s003g98 Somerton Park 13/12/98 Advent 3
"The poor have good news brought to them." Matthew 11.5
Today we finish our time considering the ministry of St John the Baptist in this Advent season. Next week we turn more squarely to the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, the annunciation to Joseph.
I have spoken in the past of John's ministry as a ministry of preaching in contrast to Jesus' ministry of doing; and there are other differences as well. John's ministry was based in the wilderness somewhere along the Jordan river. Jesus ministry was based in the towns and finally in Jerusalem. John's ministry was in one place and people came to him. Jesus ministry was peripatetic - he went to different communities in turn. John is pictured as a solitary figure, though this passage says that he had disciples of his own. But the picture we have of Jesus is that he enjoyed few moments of peace and solitude - the disciples and the women were constantly there, often giving advise and other "helpful" suggestions.
So, other than at the baptism of Jesus, the pair had little formal contact, and so this question put to Jesus by John through his disciples as much may mean that John needed to check where Jesus was - not geographically - but in his own understanding of himself and his mission and ministry. When this question was asked, John the Baptist had already been arrested and this would have increased his sense of isolation. His concern was for the mission of God in the world. He had been supportive at the beginning, at his baptism. Presumably he had seen the heavens open, the Holy Spirit as a dove come down, and the voice saying this was God's own son. Had things just fizzled?
So Jesus gives John this answer. The answer is one of encouragement and hope. Don't believe what Jesus himself says - report what your own eyes see to be taking place. And Jesus gives a list. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear ... (and) the dead are raised. And we know from the gospel accounts that all these things took place. All were quite miraculous, and really showed, for someone who was looking, that God was at work in the world in a very special way. I suppose however - the dove and some other occasions - for someone who wasn't looking - nothing happened to compel anyone to believe.
But Jesus did not stop his list where I did. There was another miraculous occurrence taking place - perhaps one we might imagine he just slips in as an aside - but then it is right after "raising the dead" - and we wouldn't have imagined there could be anything more miraculous than that. So perhaps he invites the disciples of John to notice, as well as us, the importance Jesus places on it. Jesus says that a sign that he is the one who is to come is that "the poor have good news brought to them".
We might be quick to dismiss this as so absolutely common place that it hardly deserves to be noticed at all. After all, how many weeks has it been that we have been bombarded from all sides with Christmass Carols, all of which tell in part the Christmass story? There are few places one could find without having strains of "The First Noel", "Silent Night" or "While Shepherds washed their socks by night" wafting to our ears, as we buy our provisions and presents for the coming festivities. The last thing the Church needs to tell the world is that it's Christmass. There are few who wouldn't know its about the birth of Jesus and that it's something about God being good. To say that the poor have good news brought to them at Christmass time is miraculous is akin to saying the air we breathe is miraculous. It is just so commonplace.
But I wonder if this assessment is really true. The good news that the poor want to be brought to them is not that Jesus was born, but that they themselves are valued and valuable. Somehow, in word and in action, Jesus grasped people and in so doing told them that they were valued by God and valuable to him.
I mean, that is what we want in our own lives. Indeed it is precisely this particular fact that forms the basis of each and every conversion experience. It might be a conversion experience as unspectacular as the son of the prodigal father, who came to himself. If nothing else, he suddenly realised "what am I doing to myself? - I am worth more than this." Or it might be a rather more spectacular conversion experience like St Paul's, where the Risen Jesus comes and redirects Paul's life from one of persecuting Christians to proclaiming Christ. "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church ..." 1 Cor 15.8-9 The risen Christ thought him worth coming to. Somehow, spectacularly or surreptitiously, it doesn't matter at all, Jesus has grasped us and in so doing said: "You are worth my attention, my love".
Jesus did this by word and deed. In word, he says (in Matthew 5): "Blessed are the poor in spirit ... blessed are those who mourn ... blessed are the meek ... blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ... blessed are the merciful ... blessed are the pure in heart ... blessed are the peacemakers ... blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake ... Obviously the only person to whom Jesus can't come is the person who doesn't want him there. But Jesus also did this by deed, as he travelled about, accepting the hospitality of one and all.
The good news that we are loved and valued is not just an individual matter. Indeed there are some good reasons to suggest the good news is not even primarily an individual matter. This is to suggest that first and foremost the good news is for corporate humanity. Perhaps just one quotation: the song of the Angel host which we sing at the beginning (or the end, if we are using the BCP) of the service of Holy Communion each Sunday: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to God's people on earth". All people are of course God's people. Jesus doesn't love me, in preference to others, Jesus loves me and others in precisely the same terms.
What I am saying is that the good news of the Incarnation is that Jesus comes and grasps humanity and says: "You are worthy of my attention - my love". No matter that our assessment of the human condition is that it is rapidly going off the rails. Jesus still loves us.
In the experience of the son of the prodigal father, in St Paul, as well as in our own lives, this conversion experience provokes profound change. When people realise their worth - it is liberating and enabling. When young people first "fall in love" or find engaging and worthwhile employment, they are changed and enabled. When we become parents for the first time and the responsibilities of parenthood descend upon us - they are tempered with the realisation of our value to this tiny and otherwise defenceless creature, and we are enabled and changed. Ordination is a not inappropriate parallel.
So if we feel that the world isn't changed in the way that we imagine would be God's will, it may indeed be that in the cacophony of Christmass carols and buying of presents, the picturesque nativity scenes of Jesus, Santa and the reindeer - individuals and corporate humanity have heard about Jesus, but haven't heard that they are loved and valued. For it will only be when we as individuals and corporate humanity feel that they are loved and valued for ourselves that we can begin to expect some conversion and ordination to take place, in ourselves or others.
How easy it is to talk about Jesus, how difficult it is to communicate that this actually means we are loved, that those we are so busy speaking about Jesus to - are also loved. How easy it is for us to say how we love Jesus - but how difficult it is to allow those we meet to be themselves and to accept them as they are ...
However I wonder whether we feel that we can be so bold as to say these things. I wonder if we actually believe that God loves us so unconditionally. I wonder if the Church actually wants to say that some people have some amendment of life to make before God can fully extend love to them. I am certain that many people have only heard the Church imply this, albeit unconsciously and unintentionally.
The fact that God loves each and every individual, regardless of colour, race, creed, abilities or sexuality, is the only real deterrent from the atrocities so regularly wrought on humanity by other "humanity". While we question the universal and unconditional love of God, we open the door ever so slightly, to repetitions of what we know from history and what we hear in the news so regularly continuing to happen.
If we question the universal and unconditional love of God, then we are faced with two dangers. The first danger is that it excuses us from respecting others and expects others to come to us rather than the grace of God flowing outwards from the community of faith. The second danger is that it calls into question our own level of repentance, as to whether we ourselves have done enough for God to love us.
Neither of these things is consistent with the good news, the Biblical witness, or our own personal experience. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" St Paul tells us. (Ro 5.8) God loves each and everyone equally, and loves corporate humanity - this is the miracle of the good news. It is a miracle if it is proclaimed, it is a miracle if it is heard, and miraculous things will happen when the love of God for humanity is proclaimed and heard.
We have a task then, firstly to actually believe the truth of the good news of God's love for all people even those who don't believe and then to act in the light of this truth. As I have indicated, there are so many things that can get in the way, much of the task will be clearing out the debris. But if we fail to see that this is the task of the Church, and in our enthusiasm, retain the debris, neglect the task - this will only result in the world not hearing what it so desperately desires and deserves to hear - the love God has for them as individuals and as corporate humanity.
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.