A sermon for Advent 3
Today’s Gospel reading is the second appearance of John the Baptist in two weeks. Last week, John appeared in the wilderness of Judea. He preached and baptised, and got angry with the Pharisees and Sadducees. But above all, he spoke of one who was to come, more powerful that John himself, who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is clear that John expects that Jesus will be a figure of power and action, who will take John’s criticism of the establishment further into action. The last verse of last week’s Gospel reading was this: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”.
We meet John again this week. By now he is in prison, and keeping track of Jesus through the reports he gets. It’s fair to say that John is at the very least confused by what he hears of Jesus’ activities. At worst, John is beginning to wonder whether all the hardship that he has been through is worth it when all that comes is Jesus wandering around Galilee, teaching, associating with the wrong types and healing people. It’s not that John disapproves of the sorts of things that Jesus is doing – teaching, meeting people and healing are all good things – it’s just that John was expecting something more. More dramatic, more exciting, more powerful. And the stories he hears about Jesus causes him to question. So he sends his disciples to find Jesus and to ask him ‘Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?’
Jesus’ answer is to ask him to look at what is happening. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. Perhaps Jesus is urging John to have patience. Whatever John expected, Jesus has not finished yet. And if bringing sight, healing, cleanliness, hearing, resurrection and good news are not enough, there is more that Jesus can and will do. John should be patient.
But perhaps as well, Jesus is urging John to see that the kingdom of God comes not just in grand assaults on power, but in seemingly insignificant places. The kingdom of God comes in the lives of people who may never go on to do anything recorded in history, but by bringing healing and wholeness, God’s will is made present. The kingdom of God comes as people are enabled to shed their identity as ‘lepers’ and take up a new identity as members of the community. The kingdom of God comes as the ignored, the poorest and most vulnerable, the least powerful and the victimised become the recipients of the Gospel, the good news.
Jesus’ reply to John urges patience – patience as we see the kingdom of God come in unexpected places. We, like John the Baptist, need to learn to see the kingdom of God arriving in unexpected places. In the lives of the people we know and meet and even in our lives. God’s plans for us are not finished; there are surprises around the corner, of only we will turn and see them.
This requires a patient nurturing of whatever is good. As Isaiah puts it, ‘Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees, speak to those who are of a fearful heart’. The danger is that, like John, we are always looking for something more dramatic or more exciting. The kingdom of God comes through wandering through the country, teaching people about God, associating with the wrong types and healing folk. All good, but never enough to satisfy our longings for the Kingdom, for the vision of Isaiah to become real.
And perhaps we are waiting for someone else to do what needs to be done. Mahatma Gandhi told his disciples to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, and the deep truth beneath what Gandhi said is that God’s work starts with the small and interior things in our lives. If we want a just world, then we should start by being just people. If we want a peaceful world, then we start by being people who are peaceable. Jesus and Gandhi both knew that to tackle the problems of our world, rather than simply tackling the symptoms, we need to look into our own hearts. In the week or so that remains of Advent, let us try and find time to look inside and to turn our hearts towards God and towards his kingdom.
Alongside this patience in nurturing whatever is good, and patience with ourselves as we seek to align ourselves with the coming Kingdom, there is an impatience that is equally vital and truly holy. We see this in John the Baptist. John’s impatience comes through a longing for the coming of God’s kingdom. All too often our patience comes from our comfort in a world that is far from the kingdom of God. Isaiah’s vision, that we heard more of this morning, is a vision of life coming where there is barrenness; of joy where there is despair; of healing where there is infirmity. We need to attend to this vision, so that we long for it to be so. That will make us impatient, in the same way that children are impatient for Christmas morning. When we learn to pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ we will become impatient people. And this is an important lesson. The great Advent visions that we have been hearing of and singing of throughout this season, give us a hope to long for, a vision to aim for and a future to be impatient for. We need to share John the Baptist’s impatience before we can, with John, learn the patience of nurturing the good and aligning ourselves.
This patience, which comes from impatience, is born of suffering and longing. John was in prison. Many of the prophets were also imprisoned, tortured and even killed for speaking God’s word. Their patience was not a comfortable acquiescence in the status quo, but a trust in God that He will be faithful and will establish the kingdom that he has promised. And it does so as we too hear Jesus’ answer to John’s impatient question. The things that Jesus tells John are happening can be seen in that vision from Isaiah that we have read this morning, as well as in many of the other visions of the kingdom in the prophets. Jesus answer to John, as well as pointing to the unexpected and insignificant, points to the coming of God’s kingdom there. And the drive to look within ourselves, that Advent urges on us, makes us aware of the ways in which we are part of the problem as well as part of the solution. God’s patience with us is part of his saving love to us.
Given at Derby Cathedral 15.12.13