When John heard in prison what the Messiah [or: Christ] was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
7 As they went away, 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? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.” [Malachi 3:1]
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, [or: has been coming violently] and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears listen!
Sermon: John's only hope
Preachers can only tremble before this text aware of their crumbling clay feet… for the gospel reading is a terrible and poignant story.
You see, John has understood Jesus' mission very well. John has come teaching, ”Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." It is at hand. Change the way you are living! Don't miss out. And Jesus, in his first teaching words, confirms this, and affirms that John is correct. For Jesus also says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matt 3:2, Matt 4:17)
And now, John is paying the cost. He is in one of those places where the cost of being faithful truly bites: We've stood up for what is right, and lost our job. We've spoken out, and been ostracised. Friends have abandoned us, perhaps. Or perhaps family, or church, have disowned us.
And John is at the very worst end of this. For John is in the kind of prison one usually leaves only when dead.
And in all the questioning and pain, John has begun to doubt— who could blame him, we exclaim! But he does not doubt that he is wrong— understand this... He remains sure he has said the right thing. He wonders, instead, if Jesus is right!
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Was I wrong about you being the One?
John knows what Jesus has been doing: When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing… He is saying: have you got this right, Jesus?
The reply is simple, unvarnished, unapologetic:
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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 already knows this is what is happening— 6And … says Jesus, blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
In these things the kingdom of God has come near. In these things… it is at hand. This is what I do. This is what I bring. Dear, dear cousin… you have misunderstood how kingdom comes.
The only hope for John's escape from prison and death is that of violent cleansing; of revolution; of Messiah coming as the conquering hero and tearing down the prison doors. There are Old Testament texts about prison doors being opened, but Jesus does not quote them in his reply. There is nothing of war and judgement in his reply.
You can find judgement in Matthew's gospel; there is plenty. But it is the judgement of consequences; that is, it is what happens when you don't live God's way. God does not do it to people, and neither does the Messiah; we humans bring such judgement upon ourselves.
The Messiah will not use violence; violence is the antithesis of Messiah.
The Messiah lives in the real… but largely unseen… world; the world where love, compassion, mercy, justice, and goodness, build up and create the Common-wealth which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.
John— and we— live largely in the imaginary world where getting ahead, getting money, getting power, and exploiting people, builds kingdoms upon a foundation of violence. A world where politicians tell us that wrong… is right and good. And where the kingdoms and cultures always fall, because violence is no foundation for Life. Violence is false and perverted power.
But John, zealous for God, has absorbed the message that violence is part of the solution to Israel's problem. He is so bound to the Myth of Redemptive Violence that he has not recognised the Kingdom of Heaven has come near in what Jesus is doing..
" … blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me," says Jesus. John has been offended; he has stumbled over Jesus' understanding of what the real world, of what God's desired and envisioned world, actually is.
This is a terrible reading, I said. If we do not quake before it, we are not hearing what it's saying.
It's terrible— terrifying— because even despite the limitations of his vision of the Commonwealth of God, John has still seen enough about what is good and just and right, to attract the attention and the wrath of the powerful.
And what Jesus is saying to him— and to us— is that this is what happens when you live for the real world, and don't live for, and don’t live obedient to, the world which is falling apart. This is what happens when you put your trust in God, and abandon violence. To trust God is to invite this: whether it's the small ostracisms, oe the loss of livelihood, or prison, or worse…. and, here, is the great contradiction, the great offense to us: in this is blessing!!!
" … blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me," he said. And to make it even more pointed, he said in Chapter 5: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
And, indeed, he said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
You want it darker…? (Leonard Cohen)
For Matthew, Jesus is the "new Moses." Reflecting this theme, Matthew contains five "books" which correspond to the five books of Moses. Our text marks the beginning of the third book (11:2-13:54). .... John is now in prison… [he] is now bound up, most likely in an underground prison, and now lives in the darkness.
The major theme of [the third book is] the problem of unbelief among Jesus' people. Not only do Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum face a day of judgment (11:20-23), not only do the pharisees oppose him (12:1-6), and get the law all wrong, not only is the synagogue a place of disability (12:9-14), [but the book of opposition begins with John the Baptist!] (John Petty)
If we will not repent by abandoning a life lived and built upon violence and winning, if we will not step away from our complicity with the unjust processes of our culture and nation, we risk not seeing that the kingdom is at hand among us. In fact, later in the book, Matthew suggests we may even be found to be living among the goats which go to judgement, instead of among the sheep.
Christmas is two Sundays away. Jesus' great challenge to John about the nature of God's kingdom, is our reminder that:
And as John faces execution, Jesus is asking him… if he will trust Jesus to be born again. Jesus says only a few verses beforehand, (Matthew 10:28)
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
(I do not think God will destroy soul or body, but the saying puts the power of our persecutors in perspective.)
The question I am asking of Matthew again and again this year, is how do we live in a world which is dying, which is falling apart? The answer is a frightening good news. Matthew shows us a Jesus who is living a world which is not falling apart:
5the 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.
Living for this, loving and giving, is to step fully into the wind of the Spirit of God. It puts us in the way of the flow of the Kingdom of Heaven, which will come near to us. And it may put us in full view of the powers of violence who will destroy us.
But if we hide from the powers of violence, we will also step out of the way of the Kingdom.
I am confident that God forgives our shortcomings in living Jesus' life. This is not a sermon in which I am trying to scare you into action. Our feet of clay will not bring us down. But I am also uncomfortably certain that God does not, indeed God cannot, force us to see the Kingdom of heaven which is so near to us. We can only glimpse that as we step into the way of it.
I wonder, what did John do when his disciples came back with the message? What will we do?
My wife read my First Impressions email earlier in the week and said wryly, “So, you’re not preaching on the theme of the day then…” The theme of the Third Sunday in Advent is Joy…
This is what I am finding: I’ve tried to live in the way of kingdom. Compared to John, I’ve gotten off lightly! But in the midst of what one of my friends calls “being so darn serious,” I have discovered joy. It’s a kind of contentment with the world, a level of peace and being at home in a failing society, that I did not think was possible. And sometimes I see only glimpses of this— and not all the time, either.
But it is so much deeper, so much more whole, than what the world offers me. When I dare to suffer a little, and to weep, the imaginary world fades, my hope is made deeper, and I find a richness to life for which, once, I didn’t dare even hope. Amen.
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