Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-11
The candle we lit today on our Advent ring is for John the Baptist, and our gospel reading helps us to think about his particular role. After all his hard work preparing the way for the Lord, unfortunately John the Baptist was imprisoned for speaking out in truth about King Herod. And from prison, John could only get snippets of news about Jesus. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus affirms that he is ‘the One’, and gives examples of his liberating and healing work, which was fulfilled the prophets: ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’. Then he teaches the crowd about the role of John the Baptist, explaining that, as great as John was, anyone who embraces God’s reign and his Kingdom is greater still.
John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy foretold by Isaiah, ch 40: ‘A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”’ John lived a life of discipline and simplicity. He influenced many people to come into the desert to be baptized, confessing their sins. He didn’t soften his message to gain approval. When Jesus came, John pointed people to Him. He did a wonderful job preparing the way for Christ. No other prophet was greater than John. But Jesus says that those who embrace God’s reign and the coming kingdom are greater still.
John was filled with the Spirit while still in his mother's womb which helped him fulfil his mission. But John the Baptist didn’t know about the nature of Christ as King in God’s kingdom. His limited knowledge of Christ is obvious from the question he had to send his disciples to ask. But because of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, followers of Jesus can receive a measure of the Spirit that wasn’t available until after Jesus ascended and was glorified in heaven. St. Peter says in Acts 2:38, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. It’s a gift that wasn’t available to those under the Old Covenant. And like all gifts, you must receive it to be able to use it.
John the Baptist lived under the Old Covenant; but even those who are ‘least in the kingdom’ now live under the New Covenant with its better sacrifice, hope, and promises. Those who turn to Christ are immediately brought into the kingdom of God's Son - Colossians 1:13 says ‘...he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves’.
We can know many things which Jesus hadn’t taught His apostles until after the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost. Jesus said, in John 16, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come”.
And the depth of knowledge about Christ has increased over the centuries, because many can read in their own language about Christ from all that’s recorded in the bible, and so we are able to know about God’s grace through the cross and the forgiveness of sin in a very personal and accessible way. We can share God’s kingdom vision of justice and mercy, and the future glory of a transformed creation. Our true greatness only comes by our relationship with Jesus Christ, made possible by the Spirit when we turn to Christ; and by his Spirit, when we ask, Christ lives in us and we live in him.
When we know Jesus has given such great blessings to us, we want to dedicate our lives to Christ, and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, to nurture and enjoy the fellowship of the family of God, and proclaim the gospel of Christ and the kingdom in its fullness. We are called to seek out the places in our world where joy is being robbed, and to challenge the unjust ‘killjoys’ of our society. We are called to wait actively for Jesus to return. This is our source of patience and hope as we wait for God’s reign to be fully realised, both in this world and the next.
As we actively wait for the One who will come again, we must reflect on how we, as a church, can best point people to Jesus and prepare the way for his second coming. We need to identify areas of neglect in our community of New Brighton. To be salt and light, we must refuse to buy into the scepticism of our time, and commit ourselves instead to hope and compassion, and standing for truth and justice. In the way we live, speak and interact with each other, we can demonstrate that joy can be known in this world without oppressing, bombing or ignoring others, and without buying into rampant consumerism and achieveism. We need to allow the light of Christ to search out all the ways in which we inhibit the growth of his kingdom.
To finish, it seems appropriate to pray again the Advent candle prayer we prayed earlier: God incarnate, Prince of Peace, we confess that we have lost sight of your promises. We confess that we have accepted the depths of violence and poverty and despair experienced by so many today. We confess our cynicism and our doubt, and pray that we of little faith, may prepare a path for you, and give you the space to come into a broken world. Amen.