Sermon – Advent 3 Year A – (Isaiah 35.1-10; Matthew 11.2-11)
To be shut up in prison must have come particularly hard to a man like John the Baptist. He was such a man of the outdoors, the open spaces of the Wilderness, such a man of action! And now his bold criticism of Herod’s immoral behaviour had led him to this small, dark cell. It gave him a lot of time to think, and to question his earlier convictions.
John had envisaged the Messiah coming to bring God’s fierce judgment. He described him with “his winnowing fork . . . in his hand. . . He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” When his cousin, Jesus, came to him for baptism, he had felt God prompting him to recognise that this was the one whose way he’d been preparing! But since that inspired moment, Jesus had been behaving so differently from the way John had expected. John had called people to repentance while there was still time: but Jesus was going about with tax-collectors and sinners. He came with invitations rather than threats. He was fulfilling the prophecies of the restoration of Israel, after her time of exile and punishment. It was the mercy which follows judgment that was at the heart of his mission.
And so, in answer to the question that John sends, Jesus draws attention to his actions: wherever he goes, the blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, lepers are made clean, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life and the Good News is preached to the poor. These are the signs prophesied in passages like our first reading, from Isaiah chapter 35. It’s as clear a claim to be the Messiah as he could make without stating it explicitly. Herod’s imprisonment of John has demonstrated the dangers of speaking openly, and the Herod dynasty wouldn’t tolerate other would-be kings!
As John’s disciples are leaving, Jesus describes John’s role to the crowd, but still using veiled language. A Galilean reed waving in the wind was the emblem of the Herods, and appeared on some of their coins. John is very unlike the Herods, and so (by implication) is the One he speaks of! John is a prophet (and there hadn’t been any prophets for four hundred years); but more than that, he’s the one spoken of by previous prophets. He’s the one destined to prepare the way for the Messiah.
It’s precisely when John is being so severely tested, and his faith is starting to waver, that Jesus praises him so highly: he calls him the greatest person who has ever lived (up to that time). It seems to be part of God’s plan that for much of the time he is rather elusive. Sometimes we may have a strong sense of his presence, while at other times he seems distant, and we may wonder whether the convictions we held in times of confidence are really true. Yet these times of apparent absence are evidently important for our spiritual growth, and are experienced by the greatest saints.
Fr Richard Hoyal recently shared a parable on Facebook which I find helpful on a number of levels:-
In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”
The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense,” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different from here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover, if there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery, there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is she now?”
The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of her. It is in her that we live. Without her, this world would not and could not exist.”
Said the first: “Well I don’t see her, so it is only logical that she doesn’t exist.”
To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and listen, you can perceive her presence, and you can hear her loving voice, calling down from above.”