Homily St John the Baptist, Pewsey 15th December 2019: Advent 3
Isaiah 35.1-10 & Matthew 11.2-11
Just like last week, today’s Gospel passage speaks about John the Baptist. Last week’s passage focussed on John’s preaching: his message of the need for repentance. We heard how crowds of people came out to him, all confessing their sins and being baptised in the river Jordan. Now, however, John is in prison. He was put there by Herod, because John had told him that his second marriage was not lawful – John was rather good at telling uncomfortable truths.
Whilst he is in prison, John hears reports of what Jesus is doing: his healing, his teaching and the followers he is gathering. And so he wants to know: is this the man who John himself had proclaimed, or is there yet another prophet to come? It is rather humbling to think that John doesn’t ask to get liberated, he doesn’t ask Jesus or his disciples for help, but only wants to know if his work is done.
Jesus doesn’t answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, but tells his disciples to let John know what is happening, so that he can judge for himself: ‘the 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’. No doubt, John will have recognised the references to the passage from Isaiah (chapter 35), and so he knows that indeed Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophets, that indeed he is the Messiah.
There seems to be a rather large contrast between the message of John and the message of Jesus. Whereas John speaks of the wrath to come, Jesus speaks of healing and the good news being brought to the poor. Both speak about judgement, about God’s judgement. However, whereas John focusses on the possible consequences of our behaviour, for Jesus the focus is on God’s love and healing power; his focus is on the good news.
Those two sides of judgement go hand-in-hand. God’s judgement is not something to be afraid of, but rather something to look forward to. Jesus praises John the Baptist by saying that he is the one who is preparing his way. To be prepared for the kingdom of heaven, we need to be aware of the consequences of our actions. Then, when we are ready, we can be reassured of God’s loving and just judgement.
Both John and Jesus were killed for their uncomfortable message. I wonder how we would have treated them if they had appeared today. I imagine that we may have marginalised them by drowning out their message by fake news. We may have found a scrap of information on their personal lives and discredited their character. Or we may have not even bothered to listen in the first place, as who would take seriously those poor people living on the margins anyway?
I wonder, who are the prophets today whose message we cannot and will not hear? Are they to be found inside or outside the church? Do they tell us about the horrible consequences our behaviour might have, or do they tell us about God’s power and indeed the human capacity to love and to heal?
And so as the season of Advent brings us closer and closer to Christmas, I suggest that we are left with a question: where do we see and hear the message of God coming among us, and how do we keep this message and his promise alive? How can we continue to see and be heralds of a new future?