Joy Alison’s sermon; 11th December 2016
2 When John the Baptist heard in prison about the things that Christ was doing, he sent some of his disciples to him. 3 “Tell us,” they asked Jesus, “are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus answered, “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: 5 the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor. 6 How happy are those who have no doubts about me!”
7 While John's disciples were leaving, Jesus spoke about him to the crowds: “When you went out to John in the desert, what did you expect to see? A blade of grass bending in the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in fancy clothes? People who dress like that live in palaces! 9 Tell me, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes indeed, but you saw much more than a prophet. 10 For John is the one of whom the scripture says: ‘God said, I will send my messenger ahead of you to open the way for you.’ 11 I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived. But the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John.
Lord Jesus, please fill us with the joy of knowing you so we too will learn how to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God as we do what God requires of us.
Today is the Third Sunday in Advent. I wonder how does that make you feel? If, like me, the responsibility of organising Christmas for your family falls on your shoulders you may be tempted to panic, only one more Sunday to go and so much to do. I have to force myself to remember that Christmas Day is on a Sunday this year so there is more time than it seems.
Which is important today because the third Sunday in Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday which, if you know your Latin, means rejoice. It is supposed to be a lightening up, a message of joy, after the more difficult readings of the previous two weeks. And to draw attention to this sometimes an advent wreath might have a rose coloured candle to help us remember. So instead of panicking, I need to be full of joy. Well how? Joy is a deep seated emotion, it isn’t something I can think though logically, there may be an element of it in the response to a gift or buying something, but usually that is pleasure or happiness and is short lived. If I think of times when I have experienced real joy the emotion comes back, I can still feel a memory of it. Real joy isn’t something I can predict, it isn’t something I can switch on. I can’t just make myself be joyful in the way I can make myself have a laugh by listening to a comedy programme, or even watching the best pantomime that Stannington can offer.
C.S. Lewis wrote that joy is not something which is in our power. It isn’t something we can seek out. Joy is something which overwhelms us, and when we have experienced it, we want more. So if we can’t make it happen we can’t switch it on, we can’t seek it out where does it come from?
The reading from Isaiah 35 is full of joy and promise. The land will rejoice, there will be a reversal of past judgements against it, flowers will bloom in the wilderness. Those who are discouraged, who are tired, weak or anxious are encouraged, God is coming! All disabilities will be removed, the blind shall see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap and dance and those who can’t speak will sing for joy. Why, because God’s kingdom is going to be established. All the way though the chapter joy is directing people towards God’s kingdom and their joy is complete when they are there in God’s city.
Henri Nouwen explains joy as the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and nothing, neither sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death can take that away. So we can experience joy even in the middle of sorrow because joy is rooted in love it is not connected to happiness. Let me give you an example, a couple of Sundays ago we had to say good bye to our family dog Jem. She had been struggling with a degenerative disease, CDRM for 4 years and it had reached a crisis point. It was a difficult and painful day, but underneath the sadness there I felt a sense of contentment and completion. We had known Jem was ill for a long time and we had been able to return the love and devotion she had given us for so many years by supporting her though the difficulties of her illness. The following day a couple of boys that I childmind brought me some flowers and I felt that sense of joy, not so much in the flowers, beautiful as they are, but the fact that they cared, they had only know Jem as an old dog, but they have their own dog and they could understand the loss and cared enough to do something about it.
Again you can hear something similar to joy in the Tale of Two cities when Sydney Carter facing the guillotine says “it is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. There is joy because even in sorrow there is love. Jesus tells us in John’s gospel chapter 15 if we obey his commandment we will remain in his love. Why? So that Jesus’s joy will be in us, so our joy will be complete. And what is his commandment? That we love one another just as Jesus has loved us with total sacrificial unconditional love.
So that is why on this Sunday we can move from Isaiah’s wonderful description of a joy filled kingdom that is to come to John the Baptist alone, doubting and despairing in prison, wondering who on earth Jesus was. Now if you look back though the gospel John clearly did know exactly who Jesus was. If we borrow some information from Luke then we know that John and Jesus were related, probably cousins of one sort or another. Luke tells us how John recognised Jesus before they were born. We don’t know if the boys knew each other when they were growing up, the Bible doesn’t say, but if Mary was close enough to go to Elizabeth when she was pregnant then I would have been surprised if they hadn’t met up at some point, maybe when Mary and Joseph came to the temple. Maybe the boys did have time to play with each other, but even if they didn’t surely they would have heard news of each other. As John grows up he begins his preaching career first, preparing the way for the Messiah just as his father was told he would. And his preaching is fierce and fiery. He warns judgement is coming. And then Jesus comes to John to humble himself and be baptised.
