One Parish, Three Churches

Watching and Waiting Sometimes Even Saints Doubt: Matthew 11:2-11 and John the Baptist

People are interesting.  The biggest sales for newspapers and magazines are always related to people stories.  The magazines that sell best are gossip magazines.  We love our stories about celebrities.  We especially seem to like to find out that they are different.
This third Sunday in Advent we have a real pre-Christmas celebrity.  He does not figure much in the Christmas nativity, but he played a large role in the Gospels and in the life of Jesus particularly at the beginning.  Who is John the Baptist? 
      John the Baptist was first and foremost a forerunner.  He came to fulfil the scriptures in Isaiah and Malachi that one would come first to prepare the way for the Messiah.  He is, well, not the normal sort of forerunner.  He was not even a very normal religious leader for his day.  He dressed in camel hair shirts—not very comfortable from what I hear.  He ate natural foods, locust and honey, before natural foods were popular.  Most likely he was part of the movement known as the Essenes. They stood for purity in the temple and in the priesthood.  They wanted reform and they did not participate much in the ritual and religious life of Jerusalem, often keeping themselves outside the city to avoid contamination from the corrupt religious elite. (Qumran is a good example of an Essene community.)  Hence we hear about the people going out to John to be baptised.  Essenes were into ritual cleansing to symbolise their commitment to being holy and righteous.  So to prepare people for the coming of God’s special agent and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, John baptised people in the Jordan.
John was also a prophet.  He foretold that God was coming to break into the routine of life in Palestine.  He prophesied that the reign of God was breaking into the lives of all around him.  He called people to repent, to change their ways to get ready for what God was doing.  His basic message was this, ‘Someone so great and awesome is coming he makes me insignificant.  If I were you, I’d get on your knees and get your life in order quickly’.  Strong words.  John was so dramatic with his funny clothes and his powerful preaching. 
We need to hear his message again.  He foretells of the one who lies in the manger meek and mild.  He warns us that this little child will rise up to confront us and to call us to God’s rule and reign in our hearts and lives, in our homes and churches, in our communities and nation.
Who is John the Baptist?  Jesus says he is more than a prophet.  Jesus says that he is the greatest among those born of a woman.  Jesus says he is the promised return of Elijah to herald the arrival of the coming Messiah.  Jesus says that John the Baptist is the fulfilment of scripture, the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel and the world.  Jesus honours John the Baptist with powerful words.
And when does Jesus say these kind and grand words about John the Baptist?  He says them not when all the people were clamouring to come out to the desert to hear his powerful sermons, not when the papers and news were all talking about the strange man in the desert warning the nation to get ready.  No Jesus says these affirming and impressive words when John was in prison, when John sends a messenger to Jesus to ask him, ‘are you really the messiah or was everything I said and did wrong?’ 
Who is John the Baptist?  He is one of us.  After growing up hearing of the miraculous and astounding birth of Jesus with angels singing and shepherds and wise men coming to greet him, John wonders, is this the one we’ve been waiting for?  After seeing Jesus heal the leper, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and even raise the dead; after hearing Jesus confound the scribes and Pharisees in parables and debate; and after hearing Jesus speak of the love of God to the poor and oppressed, John asks, should we look for someone else? 
John is one of us because like him, when we see the works of God in our midst in bread and wine, in the kindness of the stranger, in the innocence of the newborn, in the beauty and abundance of the universe, we doubt.  Like John, when we hear the stories of Jesus in the Gospel, of Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith, of the testimony of the one sitting next to us, we wonder if it is all true.
As we prepare for Christmas and the advent of God coming into our lives in surprising and unexpected ways, it is normal to doubt, to question.  But let us hear the words again.  Jesus said, Go and tell John the Baptist what you hear and see.  And so Jesus says to you and me today: remember what you have seen and heard; remember what God has done in our midst all these years in this church; remember the gifts we have received as we knelt at the altar, the gifts we have received from the stranger and from one another.  Today let us remember the one of whom the angels sing, the one the prophets promised would come, the one of whom the gospel writers proclaimed, the one about whom Paul and Peter and John wrote in their letters.  Let us remember the one who loves us even when we feel unloved and struggle to love ourselves…Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.