A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 15th December 2019
Third Sunday of Advent
Jamal Kashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist who was also a fierce critic of the Saudi Arabian government and especially of the Saudi monarchy. And because of death threats he received, he felt he needed to leave Saudi Arabia in 2017; he fled to the United States and he became a columnist for the Washington Post. But last year he got engaged to be married and he needed some legal documents and so he went ot the Consulate in Istanbul to get them. That was on October 2nd and he never came out. We now know that as soon as he entered, he was murdered by a group of Saudi agents who had been sent there to kill him and they then disposed of his body in a gruesome way.
Kashoggi wasn’t the only journalist murdered last year. There were at least 27 journalists around d the world targeted specifically because they were journalists and because of what they were saying, the exposing of the truth that they’d been writing. Maybe as many as 45 were murdered. Many were working in Mexico and they were murdered by drug cartels. Many others were murdered in Russia and they were probably murdered by the Russian Government.
John the Baptist was not a journalist but he was in some ways the ancient world’s equivalent. He was a prophet. And as a prophet he was explpsing the truth. Often speaking about the government, criticising the government, in his case the government of King Herod Antipas and crityicising the King himself for divorcing his wife and then unlawfully marrying his brother’s wife. This was a dangerous thing to do, criticising an autocratic government is a dangerous thing to do; it takes a lot of courage and it takes a lot of integrity. And John the Baptist had that and it is what got him arrested and thrown into prison, when he was eventually executed.
But before he was executed, while he was sitting in prison, he was perplexed about Jesus. Because John the Baptist had been preachingabout the coming of the Messiahg, and he was telling people “you’d better get ready right away”, “you’d better sort out your lives, turn them around, because when this Messiah comes, he is going to have a winnowing-fork in his hand, and he’s going to separate the grain, he’s going to thresh it, and he’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff and he’s going to gather the wheat in his granary, and he’s going to take the chaff and burn it in an unquenchable fire.” And then John the Baptist said, “Even now, the axe is lying at the root of the tree, ready to cut down any tree that doesn’t bear good fruit.”
And then he meets Jesus. Jesus comes to the Jordan river. Jesus wants to be baptised and John baptises him at the Jordan and John perceives that this is the Messiah.
But now, some time has gone by, we don’t know how long, but now John’s in prison, and he is perplexed about Jesus because according to what he has heard, he hasn’t seen any evidence that Jesus is walking around with a winnowing-fork. Where’s the separating of the wheat from the chaff? Where’s the burning of the chaff? Where’s the cutting down of unfruitful trees? Where’s the punishment, the condemnation against sinners. Instead, what he’s hearing is that Jesus is having dinner parties with tax collectors, he’s giving forgiveness to adulterers. What kind of cleaning up of the world is this? And so John has one of his disciples take a message to Jesus, with a question, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or should we look for someone else?”
Jesus gives a roundabout answer. He says, “Tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who doesn’t take offence at me.”
Now that’s an odd answer, odd for a couple of reasons. First of all, being a healer isn’t exactly proof that one is the Messiah. After all, the prophet Elijah healed people. So did Elisha was a healer, but neither one of them was the Messiah. Now it is true, though, that Jesus’ reply does have echoes from the prophet Isaiah. So, in Isaiah 35, which we heard earlier, it describes God coming to redeem the world and set all things right and it says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a dear and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” And that does sound a lot like what Jesus was saying, but notice in Isaiah 35 it doesn’t say anything about the Messiah here, it doesn’t say that the Messiah does this. God does this, but it doesn’t say that the Messiah does. Now there’s another echo in Jesus’ reply, in Isaiah 61 verse 1, which says, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.” Now this is more clearly about the Messiah – Messiah means ‘anointed one’ and Jesus does say he’s bringing good news to the poor but this passage doesn’t say anything about healing. The fact is, as far as we know, in the time of Jesus there was no expectation that the Messiah was going to be a healer, so it seems rather odd that Jesus would point to his healing ministry as an answer to the question, “Are you the Messiah?”
His answer is odd for another reason. It’s not an answer. If you’re the Messiah, why don’t you just say, “Yes, I’m the Messiah.” But Jesus doesn’t do that. Why does he give this rather vague, indirect, roundabout, answer?
