Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 24 June 2018
THE BIRTH OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Malachi 4; Matthew 11.2-19
Our reading from Matthew for this Evensong of the Birth of John the Baptist, begins with his question about Jesus, continues with Jesus’ questions about John, and concludes with a reflection on negative reactions to both of them.
When John hears in prison of “the works of the Christ,” he sends messengers to ask Jesus if he is in fact the “one who is to come”, the Messiah, or should they look for another. Given what John has said earlier in the Gospel about the superiority of Jesus’ person and mission; the contrast between his own baptism and Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit, this might be surprising to hearers of the Gospel.
But now, John seems confused and to have lost confidence in his earlier judgement. Why did such a question arise? Was it the psychological effect of imprisonment in one of Herod’s dungeons? We know a lot about the demoralizing effect of such treatment from the memoirs of political prisoners. But that is not something Matthew explores. Instead, he sees it in terms of ministries which were very different in both style and content.
On Friday evening, we went out for supper at the home of some parishioners. As we reached the entrance of Oxford Circus, a man shouting into a portable sound system. It was so loud as to be difficult to make out exactly what he was saying. But a poster on the railings made it all clear: a picture of the flames of hell, together with the words, “Repent or Burn.” Very John the Baptist or the prophet Malachi.
In his preaching John looked to an apocalyptic judgement heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God. The axe would be laid to the root of the tree and the chaff winnowed and burned. Both sin and sinners would be destroyed.
But Jesus’ ministry had turned out to be very different. Far from destroying sin and sinners, Jesus proclaimed their forgiveness. He ate and drank in the company of sinners. He crossed boundaries and broke taboos of ritual purity. He touched lepers, the sick and even corpses. In the Sermon on the Mount, he preached that it is the merciful who would receive mercy. Far from promoting self-righteous zeal in the face of wrong-doing he stressed that forgiveness of others is a precondition for our own forgiveness from God. So important is this that he included it in the Lord’s Prayer. All these aspects of his ministry must have raised self-righteous eyebrows.
Jesus’ response to John’s question is to send the messengers back to tell what they “have seen and heard” “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.” He points to the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah – for Matthew, Jesus’ words and deeds are authenticated by their fulfilment of scripture. The preaching of good news to the poor is the summary and climax of the recital of actions.
The response concludes with the beatitude, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” That is the one who does not find in the way Jesus carries out his ministry a stumbling block, a scandal.
Matthew probably had among his own hearers – Jewish Christians worried over lingering doubts about the obvious differences between widely expected hopes and visions of a victorious political Messiah and the actual nature of Jesus’ ministry. That difficulty would have been compounded by the rejection of Jesus and his ministry by the religious authorities, and by the appalling manner of his death. As Paul would say, “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness,’ because “the Jews looked for signs and the Greeks looked for wisdom” (1 Cor.1.22).
For Matthew’s Jewish Christians the figure of John the Baptist, still widely-revered as a prophet, gave voice to such questions about Jesus and his ministry and, at the same time, furnished him with an opportunity to deal with them.
Then Jesus turns to the crowd and questions them about John:
Why they had followed him into the wilderness?
Who did they think he was?
What was the nature of his mission?
Was he “a reed shaken by the wind,” some populist demagogue, keeping his ear to the ground, picking up every wind of change in public opinion, telling the people what they wanted to hear?
Or was he “someone dressed in soft robes,” a well-dressed courier or a government agent, feeding the people the official line and propaganda? If so, why was he in Herod’s dungeon?
John was clearly a prophet. His ascetic lifestyle, dress and diet demonstrated that. Like the prophets before him, he had spoken truth to power; called sin what it really was. When he denounced Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife as incestuous and unlawful, the ruler and his wife had locked him up to silence him.
Jesus proclaims that John was “a prophet and more than a prophet.” He was the precursor, the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord, of the Messiah. In words adapted from the prophet Malachi”.
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
God, then, is seen as the main actor in this drama.
Jesus goes on to say: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has been greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus contrasts the new dispensation in the kingdom of heaven with the old of which the Baptist was the final example. Even the least in the new is greater than the greatest in the old. The prophets and the Law were leading up to John; according to the final prophecy of Malachi (3.23), to the return of Elijah to usher in the messianic era. Jesus adds: “and if you will believe me, he is the Elijah who was to return.” Then comes the gospel call to listen: “Let anyone with ears listen!”; the equivalent of the prophets’ “Thus says the Lord.”
Jesus then turns his attention to “this generation,” a term he often uses for the unbelievers he encounters. Like children playing in the market places, they are satisfied with neither the music of dancing or mourning. The Baptist’s ascetic lifestyle and hellfire preaching led to accusations of demon-posssession or madness (a charge which would also be leveled at Jesus). Jesus’ ministry, in which he ate and drank with outcasts and sinners, declaring the forgiveness of sins, did not suit the critics either. So they called him “a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
The statement that since the coming of the Baptist, “the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm,” can be understood in two ways. Some ancient manuscripts speak of the kingdom being brought in by violence; the Messiah as warrior. But the more likely meaning is that John the forerunner has already suffered imprisonment, and would die, and Jesus was already warning of similar violence against himself and his followers.
Jesus had pointed the inquirers to what they had “heard and seen,” describing deeds that recalled the prophecies of Isaiah. Now he sets his actions, and so his words, in the context of another biblical tradition, the Wisdom writings. This sees power and wisdom of God revealed in creation, in his guidance of his chosen people’s history, and his teaching them of a way of life.
Wisdom had been personified as “Lady Wisdom.” Now Jesus is seen as the embodiment of Wisdom. He is the revealer and establisher of God’s kingdom through his words and actions. Just as the goodness of a tree is proved by its production of good fruit, so Jesus and his messianic deeds will be proved to be “just” or “righteous” by their fruit. In the face of rejection, the words and deeds of Jesus, and his disciples, will prove who was “righteous,” by their working according to the will and plan of God for the establishment of the kingdom. “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
“What then did you go out to see?”
This is a question we might ask ourselves:
“Why did we come to church this evening, or any other time?”
What do we come to Evensong to see and hear?
Do we come for comfort or affirmation or aesthetic experience, to cling to some vestige of a fading Englishness?”
Or do we come to see Jesus; to hear the word of the Lord?
The clergy of this parish were paid an unexpected complement recently; an unsolicited commendation. Someone who had begun worshipping here said that one of the reasons they came was that our sermons were more “serious” than those heard in another place – I shall not identify it – that would be unfair and I know the difficulties under which its clergy labour.
Here, we hope that our preaching is serious – not in the sense of being dreary and dull and solemn – we do try to leaven it with humour – but in being about serious business – the things that really matter. We hope that it speaks the word of the Lord to those who “have ears to hear.” We work hard to convey to believers something of the Wisdom of God found in Scripture and tradition.
Our experience, in fact, is that people do listen; they do want to hear. They are not here just have their ears tickled by pulpit oratory or to have their prejudices confirmed; or even just, as one of the choir put it recently, “to have a snooze.”. People do not come here to be bathed in general warm affirmation – because “life is difficult enough you know, Father, without being given a hard time when we come to church.” In the main, they do not come here to be amused or entertained, coddled or cossetted, but to be challenged and stimulated. They come to be fed; to be not just informed but formed, and even transformed, as followers, disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.