been uncertain about Jesus own identity, Jesus provides a clear statement about John’s identity and function. Here there is a certain ambivalence concerning the role of John. The first thing Jesus says about him is that he was not a crowd pleaser – John was neither regal nor finely dressed. If John’s destabilising ministry could be placed in any category then it would be as a prophet, one of those disturbing and disquieting figures who challenged oppression and social privilege, and looked for a more egalitarian society based on faithful and godly living. Again, citing a scriptural text drawn from the prophet Malachi, Jesus describes John as a messenger, one sent to prepare the way for Jesus. That is John is seen as the eschatological forerunner, the one who arrives prior to the long hoped for coming one, the messiah. Then Jesus makes a statement that both periodised time, and also to some degree relegates the significance of John. Among those belonging to the previous dispensation, John, in Jesus’ estimation, was undoubtedly the greatest. However, Jesus brings in a new era, the age of the kingdom to which, on Jesus’ schematisation of history, John does not belong. In that new way of existing, spiritual insights are so significant that those belonging to the kingdom are ranked even more highly than John himself. The point here is not to demean John at a personal level. Rather, Jesus tells his hearers something fundamental about the new age which he ushers in. It will be a time when the longed for hopes of the prophets will be realised and when spiritual understanding will result in blessings and benefits beyond those enjoyed by John and his generation.

I used to be a bit of a “news junky.” I had to get my fill of updates on events foreign and domestic. Now, however, I can hardly bear to turn on the news or to read the BBC website. There seems to a constant tirade of gloom and depression. Wars and conflict rumble on unresolved while innocent people continue to be maimed and die, the cost of living escalates and those around have to make the choice between heating or eating, workers find that their activities are not valued, and political leaders at times leave us with a sense that we should have better. I want an end all this oppression and injustice, and I hate waiting for it to come about. Where is the figure who will act decisive to bring about the required change? However, today I am forced to think about the answer of Jesus to John. That change does not come about instantaneously, but rather gradually as the works of the Christ are performed. It is when those who are privileged to be part of the kingdom, even the least in kingdom like me, it is when such people bind up the broken, offer new hope and insight to those who cannot see beyond their present circumstances, when we sit with the dying, and visit those in prison that such change takes place.

This Advent, I need to become better at waiting and recognise that it is not inactivity, but preparation. Around the middle of the last century a man sat in a prison cell. He wrote the following, “celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfilment.” The man who wrote those words was called Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a person who called into question the legitimacy and ethical values that stood behind the Nazi regime. Like John, Bonhoeffer did not live to see the realisation of the end of the old order. Two weeks before the concentration camp to which he was moved was liberated, he was killed. Yet, I believe he had more liberty, more hope, and even more life than those who thought they held power over him.

This Advent we remember the Baptist, we remember Bonhoeffer, we remember all those bound – in physical prison or imprisoned by circumstances and inner torments. It is for all of humanity that we need to perform the works of the Christ. And as we do those things, we need to learn to wait, to be patient but yet not passive, to become uneasy about the sufferings of the oppressed, and wherever possible to perform the works of Jesus on behalf of all people. For it is when we actively wait that then we shall recognise that we are not bound by the gloom of this present time, rather we are part of that kingdom that brings hope, justice, and love for all. And at that moment, we will know that we do not need to wait for another, for the Christ has come and is with us – this Advent and for ever more, Amen.