This morning involved a first. It was the first time I’ve led Sung Matins, and I don’t think the little congregation at St. Nicholas, Newnham twigged, so I feel relatively pleased as to how it went.
And here’s what I preached:
We’ve got two weeks. Exactly two weeks.
For those of us who have not yet written a Christmas card, wrapped a present, iced a cake, nor hung up a decoration, Christmas still seems like something that lies a little beyond our anticipation, wrapped more in stress than holiness.
For those of us who know they’ll be alone, or sharing Christmas around strained and broken relationships, who are concerned that this might be the last Christmas with a loved-one who is ill or frail, or who are worried that celebrations will be tempered by physical pain and the drugs required to mediate them, the holiness of the season isn’t just marked by stress, but by fear.
Fear of isolation.
Fear of the emotional turmoil.
Fear of imminent bereavement.
Fear of admitting we aren’t coping with life, let alone Christmas.
Fear that the Messiah isn’t who we thought he was.
Fear that Jesus isn’t coming for us.
In our Gospel reading this morning, with just two weeks to go until Christmas, we are quite deliberately taken away from our preparations for and anticipation of the Christmas story, and asked to confront our fears. Our fears, and those of John the Baptist who we visit this morning not in the desert proclaiming judgement, but locked in a prison cell, awaiting a fate that we know ends in his beheading.
The rufty-tufty desert man, who announced the coming of God’s kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as God’s anointed, expected the world to change with the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Now caged, John, wondering why he hasn’t yet heard that promise is being kept, is probably disappointed, definitely vulnerable to doubts, but still gutsy enough to voice them to the one they are concerned with.
John, who after all is cousin to Jesus and will have grown up with the prophesies that were spoken around the births of both of them… John is having his doubts about the identity of the Messiah because Jesus isn’t living up to expectations. Even in his response to John’s question, Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking like a strong leader strengthening God’s people (Isaiah 35:3) for battle, or a saviour come to bring vengeance (Isaiah 35:4) on an oppressor.
Yet, Jesus, in word and action, DOES fulfil the prophesies about him, the ones that say he will heal the blind, the deaf, the mute and the lame (Isaiah 35:5-6). Indeed even the dead are raised (Matt 11:5), though when John receives Jesus’ return message, I wonder if he might again have been disappointed, wishing that Jesus could also set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18) – starting with his cousin John!
And yet, Jesus is trying to set John free, to bring him some joy. Free from the doubts as to whether all the locusts and honey, the rough desert living, the run-ins with the authorities, and indeed the imprisonment, have been worthwhile. John hadn’t been failed, nor had he failed, or let God down. Jesus is affirming that he is indeed the Messiah, fulfilling the prophesies that had been spoken down the centuries about him, including John’s. But with the new Kingdom comes new ways, and they put the weak, the lonely and the broken first, the new covenant before the old which in effect has been closed with John the Baptist’s work.
Jesus the baby in a Bethlehem manger, Jesus the itinerant healer, is also Jesus of the cross, and it won’t be until the temple curtain is torn in two and then the stone is rolled away, that the saving power of Jesus the Messiah, will be fully revealed. Sadly, John doesn’t live to see and hear that revelation. But we do.
While Matthew’s portrayal of John and his doubts is striking, maybe it’s not so odd to hear about them in Advent, when we, too, at times, may feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept. Like John the Baptist, we may feel we are are hung-out-to-dry between Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem and his second in glory; disappointed by ourselves, the world, and even God; fearful that we’ll not be released from the prison of our fears.
We regularly try to hide our insecurities and fears behind our houses, our careers and (dare I say it) church attendance or, for that matter, our failings and infirmities. Until, that is, the word “cancer” or “redundancy” or “divorce” is breathed within our family circle and we know ourselves to be just as fragile and vulnerable as anyone else. Even the word “vacancy” can set up a myriad insecurities and fears within a Christian community! And at these moments – the impact of which is heightened at this time of the year – we need to turn again to the words and actions of Jesus for comfort, hope and joy, all the more because we know they are accompanied by the cross and resurrection.
If ‘the hopes and fears of all our years’ are to be ‘met in him’ not just tonight or in a fortnight’s time, but ALWAYS, then we have to view the babe in a manger in the light of the whole of his story. When God became incarnate as a human baby, he took on our hopes and fears and not only moved to heal those he could in Jesus’ earthly life, but then watched them get nailed with the Christ-child to a cross on Good Friday, breaking the hold of any sense of failure that first Easter morning.
That wasn’t just for then. It is for now. Whatever our disappointments, we don’t let God down by having or expressing them. God comes to us anyway, eager to join us in our weakness, to hold onto us in our insecurity, and to comfort us in our fears. For God in Jesus came not for the strong and the proud, or to fight physical battles on the fields of history, but he comes the weak and the vulnerable, the lonely and ill, and the broken. We, who may feel that we’re the ‘least in the kingdom’ and out in a desert place, by grace have an honoured place at Jesus’ side, because he comes to us where we are, offering us the strength to withstand the winds and rough cloth of our lives, bringing the joy of his presence into our lives.
There is no reason why we shouldn’t admit our hopes and fears, and like John, question him with our doubts, but God in Jesus, comes for us.
[With thanks to the Working Preacher for inspiration: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911]