Monday, 16 December 2019

Advent 3: Matthew 11.2-11: Heather Andrews

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ invitation to complete commitment…an old phrase from a hymn, ‘true-hearted, whole-hearted, faithful and loyal’ surfaced in my mind.

John is imprisoned by Herod, shut up in a grim fortress, facing an unknown outcome of Herod’s rage. In the darkness of his cell he is overcome by the darkest of doubts: ‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?’ He sends messengers to Jesus to ask the question. John has fallen into the depths of despair, and he wonders if it has all been for nothing…has he lived, listened, proclaimed and preached of the coming Messiah, for nothing? Has he baptised in the cleansing flood for the repentance of sins, then sent his own friends to follow the Saviour, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie… and has it been a figment of his imagination, that Jesus, his cousin could possibly be the promised One?

You can feel the layers of certainty and courage and commitment peeling away, as John wonders – is this how it was meant to be? Is this how the kingdom comes? Was it for this I came? The young man who spent his life in rigorous spartan training in simplicity and hardship in order to be heard as Prophet of the coming Kingdom, suddenly has a crisis of faith.

What is Jesus doing? He’s mixing with everyday people, and with some reprehensible people, he is upsetting the established religious cliques, and, yes, he’s showing signs and wonders… but these signs and wonders are not of the variety that John expected. They are not ferocious with inescapable judgment and punishment for those who have done wrong… instead they resonate with goodness and mercy and loving-kindness. Jesus lives out the Beautiful Attitudes of the Beatitudes, modelling a longing for righteousness, and a loving forgiveness that invites transformation and transcends condemnation. Jesus’ signs and wonders feed the hungry, open people’s eyes to the truth, bring new energy to tired legs, and allow people perhaps for the first time to really hear the Good news of the Kingdom of God.

And of course the earthly kingdom, being challenged, has hit back. And hits first at John, the forerunner. John is captured and chained, and his future is bleak beyond measure. And here I wonder that Jesus’ response to the messengers seems exasperated (as when he speaks of the children in the market place who won’t dance when they are played for). What more can I do John – raising the dead not clear enough? As a public endorsement, Jesus sounds rather equivocal: Yes, John is the prophet – the one who prepares the way, and no-one is greater… he has done his job well…yet… yet… the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’

What are we to make of that? Has John let go of his faith in Christ? Has he let his feet slip off the Rock of his salvation, and is he turning his back on the Lord of Life? Is John really about to look ‘for another’? John had his fixed ideas of how the Messiah should behave, and Jesus is behaving so differently. I feel Jesus is using the freedom of close kinship and is giving John an exasperated nudge in the ribs and saying… this is God’s plan for the Kingdom, it has to be this way…. don’t give up now…look at the good that is happening, at the way people’s lives are being renewed as they come to Me. This is the way… walk in it…

It’s a challenge to us, when we want more and more assurance. ‘Open your eyes’, says Jesus, and really SEE the way life can be transformed when offered fully to God’s kingdom’. Life and modern culture is in many ways a battle – if we are not to be damned with faint praise surely we need to be ‘all in’ and ‘fully on the Lord’s side’.

If only the Bible wasn’t silent at this point… all we know is that soon John is murdered in the most appalling way, at the whim of flagrantly sinful people… and we know Jesus’ deep distress, that drove him, alone to a solitary place to pray the night long. But we also know that Jesus life is about love and justice and mercy… and these attributes challenge us to keep faith, to trust even in times of the direst trouble, to hold fast to the Lord of Life, whose coming into the world we celebrate and whose second coming we await.

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