Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 11th
In this third Sunday in Advent our focus lies on the story of a revolutionary called John the Baptist. Now we are used to thinking of John as a religious revolutionary who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus whose teaching would ‘turn the world upside down’, but what we read in the account of John presented by Jesus in Matthew chapter 11 is more than that. Here we see John presented as a religious and a political revolutionary.
This isn’t just John the Prophet, this is John the Bolshevik! Here, and also in the Psalm, we are presented with a clear subversion of the established political order. But in order to see this there is something we need to know. Throughout history politicians have used symbols and images both visual and verbal to make points and convey messages.
Sometimes these symbols are clear and obvious to everyone, sometimes less so and, in talking about John, Jesus uses one that would have been obvious to everyone at that time but not to us. ’What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken in the wind?’ is a reference to, and by implication, an attack upon the Herodian dynasty. Greek coins showed images of, or symbols representing, Gods; Roman coins showed the head of the Emperor, but coinage produced by Herod the Great and his successors wanted to avoid anything that might upset the religious sensitivities of the Jewish establishment and therefore simply depicted a reed.
While intended to be a neutral symbol that would offend neither Jew nor Roman it came to be understood as a symbol of the Herodian dynasty, so the reference to ‘a reed shaken by the wind’ would immediately have been understood by its hearers.
This is then followed by a second question about a man clothed in soft raiment which, while qualified by the suggestion that such men are to be found in kings’ houses, might also be seen as applying to the princely aristocracy. We know that John was himself a priest, his birth narrative is set in the context of his father’s service in the Temple, but we have no record of his ever having served in the Temple.
John presented himself as a common man. His clothing was that of the working man of his day, but it was also the clothing associated with the prophet Elijah. John was making a statement about those who are to be seen as God’s people. In much the same way as Kier Hardie took his seat as the first Labour Member of Parliament wearing a tweed suit and a deerstalker hat rather than a rock coat and a top hat in order to make a point about being an ordinary working man, so John had dressed in the clothes of a day labourer.
But now his ministry is ending. He is in prison having spoken out vigorously against the corruption and decadence of the royal court and he is anxious to know whether what he has been calling for is going to happen.
In this season of Advent we see Isaiah, the Psalmist, the Baptist and the Letter of James all looking forward to something or someone imminently expected but not necessarily understood. For Isaiah and the Psalmist there will be a restoration of the true Israel and, indeed, for James, although their understanding of what this means is very different from his. For John, the question is: ‘Is this the person who will put right all that is wrong in society; the person who will correct the errors and evils that have developed in the nation under a corrupt monarchy and priesthood?’
In short, ‘Is Jesus the Messiah?’ Jesus’ reply to this question is not to answer directly but to quote from, and indeed expand upon, Isaiah. Isaiah had said that Israel would see the glory of God and in that time, the blind the deaf and the lame would be healed. He presented a vision of this great journey to Zion where the righteous would travel in safety and the unclean would be excluded.
Jesus goes farther. To his list of mighty works is added the cleansing of the lepers and the evangelising of the poor. In other words, Jesus isn’t simply restoring the Kingdom but expanding it. Those whom Isaiah would have excluded, those rendered unclean either through disease or poverty are now included. This of course is the huge difference between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of any who came before him, including John. The Old Testament figures and John share a common understanding of faith and of salvation which is based upon a concept of righteousness. In this they are part of the same world as the Scribes and the Pharisees and, perhaps even more, the Sadducees, the priestly party in Israel. For the Pharisees this was about right actions and obedience to the Law in minute detail. For the Sadducees it was about the correct observance of ritual and custom, and for John it was about judgement, repentance and restitution.
But all subscribed explicitly or implicitly to the idea that there are two groups in society. To use the terms found in Isaiah, there are on the one hand ‘the redeemed, the ransomed of the Lord’ and on the other hand ‘the unclean’, those who are not God’s people. Pharisees, Sadducees and John would have disagreed violently over who fell into which camp and where the boundaries were to be draw, but they would have been in full agreement that there were boundaries.
Jesus presents a wholly different picture. He comes to proclaim good news to the poor, bestowing blessings on any who will accept them. In today’s Gospel we heard Jesus’ praise for, and reassurance to, John the Baptist, but he also set out, at least in part, the differences, in that enigmatic sentence with which the Gospel closed, ‘the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he!’
That’s us he’s talking about. We are heirs of the revolution preached by John but, far more, we are inheritors of the Kingdom proclaimed by Christ. It’s not a kingdom with grand kings or richly apparelled aristocrats, but it’s a more splendid kingdom than John could ever have imagined, for it is the Kingdom where Christ is King and, we, all of use, are citizens.