We’re in Matthew Chapter 11 this morning – a scene taken from the final days of the life of John the Baptist, and a bizarre scene it is!
John has been sent to prison, though he probably did not realise at this stage that he was not going to be released – indeed, that he was about to be put to death (possibly within a few days of the conversation here recorded) and have his head served on a platter as a gift to the step-daughter of the king.
This is, as I say, a bizarre story to have laid before us in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s not very ‘Christmassy’, is it? The Baptist is in prison, and he is depressed. He is apparently having doubts about Jesus, about His ministry, and about whether he got the whole Messiah-thing right in the first place. It’s a funny scene to be contemplating this close to Christmas!
I remember years ago hearing an African-American preacher preaching on this passage, and he started by saying, “The Baptist is having doubts, and if the Baptist is having doubts, we’ve all got a problem.” His reasoning was that if the Baptist is having doubts – if he’s not sure if he’s got Jesus right or not – who are we to think that we’ve got him right? If a great man of God like John the Baptist can’t work it out, what hope have we got?
Perhaps John was clinically depressed? That’s certainly plausible. I suspect that many of the great prophets and preachers and leaders that we read about in the Scriptures would be classified as suffering from bi-polar disorder by today’s diagnostic standards. And it makes sense to me to see in John a man who struggled at times with his sense of God’s calling upon his life, and who often wrestled with what it was that God wanted him to do. And we know full well that when he’d started in ministry, he sensed that he was laying the groundwork for some greater work of God that was going to eclipse his own efforts, but that he really had no idea at that stage exactly who or what it was that God had planned.
And yet he had come to the realisation that it was his own cousin, Jesus bar Joseph, who was the one he had been preparing the way for. And we don’t know if this realisation came to him slowly over time or whether it just struck him one day like a lightening bolt out of the blue, but what we do know is that well prior to his arrest he had quite explicitly recognised Jesus as being the fulfilment of his own ministry. But now … he wasn’t so sure.
Was it just that things weren’t progressing as quickly as John had expected? Was it the arrest itself that had thrown him? Had he not expected that? Was it Jesus , not quite living up to the fiery character that John had envisaged: winnowing fork in hand, clearing his threshing floor, baptising with fire! Or was it just the normal effects of imprisonment taking their toll on John’s psyche (as my friend Morde Vanunu said, after eleven and half years in solitary, “prison is not a place to make a man more religious”).
We don’t know for sure why John was depressed or why he was having doubts, but we do know what he did about it. He took his concerns to Jesus, and he got a response he probably didn’t expect: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
This is, as I say, probably not the response he expected. It is certainly not the response that we would have given him. Around here we are mostly good Evangelicals. If someone challenges us about our faith in Jesus, we quote Scripture at them. We offer a Biblical proof text. And if John had come to us, asking us for our opinion as to whether Jesus was the Messiah, we would surely have pointed him to a piece of Scripture.
Perhaps the more Catholic amongst us might have appealed to Jesus’ strong religious pedigree – if not to any accreditation he received from the High Priest at least to His good lineage (as the Gospel writer Matthew himself did), showing how Jesus was a true member of the people of God who stood as a direct descendant of Abraham, the father of faith, and of King David!
These are the ways we determine whether or not somebody speaks for God, are they not? We check out their theology, first and foremost. We make sure that they believe in the Trinity, accept the first three creeds of the church (and of course, endorse the 39 Articles). And we look to see that they’ve got the collar, because we know if they’ve got the collar that they’ve evidently been screened and tested and certified as orthodox by an ecclesiastical establishment that you know you can trusted! And so you can be sure that the Spirit of God is alive and well in them!
When Jesus is questioned about his own legitimacy as God’s representative, He points to none of these things – not to his orthodoxy, not to his pedigree, not to any certification He had received from any ecclesiastical body. He simply says, “take a look at what I’m doing. The work speaks for itself.”
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
It is the works of Jesus that identify Jesus as God’s Messiah because it is in the works of Jesus that we see the Spirit of God undeniably at work. The facts on the ground are all we need in order to identify the Spirit of God at work, and these facts are clear and undeniable.
When you are driving down the street and you see bollards on the roadway and yellow and black barricades sectioning off a hole in the gravel and men in hard hats leaning on shovels, you know a Council Road crew is at work. And when you see blind people receiving their sight, dead people being raised, hungry people being fed, the sick being healed and the poor having good news preached to them, you know that the Spirit of God is at work. It is very straightforward. The work of Spirit of God is unmistakable!
