Keeping up

Advent 3 – 2013

Matthew 11:2-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who breaks into our lives and changes them forever.  Amen.

There are some events that irrevocably change the course of history, some ideas that change our lives in a way that is irreversible and some experiences from which it is impossible to recover. When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-nine theses to a church door, he had no idea that the church of which he was a part would never be the same. He had no thought that after his death his followers would break away from Rome and form their own church and no notion that the ensuing Reformation would divide the church in a way which continues to have repercussions today. Much later, Darwin’s Origin of the Species shook the world and the church causing people to revisit the stories of their beginnings and to reconsider the nature of humanity. For many of us, our concept of who we are and where we came from changed forever. There are many such events or discoveries that interrupt the direction in which the world is travelling and sends humanity on a completely different and often unexpected path.

The same is true on an individual level. Our view of the world and of ourselves changes – sometimes radically – as we grow and learn and have both positive and negative experiences. Over time we learn for example, that our parents do not know everything, that clouds are not made of cotton wool, that there is no “man in the moon”. Sadly, there are more sinister ways in which our world is changed. A child who is abused by someone whom they trust loses their innocence, their sense of themselves and their ability to trust – often forever.

In the first century, this who came to faith in Jesus, believed that his life, death and resurrection formed one such seminal event. From their point of view the stream of history had been irreversibly interrupted, the time space continuum disturbed. They believed that God in Jesus had broken into history shattering the connection between past and present.

It is this attitude to the world that explains Jesus’ apparently dismissive words regarding John the Baptist. “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” How can Jesus say that? It was John who called people to repentance, John who drew “all Jerusalem” to him, John who announced Jesus and John from whom Jesus sought baptism. It seems an extraordinary claim that John rates lower than the least in the kingdom of heaven. How can this be?

For the gospel writers it is clear – history has been divided into two – before Jesus and after Jesus. From their point of view, John does not belong to the new dispensation, he belongs to the time before Jesus, a time that had not been affected by Jesus’ breaking into the world. No matter what John the Baptist had contributed to Jesus’ ministry, he was not a part of this new world order. He had not made the transition from one time period to another. John belonged in the past as the last of the prophets, firmly situated in the Old Testament culture and experience and cannot bridge this dramatic disruption in time.

It is possible that John was relegated to the past simply because he did not live to see what was happening.  He was executed at about the same time that Jesus began his ministry so it was impossible for him to participate in what was happening. However, it is also possible that John was stuck in the past because even while he lived he was unable to see and join in what was going on. John’s announcement of Jesus indicates that he expected something different from what actually happened.  He predicted a fiery Saviour who would come to judge the world. Let me remind you what he said: “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”  (Matt 3:12).

As we know, the reality of Jesus was vastly different. John’s question from prison demonstrates that it is not clear to him that Jesus is the “one who is to come”. He remains open to the possibility that they might have to “look for another”.

John was not confident that Jesus was the one sent by God because his vision was clouded by the image that he (and many of his compatriots) had developed of a Saviour or Redeemer.  On the basis of some prophetic ideas he and they, it seems, had built up a picture of someone who would come with power to judge the earth, who would separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. In the process he and they had failed to take note of other prophetic ideas – those from Isaiah in particular – which spoke of a “suffering Servant” whose programme would be to heal and liberate rather than to condemn. They were unprepared for a Jesus who did not fit the image that they had created.

There is a warning for us here. It is very tempting for us to give in to our need for certainty, to scour our Bibles and to try to draw conclusions about the nature of God and the nature of God’s future. However, God is always doing surprising things, the most surprising of which was Jesus who did not conform to any preconceptions and who suffered a shameful, God-abandoned death. For this reason, we should not try to second-guess God, to read into our scriptures things that may and may not be there or to try to tie God down to something someone wrote two thousand years ago.

If we do this not only will we fail in our attempt to define and categorise God but we are in danger of blinding ourselves to who and what God is and we will  – like John – be unable able to see the new things that God is doing in our time.

A vulnerable child, a crucified Saviour – what will God do next and will our eyes be open and our hearts ready for whatever it is that God will reveal? Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting, of preparing ourselves for God’s coming. Let it be a time in which we let go of all our expectations so that we are ready for God, no matter how God comes.


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