This is the text of the message I preached at Delamere Uniting Church on Sunday 11th December 2016, the third Sunday in Advent in Year A.
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
“Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return…” (Clap four times). As it was two weeks ago on the first day of Advent so today we are reminded of the Jewish people progressing up to Jerusalem in celebration. Two weeks ago we heard Psalm 122 and learned about the songs of ascent and the pilgrims going up to a festival at the temple, but today’s reading is from the prophets, not the psalms, and this journey carries a deeper meaning. This is the story of the returning exiles, the members of a second exodus going up to Jerusalem after their time of imprisonment in Mesopotamia. Look at how God is apparently being selective here: in Isaiah 35:8 it reads that the redeemed shall return, but the unclean won’t even be allowed to begin the journey. This is a consecrated road of return from exile to the land of promise; the road itself is safe from both lions and losers. We’ll hear more about that later, but for now let’s jump back a few verses and look at Isaiah 35:5-7 in the light of our gospel story.
In Matthew 11:5 Jesus addresses the doubts of John the Baptiser as a prophet and speaks of his own ministry as the fulfilment of John’s prophecy, and of Isaiah 35:5-7. “Tell John”, says Jesus, “what is happening before your own eyes”. We must remember that John in gaol at this stage, the involuntary guest of the local Herod, so he’s not able to see what the disciples of John, still at large, can see. The very signs prophesied by Isaiah as the marks of the road of return are evident in the ministry of Jesus. The blind, lame, leprous, deaf, dead, and poor are restored to fullness. This is all the sign you need. Note that Jesus doesn’t actually answer John’s question with a yes or a no, Jesus never says “I am he” or “I am not he”; what Jesus actually says is “look at the evidence and draw the obvious conclusion”. There is blessing for those who recognise the obvious truth demonstrated in the real world by observable proof. Use your senses, and be sensible.
In Matthew 11:10 it reads that Jesus proclaims John the Baptiser as the greater than the greatest prophet. I suggest that Jesus said this because John had the sole privilege of pointing out the Messiah in person. Where all other Jewish prophets had spoken of the one to come as an historical figure in the future, John was able to say “there is one coming, and that’s him over there, the one with the beard and the Galilean accent”. Yet Jesus goes on to say, and Matthew records this in 11:11, that even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. So, John is greater than any of the prophets and the patriarchs, not just greater than Isaiah and Elijah but greater than Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well, but he’s a nobody compared to the most insignificant Christian who has ever lived. How is that possible? Jesus says that each of you is greater in prophetic strength than even John the Baptiser, can you believe it?
Well it’s true, and it’s true because we each have the privilege of the lived experience of Jesus. John pointed to a man on the riverside, and then met him in the act of baptism. But then Jesus departed for his own ministry in Galilee and John was nicked by the old bill and taken off to Chateaux Herod. Unlike John, but like John’s disciples who carried his questions to Jesus, we have the evidence of Jesus the healer, the preacher, and the exorcist living amongst us. I can testify to Jesus because of things I have seen, and you can do the same. This is the advantage we have in this Advent season, the lived experience of being where Jesus is ministering to us, to others, and to others through us. (And to us through others of course.) John the Baptiser didn’t get to see any of that, neither did Moses, and even the disciples of John only got to see it when Jesus was physically present with them.
We are eyewitnesses to the Reign of God, the places and the times when the lived experience of the Kingdom of God really is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”. No-one who lived before the first century CE ever saw that, and some places on Earth still haven’t.
It seems clear that John had his doubts. Perhaps the very fact that he was in prison made him question whether Jesus was who John thought he was. After all if you’ve just heralded the messiah and all that that means in Jewish history you might be asking yourself, and the aforementioned messiah, why the righteous are in gaol and the Romans are in Jerusalem. Perhaps he didn’t have doubts so much as he felt out of the loop: as we have said John hadn’t been present for any of Jesus’ ministry so news of the eyewitnesses was enough for him. Either way John’s questions gave Jesus the opportunity to give some great answers. “Look at the evidence in light of the prophets” says Jesus, “I’m doing the things that Isaiah said would be done”. Seeing is believing, Jesus knows this, and Jesus suggests that it is actually okay to doubt. Jesus doesn’t castigate John for his questions; he simply points John towards the evidence, and praises John’s faith and obedience behind John’s back.
Doubt is not unbelief; doubt it is various locations along the road to deepening belief. In today’s epistle James points to the example of the prophets who spoke the truth of God with patience, speaking out confidently what they were very unlikely to see fulfilled. In the time of John the Baptiser Jesus’ work was underway but it was yet to be completed, so Jesus’ message to John was to not lose heart. As a prophet John had foreseen the end and he had foretold that which was coming, but Jesus reminded him that the end was not there yet and the coming is still coming. It is still coming, you were right and you can have faith in God, but be patient.
This message is good for us too, isn’t it? For all that we have seen in this broken world so desperate for more of the sovereignty of God to roll across it with healing and unity we have also seen where God’s sovereignty has been rolled out already. We have seen miracles, we have heard the good news, and the signs of truth and relentless advance are there (here) before us. We too can be patient for what we want to see, based in the confidence of what we have seen.
So what of the unclean who aren’t allowed a look in? Remember them from page one and Isaiah 35:8? A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it. But it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. My goodness, that sounds a little harsh and dismissive, doesn’t it? Elitist? In closing I offer you two responses.
First thing of two. Isaiah is saying that the road is free of predators. It’s not that only the religious in-crowd get to use the road but that it is safe from the deliberately evil muggers and murderers. Remember, this is a road through the wilderness, so you need to be on guard for bushrangers and Bedouin. Just as in Isaiah 35:9 where it reads there are no lions or ravenous beasts so it reads in Isaiah 35:8 the road is safe from ravenous men.
Second thing of two. Isaiah is saying that this road passes through what once was desert, but is not any more. In Isaiah 35:1 the wilderness is glad and the desert is in full bloom. In Isaiah 35:5-7 we read of the miracles accompanying the travellers on this road, miracles seen in the ministry life of Jesus. There are no unclean upon this road because everyone who walks this road is made clean by walking it. If the dead can be raised and the blind made to see anything ritually or morally inappropriate carried by a pilgrim cannot last long on that road.
The road we walk, the road of miracles and the road of the coming king, is the redeeming road of the Lord. We know it is because we see the acts of healing and restoration taking place all around us, where the once-leprous are stopping to touch the blossoming of the desert itself and the once-lame and once-dead are dancing alongside us on the road. Advent means that the promises we have heard, just like the once-deaf have heard, and the promises we have begun to see unfold, just like the once-blind have seen, fill us with hope for the more which is to come.
Our job, as ever, is to follow the example of the disciples of John at the instruction of Jesus. “Go, and tell what you have seen”, and we can tell because we have seen. This is why John who is the greatest of all who have been born on earth is also the least of us. We have the privilege of telling what we have seen.
So, what’s stopping you? Go. Tell.