The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s003g13   Advent 3  15/12/2013

'are we to wait for another?’    Matthew 11.3

If the message of the gospel is the affirmation and inclusion of others, then there is no point in waiting.   The task is before you and me right now.   It has always been thus.

When we look at Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples we hear of Jesus' ministry of affirmation and inclusion: 'the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’.   The important thing is not who Jesus was or wasn’t, but that others are affirmed and included.   And so the words: 'blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ really mean: blessed is anyone who takes no offence at what I am doing - affirming and including others.   And, of course, it was the devout and the orthodox who did take offence at what Jesus was doing - those who most conspicuously loved 'the LORD (their) God with all (their) heart, and with all (their) soul, and with all (their) might.’ (1)

Jesus continues to question our (mine no less than anyone else’s) insatiable desire to look for someone else to come, to act, to fix things.  "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?’   On his march to Jerusalem, Jesus is surrounded by followers no doubt thinking that they are doing Jesus and God a favour by accompanying him on the journey and supporting him.   Perhaps they thought they were going to initiate a popular uprising.   The most obvious foe was the Roman occupation, but they were largely agnostic about matters religious.   The real and continuing antagonism came from those for whom affirmation and inclusion was considered demonic, for it challenged their sense of superiority and entitlement.   The important thing then, as now, is not our support for Jesus as a person or as a spiritual leader, but that we do as he did and affirm and include others.

I have been writing about God and Jesus as the thief, and to continue on this theme, it seems that the world is orchestrated to operate quite well with no reference to the divine.  So ‘bestselling author and TED Prize winner Karen Armstrong (who) has conducted decades of research on the world's religions .. says there's a universal theme that ties them all together … Confucius was the first person to formulate the Golden Rule, as far as we know, 500 years before Christ ... his disciples said, 'Which of your teachings can we put into practice all day and every day?’   And he said, 'Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.’"   I think that all the faiths have come to tell us this’.  (2)

God and Jesus take away ‘divine' superiority and entitlement in the (perhaps vain) hope that people will treat others compassionately.   Well, people may not treat others compassionately, but at the very least God will take away the possibility of treating others less than compassionately in the name of the divine.

Jesus reflects on the status of John the Baptist as a prophet: 'Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet .. Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist’.   But then he goes on to say: 'the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’.   Here was a person who was in prison for his faith, for his courage in speaking out against what he perceived as wrong, one who was 'more than a prophet', ‘no one has arisen greater than' he, one who had a following and was about to be martyred.   Yet 'the least in the kingdom is greater than' John, and surely you and I might count ourselves as least - even though ‘we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table’ (3) or perhaps because we regularly put ourselves down with such words.  This is the message and the power of affirmation and inclusion - it exposes all religious selfishness and names it for what it is.

Do we not feel the power of our own affirmation and inclusion in these words?   Surely we are meant to do so!   In our perhaps ordinary and mundane lives, when we exercise our religion simply by including others we do well to reflect how unusual and privileged we are to be able to do so, and how the whole of the world is predicated on people doing this.   And it is dignity extended to all, regardless of the name of God we might use, our station in life, our race, language, gender, even age!   Everyone has a right to exist happily and we are called to try to ensure that the right of others to exist happily is maintained and enabled.   When Jesus says: ‘The poor you will always have with you’ (4) he immediately goes onto say: 'you will not always have me’.  

Which begs the question about the Holy Communion: Is our communion service an attempt to bring Jesus back, to ordain us as someone special, to make us a privileged group of people distinct from others?   To avoid doing unto others?   To bring Jesus back, to act, to fix things - to do the job we are meant to do?   When expressed in this way we see how unlikely this is!

On the other hand when I see people removing cataracts to bring sight to the blind, to witness people having hip and knee replacements to return to a pain-free life, to see people’s lives change by the insertion of cochlea ear implants, to see life giving chemo-therapy and radio-therapy to people otherwise condemned to die - and I see this each and every day in the hospital where I am the chaplain - as well as secular society being concerned about the inequities that still exist - how can I do anything but rejoice?  And I have to think, it was the early 1800’s when the movement to abolish the slave trade gained traction in Britain - just 200 years ago.   What a wonderful world we live in, that so many more people have the opportunity to live fuller lives because people of all faiths and none have tried to do as Jesus did!   We have just had news of the death of that giant Nelson Mandela and join in celebrating his amazing life bringing freedom from domination to millions of people, domination wrought by those who acted according to their sense of superiority and entitlement.  Yet is seems all some parts of the church can do is bitch and moan about how few come to church on Sunday morning!

So perhaps Jesus’ words: 'Go and tell John what you hear and see’ might be addressed to us, to go and tell the church what they also might see if they were actually looking, that people are living lives where their existence is valued of and for itself, where modern medicine is restoring people to health and wholeness, where a modern education system is teaching people about the wonders of this world and nurturing a spirit of scientific enquiry, where there is widespread literacy and communication enabling people to have the resources to find out, to think, to reason, where people have an inalienable right to choose what they believe and how to live their lives provided only that this is not at the expense of others’ enjoyment.  

Are not these things worth celebrating?   Or are we to be constrained to return to the King James Bible of 1611, the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, a repudiation of science and a ‘christianity’ that interminably regurgitates the disputations of the Reformation, where we are all miserable sinners?  

This is surely good news that doesn’t depend on us as individuals to bring about.   It truly is the kingdom of God and all we have to do is enjoy it!   We don’t have to convert others, start another church, organise another fundraiser, attend another program, even listen to another sermon :-)   Amen, brothers and sisters!

 (1) Deuteronomy 6.5
(4) Matthew 26.11