Again John recognises Jesus and asks Jesus to baptise him. But Jesus says no “For in this way we shall do all that God requires.” John agrees and baptises Jesus. The Bible gives us a glimpse here of how close John and Jesus were it was together they would do all that God required. Then Jesus moves back off stage and leaves John to continue his preaching until he is imprisoned by Herod Antipas then Jesus begins his mission. It is as if Jesus were waiting for John to finish his message before he begins a new phase. That was all in Matthew 3 and 4. This is now chapter 11, John has been in prison a long time and what he has heard about Jesus is confusing him. There is a hint to why later on in chapter 11, while John and his disciples were preaching about judgments and warnings, and they were fasting and keeping off the wine Jesus has come and is having a party. What is going on? What has happened to the plan? John has given his life preparing the way for the Messiah; he thought Jesus was the Messiah. But this isn’t the judgement he was expecting. Is John disappointed that he isn’t going to see the Messiah in his life time or is he in despair that he has wasted his life? John does the only sensible thing he could do. When we don’t understand we need to ask, no matter how foolish we may seem, no matter how much of an affront it may appear. If we don’t understand something we must ask.
So now it is John’s turn to humble himself to Jesus, to be honest and admit he doesn’t understand and to ask for explanation. If John doesn’t sort this out then the unity between himself and Jesus will be lost. Having an awareness of the limits of our knowledge maybe humbling it may make us feel like a fool it may cause us to doubt our self-worth, so we may well be afraid to question. But if we don’t admit the limits of our knowledge, if we don’t voice our doubts it we will never move on and we will never get the reassurances we need and we will lose our unity with each other and with God.
Jesus’ reply to John is lovingly cryptic on two scores. John was in a dangerous position. He had been put in prison by Herod Antipas who was just as volatile a ruler as his father Herod the Great. If news got back to this Herod that Jesus was calling himself the Messiah and establishing a kingdom Herod wouldn’t wait to ask questions, there would simply be another dead prisoner. So Jesus speaks carefully for John’s safety. He simply describes the things he is doing, the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who have been ostracised for being unclean are made clean and brought back into the community, the deaf hear and the dead are brought back to life. Jesus shows John that all the things described by Isaiah that will happen when God’s rule is established are happening now.
John was right he has done his job well; he as prepared the way and now the kingdom is breaking in. What joy that must have been to John, to have the reassurance he has done what God required. But there is more, Jesus lets John rediscover who Jesus really is for himself. Yes he is the Messiah who has come to judge, but this is restorative judgement which begins with mercy first.
I wonder if John remembered what Jesus said at his baptism, “For in this way we shall do all that God requires”. What is that God requires, well according to Micah 6:8 “what God requires is to do what is just, to show constant love and to live in humble fellowship with God.” Yes Jesus came to act justly but it was through mercy, or as the Good News translates, showing constant love. John had prepared the people to realise they needed to be restored to God, now it was his turn to step back and let Jesus stand centre stage to show the world that this restoration would be though mercy, through constant love, so that we can walk in humble fellowship with our God, and with each other.
I wonder how much joy that brought John. There was the danger at the start of this passage that John was about to fall out with Jesus. Jesus wasn’t doing what he expected he had a different perspective on judgment. But John had the wisdom to humble himself and ask questions when he didn’t understand and those questions brought him a different level of understanding and restored the unity between himself and Jesus.
Then as John has time to recognise who Jesus is for himself Jesus makes sure that the crowd recognise just who John was. Again he is still talking carefully, now is not the time for him to be arrested. But the crowd would recognise the symbol. Herod Antipas had a Galilean reed as an emblem on some of his coins. Jesus is saying don’t be easily swayed like your insecure rulers are. Hold onto your belief, yes John is the one you thought he was, he is the fiery one the one like Elijah who was to come and prepare the way and because he was so close to me he is the greatest. But, that was the old way and the new way that he has prepared you for is my kingdom, and it’s here now. And if you chose to live in it, putting love and mercy first, then the very least of you will be closer to me than John was.
We can experience Joy when we recognise for ourselves who Jesus really is and that we are united with him in a way closer than even John was. And we can spread this Joy as we live as part of a kingdom that seeks to show unconditional love in restoring and uniting what is broken or divided in the world. And the Joy of advent is to know that this isn’t some future promise. This is the kingdom breaking in now. John’s preparation is over, Jesus is here now.
Asking questions and admitting we don’t know all the answers is vital to scientific discovery and expanding our knowledge of how the world works.
1 What was the last (approximately) question you asked?
2 Did you feel comfortable asking it?
John found asking questions brought understanding and unity
3 Do you think this is always the case, can you think of times when asking a question brings division? You could think either in scientific discovery or within our life in church. Why do you think that can happen?
4 Which is more important to ask a question or keep quiet in case you upset someone?
In Matthew 11:6 Jesus says "blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me".
5 How can we ensure that our questioning and our responses reflect the unifying love that Jesus shows.