By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Sunday 11 December, 2016
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
For the second week in succession, John the Baptist is the focus of our gospel readings. Last week he preached about the coming of a cataclysmic judgment presided over by a severe judge. John identified Jesus as being that judge but before Jesus began his ministry, John was imprisoned. John would only know of Jesus’ ministry second hand, and what he heard was not about vengeful judgment but stories of mercy and forgiveness.
It is not surprising that John began to doubt his ministry. Could he have got it wrong? He had to know, so he sent his disciples to ask Jesus a simple question. “Are you the Messiah who is to come, or have we to wait for someone else?”
The question was simple, but Jesus did not give a simple answer. Jesus told John’s disciples to report back what they had seen. What they had seen was a living example of what the prophet Isaiah had looked forward to some 500 years before. Isaiah had given his people an image of what God’s power looks like. It brings new life into people’s dry and meaningless lives.
It brings insight to the spiritually blind, the courage to speak God’s truth to the reticent and the willingness to go out and proclaim that truth to the spiritually lame. God is the God of creation who brings new life and builds all things new. He is accessible, available and approachable to those who can see his truth. That was the message of hope that Isaiah gave to his people, and Jesus told John’s disciples that the healing of the physically disabled are signs of the healing of the spiritually weak and disabled. He told them to tell John what you have seen and he must try to work it out.
John had sent his disciples to ask Jesus who he is. Jesus then asks his listeners who they thought John is. Jesus made it clear that John was not some fancy charlatan strutting about in expensive clothes misleading the people like the Jewish king and the leaders and teachers who are misleading the people in order to hold on to their own power. John the Baptist is not only one of God’s prophets; he was the greatest of them. He is the new Elijah announcing the coming of God’s Messiah. Even so, he is still less than everyone who embraces the truth of God’s kingdom and tries to live by its standards.
John had set the stage for God’s great plan for the salvation of his people, but John didn’t understand the importance of that. John is both right and wrong. He knew God was at work but because things weren’t turning out as he expected them to, he thought he was wrong. He had a crisis of faith like many of Jesus’ disciples do. “I believe God is real and at work, but I can’t understand why he doesn’t do this or that.” “I know the Church teaches God’s truth, but surely it needs to get with the times?”
No wonder Jesus said, “Happy are those who do not lose faith in me.” Jesus’ teachings are not obviously clear and simple. They have to be understood at different levels. He heals the physically blind, but this is a visible sign of him healing the spiritually blind. He feeds five thousand with loaves and fish on a hillside, but this points to him giving spiritual sustenance to his disciples though the sacrament of the Eucharist. You can’t put God in a box. He is the God of surprises and so we must learn to read the signs God gives us and be prepared for the unexpected and more importantly, embrace it.
One way to prepare ourselves is to understand how the Church understands Jesus’ teaching so we can help others to understand why the Church teaches what it does.
There is one temptation we all face, and Advent is a time to think about it. God made us humans in his own image. Our temptation is to return the compliment and make God and Jesus fit into the image we think he should be. John the Baptist fell into that trap and we do it all the time.
Christmas is getting closer, so is the return of Jesus as king and judge. Who is the child in the stable? Is he the one who is to come or do we wait for another? Look again at the surprises God has sprung in your life and in the life of the Church, and answer the question. Then be open to what he may be asking of you in the future.