Go tell John…

a sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

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or the second Sunday in a row we are faced with the figure of John the Baptist, but this time rather than finding him in the desert wilderness proclaiming his call to repentance we hear that he has landed in prison. Like so many of the prophets of old, John has dared to confront a ruler—has dared to speak truth to power—and those in power aren’t fond of being confronted. John has publically criticized King Herod for his moral failings, and to curb the public embarrassment Herod has locked him in the royal prison. It is a fate almost worse than death, for as Mark tells us, “when Herod heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” “He liked to listen to him,” which sounds as if Herod treated John almost as a diversion or a bit of religious entertainment.

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In his imprisonment John begins to wonder if he hasn’t maybe been wrong in heralding Jesus as the promised one. John had been so sure that Jesus was the one who would bring in the reign of God—and that he would bring it in with fire—yet there in his prison cell he sees no sign that anything has changed. Herod still rules as a kind of puppet king, the Roman Empire still holds the real power, and society is as filled with hypocrisy, corruption, pain, and disorder as before Jesus’ arrival. Not only that, but John has heard these stories that Jesus is associating with all manner of unacceptable people. Rather than fasting and preaching urgent repentance, Jesus was said to eat and drink with sinners.

And so John sends some of his followers to visit Jesus and to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ It is a fair question. Given all that John has heard about Jesus and given all that John has personally risked in his own prophetic ministry, Jesus has some explaining to do.

Jesus answered them, ‘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 the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

These are words that evoke the notion of the year of Jubilee, the time of promise, the promised inbreaking of the spirit of God into the world. These are words that would have instantly resonated for poor John in his jail cell. These are words that echo the great and deep traditions of old, promising the binding up of broken hearts, liberty to captives, good news to the poor.

John had been so very, very sure that the arrival of a messiah was to be all fire and judgment, and here Jesus recalls him to another way of understanding the promise; a deeper and more ancient way.

In these days of Advent, we too need to be reminded of that deeper and more ancient way, which is why today we read from the prophet Isaiah and listened as he sang to us one of his great songs of promise:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

The theme of the prophet’s song, writes Walter Brueggemann, is that “the coming governance of the Lord will radically transform both bereft ‘nature’ and disabled ‘history.’”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;

These rich images of springs of water gushing up in the midst of the dry land and of the desert bursting into blossom—joyfully singing no less—are matched by equally rich images of human healing and restoration: “the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

And Isaiah continues,

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;

It is a road cut through the dangerous wilderness, bringing the people safely home… from where? Isaiah probably has the very real political and historical context of captivity in Babylon in view, though not only that. He’s singing to us of a deep and transformative restoration of all of creation. And still singing of that highway across the desert, the prophet continues,

the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;

Does this reference to the “unclean” being banned from the road mean that only some are allowed to travel it? Or does it mean that those who had been deemed unclean by the old law—the leprous and the maimed for instance—will be healed and so very much able to walk that road in the company of the community? “The power of death and dysfunction will be broken,” writes Brueggemann. “It is no wonder that God’s recompense (vengeance) is received as transformative compassion.”

‘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 the poor have good news brought to them.” Go tell John that he was right about the inbreaking of the reign of God. Go tell John that I am the one he thought I was. Go tell John that God’s judgment and God’s mercy cannot be severed, one from the other. Go tell John that even Herod’s prison walls cannot keep him truly captive, even if Herod kills him.  Go tell John that each time a blind person has their sight restored, and each time a broken-heart is tended, and each time a meal is shared with outcast people, the reign of God is indeed in our midst.

As it is today.  We still wait and watch for those streams to flow in the wilderness of the world, but we must do so in a way that embraces the signs of promise and restoration. Whenever old barriers fall, whenever wounds of body or spirit are healed, whenever meals and stories and joy are shared, whenever one of us dares to reach beyond our own selves and compassionately touch the life of another, the reign of God is experienced.

We wait and we watch and we hope… and we live now and already into the promise. That is the claim that lies at the heart of this season of Advent.

May the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting. Amen.

Jamie Howison

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