Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

11th Dec 2016

Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year A)


Matthew 11.2-11 "Go and tell John what you hear and see".  Matthew 11.4.


The Gospel this morning is timely. It is meant to be! We witness in St Matthew’s Gospel the strange and electric dialogue that takes place between John the Baptist, already imprisoned, and Jesus, who is sent messages from beyond the prison. Matthew intends us to overhear this dialogue and share the sense of its radical importance. He is telling us that John the Baptist’s message is an imprisoned message, one which is intensely constrained and continually pointing away from itself. John delivers his message from a place of intense suffering and personal dereliction. It is from this life-threatening, even doomed place that the message of John is to be written indelibly into our minds and the hearts. It reaches Jesus as a direct and vital question “Are you the One who is to come or shall we look for another?”  It is a question which is answered by Christ both fully and indirectly:


‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’.


We see that Jesus does not wish us to stay our attention on his status (Messiah), but what emerges out of his Messiahship (The Kingdom of God is being established). John the Baptist does not point to his status, but couches his ‘hidden’ identity in the negative. For the Baptist is to become for all time the one who is most definitely NOT the Christ. The wonderful composition of Orlando Gibbons entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ outlines a supposed dialogue which interrogates John the Baptist on this very question. He always answers in the negative concerning his status in relation to Christ but positive in terms of his ministry, which is to prepare the way for Christ’s coming:


This is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What art thou then? (Art thou Elias? repeated x1) And he said, I am not. (Art thou the prophet? Repeated x2) And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, (Make straight the way of the Lord repeated x2).


The Gospel writer has it in mind that the Christian reader must make the journey into the desert to meet John, as his followers were to do. “And what do you go out into the desert to see?” Jesus asks us. John is neither a ‘reed shaken in the wind’ neither is he someone dressed in soft robes. He is a prophet and as Jesus tells us ‘more than a prophet’. He is the first of any born to women and yet also the less than the least in the Kingdom of heaven. Out of that Kingdom emerges a new kingdom on earth which lies in the transformation of the human situation in the likeness of Jesus Christ where ‘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’. This is Matthew’s Gospel, also called simply ‘Good News’. This is why today, in mid-Advent there is a touch of rejoicing mid-way into a the Advent season of waiting and reflection.. This is why we are, too, liturgically, ‘in the pink’. This is for our gaudete, our ‘Rejoicing Sunday’, when we come to a realisation of the joy that still awaits us in the coming of the Messiah. He is named only in relation to the Good News of the Kingdom which is being proclaimed.


Christians rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus first called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. This is our Good News. The Church’s essential character is bound up in this one tradition, which is a living one, and in which Christ’s love is being made real. It challenges the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’ which is merely the buying of ‘thin’ conveniences, where everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator and where there is no engagement with our ultimate destiny.


In this church a cause for gaudete, or rejoicing, lies in the many people who come to this holy place to visit, perhaps to stay and pray. Many tell me that they find themselves in awe of what they see. This church building helps them to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, God’s existence as a distinct reality. There is the feeling that this is no ordinary place and the apprehension of the presence of God is no ordinary thing. For it has always attracted prayer as it offers sense of mystery; of what we call ‘the numinous’; filled as it is with an indefinable but very present and almost palpable quality of what one poet called ‘something deeply interfused’. This is a living light. John came as a witness to this same light, to point to the light, and in his ministry and witness to point to Jesus Christ as the source of that light.


We can see that John the Baptist gifts us the Christian perspective, even from prison and impending execution  and even form a negative apprehension of his status. He proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but grounded in the here and now. It is a proclamation of a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories. It is a life which recognises the natural interrelationship between the human and the divine. It calls us to pay attention and to recognise what in Jesus Christ is real and what ephemeral. This is now become our gaudete; this is our real and lasting joy.