Sermon - 15th December 2013
Scripture - Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Our two readings today are all about signs: our Gospel reading speaks of the signs which identify Jesus as the Messiah, or Saviour, and the signs which identify John the Baptist as a prophet pointing to Jesus as Saviour. And the Old Testament reading contains signs which identify the new reign of Jesus in His Kingdom.
We live in an age which demands proof. We have to prove our identity constantly. Unlike in many countries where ID cards are compulsory, here in the UK we use our passports and driving licences as proof. If you are fortunate enough to look young, you may be asked for proof of age to purchase alcohol or other restricted goods. When we contact our bank, we have pass codes. When we go online, we have numerous passwords.
When people are brought to court for crimes they have allegedly committed, if they plead “not guilty”, it is for the prosecution to prove in the trial “beyond reasonable doubt” that the person is indeed guilty of the offence.
Let us transfer the notions we have about proof and apply them to the central question of today’s sermon: who is Jesus? [Ask congregation to answer the question.] (5-6 responses)
In response to the statements we have just shared, how can we be sure that these statements are true? How can we prove them?
This was also the concern of John the Baptist: as we heard in the Gospel reading, John was in prison and heard about what Jesus was doing. Before his arrest, John was a preacher and prophet, calling people to repentance, baptising them and pointed towards the One to come after him, namely Jesus.
Some of you may be thinking that this is just a Bible story; however, the Roman historian Josephus supports the Biblical accounts:
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the Baptist. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions.
And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt -- for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise -- believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.
And so John, out of Herod's suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death.
(Josephus, “Antiquities”, 18.5.2 116-119)
The latter part of today’s Gospel reading is concerned with the identity of John – “Who is John the Baptist?” We have spoken today a lot about signs, and so the signs which Jesus gives about John the Baptist are a strong man, not swayed by the wind (verse 7), a man dressed as a prophet, not in fine clothes (verse 8), a man who was a messenger for Jesus (verse 10).
These signs mentioned in St Matthew’s Gospel, echoed in St Luke’s Gospel and further supported by the secular Roman historian Josephus are remarkably congruent. Could we conclude, therefore, that we have sufficient evidence to believe that John the Baptist was a real person in history whose teaching was to point to Him who followed, namely Jesus?
So to summarise, what is it we know of John the Baptist?
- He was a prophet.
- His coming was foretold by the prophet Malachi (3:1) – “I will send my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way before you.”
- He was a turning point in Salvation History. Prior to John, the last prophet was Malachi around 430 BCE. All that time, the Jews were waiting for the prophet who would herald the coming of the Messiah.
- The Jews believe that the prophet who would herald the Messiah’s coming would be the return of Elijah. Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who, as the book of 2 Kings tells us, did not die, but was taken into Heaven in a chariot of fire.
- Finally, we also know from St Luke’s Gospel that John was a relative of Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Back to our road signs… here’s one from Cheshire, and now closer-up. A question for you… what do the brackets mean?
The brackets on UK road signs tell us that if we stay on this road, then we will come to the roads or roads to places listed in brackets. And in the same way, if we keep on the road signposted by John the Baptist, we will come to Jesus.
Returning to our Gospel reading, John’s disciples ask Jesus who He is. Note that Jesus does not reply: “I am the Messiah” or “I am the Christ.” Jesus Himself in his reply uses signs, and just like the brackets on our road signs, the acts of Jesus will lead us to Himself:
- The blind see
- The lame walk
- The deaf hear
- The dead are raised
- The Good News is preached to the poor.
So travelling along the road described in our Gospel reading where we would see such miraculous events and hear such world-changing teaching, the journey would be surely both exciting and mind-blowing, leading us to Jesus Himself.
But where does all this leave us, over 2000 years down the road from John the Baptist? As has been mentioned many times before in sermons in our church, coming out and sharing our sexual or gender identity with others can yield a range of responses, and with changes in our society, these responses are generally more positive and accepting; however, coming out as a Christian to our LGBT friends can often be more painful and met with negative responses.
Let us continue our theme of road signs. Imagine that you are a road. If others were to travel along your road, what sights would they pass? And the brackets on your road sign - the place one would come to if one followed your road - where would your travellers end up? Would Jesus be found if one followed your road?
The 20th Century theologian Karl Barth was also interested in this very question. Above his desk in his office hung a copy of the Isenheim altar-piece by Matthias Grünewald from the 16th Century. Within the central Crucifixion scene, we see Mary and St John to the left and John the Baptist to the right. We know from the Gospels and other historical records that John had been executed long before Jesus’ crucifixion; however, the symbolism used by the artist is the same as in our road signs: they all point to Jesus; they all point to the Saviour, re-enforced by the symbolism of the Lamb at John the Baptist’s right foot. Each week we say in our Communion, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
During his time in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, the German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhöffer was also interested in the idea of one’s own identity as a Christian. He came to the following conclusion in answer to the question: Who am I?
“Whoever I am, you know, O God, I am yours.”
So on the road which leads to Jesus, what is it that we shall experience? Referring back to our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, we have a vision of the future, which the prophet called The Road of Holiness, a road of joy, a road of righteousness, a road without fear, a road free of pain, a road of rescue, a road which brings us home, home to our Saviour, Jesus, in whom we are reconciled with our Creator God.
Our service began with a song from the musical Godspell, a song called “When Wilt Thou Save The People?” which cries out to God for Salvation. As explained in today’s sermon, we are part of the answer to that question, as we invite others to join us on our road, our journey which leads to Jesus.
When others see you, do they see you pointing to Jesus?