This may be hard for us to come to terms with, especially if we’ve worked hard at studying doctrine and dogma in order to better understand what God is doing in our world, as according to Jesus it is much more straightforward than we doctors of theology would like to admit. You just take a look at what’s going on around you! The facts on the ground speak for themselves!
In John chapter 10, Jesus was accused of blasphemy, but He said, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Again, the idea is that the works speak for themselves. You know that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in Jesus because of what you see happening! When you see love, joy, health, peace and healing breaking out, you know the Spirit of God is at work in your midst. It’s not difficult to work out.
As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John chapter 3, “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
The wind blows where it will. You don’t know where it’s come from and you don’t know where it’s going to go next, but there’s no mistaking the presence of the wind when it’s blowing. Sometimes it comes as a gentle cooling breeze on a warm Summer’s day and other times it rips through like a tornado but either way there’s no mistaking the Spirit of God when She is present!
This is a terribly anti-establishment thought of course. By definition it is anti-establishment, for once you acknowledge that the wind blows where it will, you’re acknowledging that the wind is quite capable of blowing beyond the boundaries that the establishment sets!
The establishment has told us that no woman is capable of teaching a man and yet … we find that the Spirit of God is at work through any number of women just as vibrantly as it is through their male counterparts! The wind blows where it will, and we’re not sure where it came from or where it’s blowing next but we cannot deny its presence when it’s blowing!
I look at my own spiritual pilgrimage up to this point and it seems to be a constant struggle of the Lord Jesus dragging me forwards to recognise the presence of the Spirit of God in places where I didn’t expect it!
Years ago I would have thought that God would never be involved in any union between a man and a woman that had not been blessed by the church and then … you find love, joy, health and peace in a home – all the signs of the presence of the Spirit of God – and you have to rethink things!
Certainly I once believed that if you were homosexual you had obviously turned your back on Christ and all things belonging to God, and then, by the grace of God, my best friend turns out to be gay and yet I find that that Spirit of God is alive and well in him and … I have to think again.
Certainly the biggest personal spiritual challenge I have experience of late has been through my friendship with Sheikh Mansour – an Islamic cleric. And if I knew anything about the Spirit of God it was surely that She could not operate through the life of someone who was a representative of Islam, and yet … God seems to be dragging me forwards to rethink things again!
Does this mean all religions are the same and that Christianity and Islam are just two parallels paths leading to the same goal? Of course not? In truth, I don’t know what it means, except that the wind blows where it will and you don’t know where it’s going next but you can’t mistake it when it’s blowing!
Love, joy, health, peace – these are the signs of the presence of the Spirit of God. The blind are receiving their sight, dead people being raised, hungry people being fed, the sick are being healed and the poor are hearing good news. These are unmistakeable indicators that the Spirit of God is at work. We can’t deny the presence of the Spirit of God, and we dare not! Indeed, in that passage where Jesus talks about the ‘unforgivable sin’ (coincidentally in the chapter in Matthew’s Gospel that immediately follows the chapter we’re in today), it’s the failure of Jesus’ clerical contemporaries to acknowledge the facts on the ground that is the problem!
Jesus is driving out demons, and these people interpret Jesus’ actions as something demonic, and Jesus tells them that by denying the presence of the Spirit of God in his own miraculous actions – by denying the clear reality of the facts on the ground – they’ve gone beyond the point of no return!
“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
I began today by saying that there’s nothing particularly ‘Christmassy’ about this passage. I want to conclude today by revising that statement.
For what is Christmas about? Well … ask anybody! It’s about peace and goodwill to everyone. It’s about family and the joy of children and Tiny Tim saying, ‘God Bless us one and all!’
In truth, it’s not about any of those things, is it? It’s not about general feelings of goodwill towards all any more than it is about Santa Claus or Tiny Tim or God’s general feeling of goodwill towards us!
It’s about the facts on the ground. It’s about God coming into our world as flesh and blood. It’s about God becoming tangible in Jesus – being born, living, breathing, bleeding and dying. This is Christmas. This is our faith. This is the reason for the season. It’s the facts on the ground that draw us together to celebrate each year – the blind receiving their sight, the dead being raised, and the poor having good news preached to them, Christ being born into our world in the stable at Bethlehem – His Body and His Blood.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, December 2007.