Christmas People and the Kingdom of God

December 11, 2016

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Preached by the Revd Jono Harvey, using Matthew 11.2-11 and Isaiah 35.1-10 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 11th December 2016, the Third Sunday of Advent.

Porridge, Orange is the new black, Escape from Alcatraz, The Shawshank redemption, Prisoner Cell Block H, Prison Break.

It seems that my only experience of prison is through TV programmes and Hollywood blockbusters. We seem to have a thing about prison movies. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but these films seem to follow a pattern, an innocent person’s desperate attempts to right an injustice and secure their freedom.

Our gospel reading finds John the Baptist in prison.

He has publicly rebuked Herod for adultery and in revenge Herod has John thrown into prison.

John’s task had been to prepare the world for the arrival of the Messiah, a prophetic message confirmed when he baptized Jesus and witnessed divine approval from heaven, declaring “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Yet, those events, compelling as they were, lost some of their impact on him when he found himself in prison. Possibly for as long as two years by this point…

John the Baptist was expecting a Messiah who would expel the Gentile oppressors and establish a kingdom of righteousness and peace.

Instead he hears stories of an itinerant rabbi with no place to call his own, a friend of sinners, a story-teller who resists giving any clear answers, a prophet who refuses to give a definitive sign.

And here John finds himself languishing in prison.

Things were not going as he expected.

The Old Testament presented the Messiah as a suffering servant; but also as a reigning monarch. If Jesus was the Messiah, then why was He still humbly walking the land and not assuming regal power?

From within the confines of his prison cell, John had heard of the things that Jesus was doing, but his expectations weren’t being met.

The land was not being liberated. The oppressors were not being defeated. This was not the kingdom he was expecting.

And so when he hears the things that Jesus is doing, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah or should we expect someone else?”

Perhaps I could put John’s question like this; I hear about the good things you are doing but I expected more. I see a suffering servant but where is the reigning monarch? Are you the king we are waiting for? Or is another going to join you? Or is it someone completely different?

Perhaps John shouldn’t have been surprised. The prophet Zechariah declares;

‘See your king comes to you righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey…,”

Jesus doesn’t quote the words of Zechariah, but instead turns to John’s disciples and quotes the prophet Isaiah; “Tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

We heard these words from the book of Isaiah this morning. Your God will come…and the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongues shout for joy.

John would recognize the words from Isaiah’s prophecy, and the answer would bring the peace John needed to sustain him for the difficult days ahead.

A careful reading of Isaiah shows us that Jesus left out one of the things that the Messiah would do. Out of love for his friend, Jesus didn’t include Isaiah’s phrase “proclaim liberty to the captives.”

John was a captive in prison and he wasn’t about to be liberated.

In one sense Jesus’ answer to John was that He was doing the works of the Messiah, but not all of them yet. He first had to suffer and die to rescue people from the prison of sin, and then He would establish His reign.

So what is the message for us today? Perhaps it is that we are to be people who continue the works that Jesus began, that we as his church are to demonstrate signs of the now and not yet of God’s kingdom.

John’s Gospel tells us that whoever believes in Jesus will do the works that he has been doing, and even greater things. That is our kingdom task.

Pope John Paul II used the phrase ‘Easter people’, declaring; “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.”

I want to live as an Easter person. As someone who is aware of the awesome and amazing life giving power of the Resurrection of Jesus.

But today, as we walk through advent together, perhaps we can commit to being Christmas People. People who live Christmas every day.

Not that we live on a diet of mince pies and turkey. Or give presents every day. Or sing carols. Or decorate our houses. Or buy a two-week version of the Radio Times. Or any of the things that we value as our Christmas traditions.

As Christmas people we join with Jesus through the power of the Spirit, in demonstrating signs of the now and not-yet kingdom of God.

We can uphold the cause of the oppressed

feed the hungry.

give sight to the blind,

lift up those who are bowed down,

watch over the foreigner

sustain the fatherless and the widow

proclaim good news to the poor

even set prisoners free.

For these are the works of God’s now and not-yet kingdom. These are the tasks of Christmas people. For we are the hands and feet of Jesus this Christmas. We are his body.

We are people who are aware of the awesome and amazing life giving power of the Incarnation, for we are Christmas People and Immanuel is our song.