Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent 3: did St John the Baptist doubt?

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and St John the Baptist continues to be the focus of our Gospel reading just as he was last Sunday. The importance of thinking of St John during this season of Advent should be fairly self-evident: the Baptist is the fore-runner of the Christ. And just as he led the way for the Messiah in his ministry, calling people to repent of their sins, so too did he lead the way for the Messiah in the fate he was to suffer, being arrested, imprisoned, and put to death for speaking God's truth to the world.

Today's reading has the saint, as he languishes in prison, sending some of his followers to ask Jesus if he is he was the Messiah or if they were to wait for another. A superficial reading of this might tempt us to believe that St John, locked up and alone, has doubts about Jesus and sends his disciples to him looking to be convinced that this is indeed the Christ. But that would be to ignore what St John has said of Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels. Indeed, the moment Jesus comes to him for baptism, you will recall, he declares that he is not worthy to do such a thing, but rather that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. There was far less evidence to suggest that Jesus was the Messiah at that point then there was when he sent these men to Jesus – and yet he had no hesitation in declaring to his followers then that he was the Messiah. So why would he doubt now? And the answer is that he does not. But he does want his followers to know and believe the truth about Jesus. So he sends them to Christ so that they may learn the truth and believe and follow the one who has come into the world for the redemption of all.

And we should take careful note of the way in which Jesus replies. He tells them that the evidence of the great acts of power he has performed should tell them all they need to know. He does so by alluding to some of the Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament; in fact those references to the Messiah are drawn from the reading we have today from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, you may note, speaks of the blind seeing and the lame walking being signs of the Messiah; but Jesus adds the lepers being cleansed and the dead being raised – which are in the Old Testament signs of the power of God himself, not the Messiah. Jesus is, in effect, telling these men who come to him that he is indeed the Messiah … but not the Messiah as they expected him to be … for the Messiah is both God and man, God incarnate.

What we have in this passage is John the Fore-runner fulfilling his mission, by pointing others to the Messiah; and we have the Messiah letting those followers know that not only has the long awaited Messiah come into the world, but also their God and Saviour.

And this, of course, is done with a purpose. And that purpose is so that these followers of St John would not only become followers of the one who is both God and man, but so that they would lead others to become followers of his also. St John wants them to know the truth so that they can share that truth with others so that all men might be saved.

There are, of course, lessons for us in this passage that are of particular relevance to us in the season of Advent. The first is that it reassures us, just as it reassured St John's followers, that the Saviour has come into the world and with it the hope of ever-lasting life. Secondly, understanding the truth of his first coming makes certain his promise that he would come again – for the promises made to us by God himself from the lips of the second person of the blessed Trinity are certain indeed. That leads us inevitably to the purpose of this Advent season – that we must prepare ourselves for the time when that promise will be fulfilled and he does indeed come again.

That is no easy task when we do not know when that time will be. We are therefore left with no alternative but to live as if he might come at any moment. And to be ready to face him we must live a life that shows we truly love him – and he told us what we must do to achieve that. Those who love him will keep his commandments. So we must strive daily to live in accordance with God's law. Difficult for a frail human being to accomplish – but with God, nothing is impossible. We have his love, his Word, and the Sacraments of his Church to help us. And when we struggle, when we are tempted to go astray, we may do well to consider the words of the Apostle St Paul when he told us that God allows no one to be tested beyond their limits; we can resist even the greatest temptation if we fight hard to do so. And when we fail – which we will, for Christ alone is the perfect man who is without sin – then we have the additional comfort of knowing that God will forgive all who truly repent, even granting the power to the ordained ministers of his Church to pronounce absolution to those who confess their sins so that they may know that God has indeed forgiven them.


And as I finish I leave you with this final thought. In this Advent season of preparation for the Second Coming of our Lord we may look with some wonder at the world around us in which many seem to have forgotten what this time is for, and instead treat it as a holiday season for shopping, parties, and other pleasures. Seemingly they have forgotten, if they ever knew, the joy that is to be found in knowing the Truth of Christ and the hope we have in him of Salvation. Should we not also think to share during this joyful season the joy we have in our Christian faith? It was a joy that St John the Baptist sought to share with those who followed him, even as he lay in his prison cell; and it was the joy that they one he sent them to came into the world to bring to us all. A joy that I pray all here will know more fully during this season; even as I ask that you pray the same for me and all others. Amen. 

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