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Sunday 11th Dec 2016; Advent 3
A week is a long time in politics: it’s a long time between lectionary readings, too.
Last week, as part of our advent preparation for Christmas, we encountered that mysterious figure, John the Baptist, at the peak of his influence.
And I mentioned that we also know about John from sources outside the Bible. Josephus – the Jewish historian, writing in Rome in 1st century AD – tells us about John, including that his influence was so great that King Herod was afraid of a rebellion. Which is why Herod locked him up and eventually executed him.
It’s in that prison – a long way from his former fame – where we find John in today’s gospel. And in that dark prison, doubts begin to spring up. Maybe even a full-blown crisis of faith.
Remember last week, he’d announced the imminent arrival of a new Kingdom. That the ‘axe at the foot of the tree.’ But now, contrary to his expectations, it is he who is about to be cut down. The old kingdom still seems alive and well, and he’s the one on death row.
A couple of years ago, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, casually remarked in an interview that sometimes he has doubts. And the press (predictably) went into one of its occasional minor meltdowns. Doubts? An Archbishop? Outright heresy we will accept – even applaud. But doubts?
A few years before that, some of Mother Theresa’s private correspondence was posthumously published, which showed that she too struggled with doubt and darkness. And some prominent atheists labelled her a cynical fraud – only pretending to be a Christian so she could keep paying the bills.
Secular people can seem deeply troubled when Christians express honest doubt. Perhaps there is something in the secular mind that is uncomfortable with doubt – that assumes it’s the same thing as ‘unbelief’.
But the truth is that many secular people also struggle with doubt. It’s not easy to believe firmly and consistently, that we live in a universe without ultimate meaning; that there is no loving creator, or that the only things that exist are those we can measure scientifically.
The fact is, for Christians – and for others – doubt is a normal part of life. And it’s a part of life dealt with honestly and often and without embarrassment in the Bible – as anyone who has read the Psalms will know. Doubt is not necessarily something to be too troubled by.
John is a good example of this. And he deals wisely with his doubts in his characteristically honest and straightforward way. He makes some sensible inquiries.
Doubts that just lurk in the back of our minds, largely unacknowledged, can be very troubling. But much of their power can be taken away when they’re named. For when we acknowledge them, we can also subject them to thought and scrutiny.
The source of John’s doubts seems to do with the fact that Jesus is such a different Messiah to the one he was expecting.
He is probably wondering: ‘Where is the ‘unquenchable fire’ that was supposed to descend upon the wicked? To be more specific – why am I the one in prison? And – the heart of it all – why are you, Jesus, so different from the one I thought I was announcing to the world?’
It’s a question about Jesus’ identity. And so, it’s his identity Jesus addresses, as he speaks to John’s messengers with a paraphrase of the prophesy in Isaiah which is today’s Old Testament reading.
The 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
This prophesy spoke of Yahweh returning to his lost and broken people, and healing them – and their land.
And Jesus is saying that all the signs that accompany his ministry – all of the healings – point to the fact that this prophecy is being fulfilled.
Yahweh is returning. Returning to heal, and restore the land and its people; to announce the good news; to usher in a new Kingdom of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Everywhere around him were signs that this Kingdom was breaking into the world. That all the signs of darkness – poverty, disease, and death itself – were retreating before the force of a new and more powerful Kingdom.
And Jesus is basically saying to John, ‘You have doubts, and I’m not going to respond to them blow by blow. I’m just going to remind you of what you can already see: that here, in my coming into the world, are the signs of a whole new age.
So don’t get bogged down only by the lingering questions, John. Look also to what is clear: that the time of blessing has arrived.’
John doubted because he couldn’t see how all the pieces fit together. Jesus’ response is not to answer all the details, but to point to key signs and then call on John to trust.
Trust is always at the heart of Jesus’ call to us. Because certainty may be important when it comes to maths. Trust is more important when it comes to relationship.
And this highlights both what we have in common with John, and what we don’t.
One thing we have in common is that we will never find all our questions answered. Many of our questions are the wrong questions. Many of the answers we probably can’t understand. We are called, not to be paralysed by the things we don’t understand, but to trust based on what we do understand.
To that extent, we are the same as John. But we differ in one important way. Jesus here speaks of John with the highest praise. John is not the typical public figure. He’s no ‘swaying reed’ – moved with the winds of popular opinion. He is no indulgent king living in a palace.
In fact, from a human point of view, there is nobody more significant or greater. ‘Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.’
Although we read about John in the New Testament, he’s essentially an Old Testament prophet, looking forward to the day of salvation. But he’s the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, because he is the one who distils all their prophecies into one final, definitive arrow pointing to the Messiah.
So from a human point of view no one greater than John has ever been born.
But here’s the twist. The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.
John leaves most of us for dead, in terms of his conviction, his courage, his insight. But John is the pinnacle of the old age. And he could only ever understand Jesus from the perspective of that old age.
But a new age has arrived. And people are responding to Jesus’ announcement of a new Kingdom.
Let this sink in: that those in this new Kingdom who are insignificant; who are slow to understand; who don’t have their lives together – for that matter, those who are most prone to doubt, are greater even than John. You and I are all greater than John!
Because John at his best could point forward to a Messiah who would bring God’s blessing. But John did not know how that blessing would be won. He could not have guessed at a ministry that was all about mercy. He did not know shamefully – and how willingly – Jesus would die.
He could not have known that Jesus would not only die, but rise. Not only rise, but ascend. Not only ascent, but send His Spirit into his church, and into his world.
By the standards of cricket, the most mediocre test cricketer has reached a higher place than the best club cricketer. By the standards of politics, the one term prime minister has reached a higher place than the most long serving backbencher.
And by the standards of spiritual insight and privilege, the weakest Christian has ascended to a greater place than the most spiritually insightful sage, or the most intelligent philosopher. Because the Christian has heard and responded to the full gospel story. In God’s plan, you and I are more privileged even than John. For John lived in the dying moments of an old age. But we live in the dawning moments of a new age.
I’m quite sure this great man of God was able to see things in his death, with a clarity he’d never fully attained in his life.
But we don’t need to wait that long. For Christ has come. And in the events of his life, we see God with a brilliance that Isaiah, and John could only dream of.
We are a people of joy. For we have seen the full story. And we’ve begun to experience what this story brings: a response of deep gratitude, delight, wonder and worship