There’s a popular story among the Amish community of Northern Indiana when one day, a tourist, visiting to see these Christians with their buggies and odd customs, approached an Amish man and asked him, “Are you a Christian?” And the Amish man, instead of saying, “Of course I’m a Christian”, instead he pointed down the road at a house and he said, “That is my next door neighbour. If you want to know if I’m a Christian, you need to ask him.”
What that man is saying is that he feels it improper to say, “I’m a Christian”, because being a Christian is a lot more than simply claiming to be a Christian. Being a Christian is more than just affirming a set of doctrinal statements. What’s at the essence of being a Christian is actually following Jesus. It’s living a life of goodness, and kindness and love, of forgiveness and trust in God. And his neighbour is the person who is in the best position to say whether the Amish man is actually doing those things.
I think that’s also why Jesus goes with the indirect answer. Words are cheap. Claims are cheap. Anybody can claim to be the Messiah. The only real evidence of who is the Messiah is to look at what they’re doing and to see if they’re engaging in the redemption of the world. Are they involved in, are they embodying, the healing and redemption of God? Jesus is in effect saying to John the Baptist and his disciples, he saying to them, “You decide. You look at me, look at what I’m doing, look at the wholeness that people are experiencing, look at the hope that the hopeless are receiving and then you decide is that the kind of Messiah you want. Is that the kind of Messiah you can believe in? This is who I am. You decide.
And if we look at Jesus, at what he does, at the wholeness he brings and the good news he brings, and if we decide “Yes, he is the Messiah” and we decide to follow him and we give our lives to him, that that means that we too must be doing what he’s doing. We need to keep that work going.
There’s an old story about a person who went to a wise man and asked, “Which religion is the true religion and comes from God?” And the wise man said, “Let me tell you a story. There once was a man who had a magic ring and whoever wore that ring would become kind and generous, and would be full of love. When that man was on his deathbed, his three children came to him and each one wanted that ring, and asked to have it as their inheritance. Now what could this man do? So he invited the local jeweller to come to his deathbed and he said, “take this ring and make two exact copies. The jeweller left and a few days later he had two more rings exactly the same. And the man gave his children one of those rings each. And then he died. Now the children were a bit perplexed and bothered by this, because they didn’t know who had the magic ring. They argued and couldn’t resolve it and so they decided to take it to a judge. So they brought it to court, the judge looked at the three rings and said, “Well I can’t tell them apart.” He brought in some experts and they couldn’t either. And the judge said, “Well, of course there’s one simple way of finding out. Each of you put on your ring and in time it will become clear who has the magic ring.” The wise man then says, “The same thing is then true about religion. Which is the true religion? It will become clear when you look at what their followers are doing.
Jesus, after giving his reply to John the Baptist, goes on to praise John the Baptist. He says, “Look at this person, look at his courage, look at his integrity, look at the integrity of his life. This was a true prophet. In fact, he was more than a prophet. He was the one who prepares for the coming of the Messiah.” But then Jesus makes a rather odd statement about John. He then says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What?! What does that mean?! Does that mean John the Baptist didn’t make the cut to get to heaven? What does this mean? It’s a very strange statement, which needs a little unpacking. In the Gospel of Matthew when Matthew uses the phrase, “the least” or “the least of these”, he’s referring to followers of Jesus. In fact, it’s very possible that within Matthew’s own church, this is how followers of Jesus referred to each other. They called each other “the least of these.” It was a way of being humble. Instead of being arrogant about being Christians, they were being very humble: “We are the least.” So if we take this verse to mean followers of Jesus, then listen to this verse again. “Truly I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet followers of Jesus in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
I think what Jesus is saying is that followers of Jesus are doing something that even John the Baptist didn’t do, as great as he was, but followers of Jesus are doing something that even John didn’t do. They followed Jesus. John announced Jesus, John affirmed Jesus, but he never actually followed Jesus. That wasn’t John’s fault. It just wasn’t his role. But those who actually follow Jesus are in a sense taking another step deeper into the reign of God.
Those of us who are followers of Jesus – corporately, together – we are now the embodiment of the Messiah in this world. Did not St Paul say, “We are the body of Christ.” So that means that, today, when people ask “Is Jesus the Messiah?”, the way Jesus would answer that today would be to say, “Look at my followers and see what they’re doing.”