Joy, and two jailbirds (Advent 3, Year A; 11 December 2016

Readings
Isaiah 35.1–10
Matthew 11.2–11

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (Matthew 11.3)

I want to tell you a story today. It’s the story of two jailbirds. One of the two is the Apostle Paul. The other is John the Baptist.

Since we’ve heard about John today, let’s talk about him first. Now he’s in jail, he’s wondering if he’s backed the right horse. He sends some of his followers with a very pointed question:

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

John had ideas about ‘the one who is to come’.

John had said that this Coming One would be ‘one who is more powerful’ than him. John was ‘not worthy to carry the sandals’ of this powerful one.

He’d also said,

He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3.11b–12)

John had very high expectations of the Coming One. When he came, who could possibly stand in his way? He was coming to be the judge who would sweep evildoers away. And John would be with him.

But now John was in jail, staring at the same four walls day after day.

How did that happen?

Surely, if he were the Coming One, Jesus would be more powerful than Herod Antipas, who had put John in prison. Surely he could bust John out?

So he asks his question. ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus gives his answer, reminding John of the words of Isaiah the prophet, who said:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For Isaiah, these things were future, but for John they were happening right now:

…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.

When Jesus’ message reached John, it would have made him think of the passage we heard today. But there would be at least one other verse from Isaiah that John would have thought of. It is Isaiah 42.7, where the Servant of God is coming

to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Jesus didn’t mention any release of prisoners. Was he telling John that he would not be released, that his days would end there?

I wonder if John was happy with the answer he got? The Coming One shows his power in healing the sick and in bringing good news to the poor. Not in conspicuous displays of might and strength; not as a superhero; and not in getting John out of jail.

And of course, John will die there.

That’s our first jailbird. The second is St Paul.

Paul was a jailbird when he wrote some of the letters that later became part of the New Testament. We call them the ‘prison epistles’, and traditionally they include Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. All are letters from jail.

On this Third Sunday of Advent, we sang this of joy:

Joy is a candle of mystery and laughter,
mystery of light that is born in the dark;
laughter at hearing the voice of an angel,
ever so near, casting out fear.

When Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he was in the dark. He didn’t know whether he would live or die; part of him wanted to die, to be with the Lord.

But you know, when you’re sitting in the dark any spark of light is visible. So Paul knew something of the ‘mystery of light that is born in the dark’. So he could say,

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

The next time anyone quotes that verse, I want you to remember—Paul was in jail when he wrote that. He didn’t know whether he’d live or die.

Yet Paul could find room for joy. His heart was full. In a similar situation, John seemed to be harbouring doubts.

Why this difference between John and Paul? Was Paul a better person than John? No, that’s not it. I mean, Jesus himself says

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist…

Jesus holds John in very high regard. No one can hold a candle to John as far as Jesus is concerned.

Yet Jesus says more. The whole thing is

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

The least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. That’s not a statement about John’s character: it’s about what John did not live to see.

John did not live to see the fulfilment of Jesus’ life—his death and his resurrection from the dead, which proclaim the kingdom and are the kingdom of God.

By the time Paul was a jailbird, Jesus had been raised from the grave. Paul could look back and see the kingdom come in Jesus’ victory over death.

Paul was part of the kingdom of God; John never was, in his earthly life.

Paul saw that God’s kingdom was ushered in by what the world considered as foolishness, weakness: a shameful death on a cross, and a resurrection that only a few people saw.

Paul knew the kingdom would one day come in all its fullness, but that day had not come yet.

We live in the very same space as Paul: after the cross and the resurrection, and before the fulfilment of God’s kingdom.

If we have eyes to see, we can see the kingdom coming in the way that Jesus described to John:

…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 church of Jesus has a real part to play in efforts to bring sight and hearing and healing.

The church of Jesus should be good news—and specifically for the poor.

The task that Broadwater Road congregation has is to discern with your next minister how to be this good news here in this place.

Jesus has clearly shown us what it looks like when a church is responding to the good news of the coming kingdom. It looks like that. And it shows us how to ‘keep Christ in Christmas’:

Feed the hungry;
clothe the naked;
forgive the guilty;
welcome the unwanted;
care for the ill;
love your enemies;
and do unto others
as you would have done unto you.

Friends, this is not only what we should do; it is what will bring us the deepest, most lasting and most real joy. Amen.

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