I used to be indecisive ...
Sermon at St James, Colwall, 15 December 2019
Matthew 11: 2-11
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
In our family we have a saying which we use when we can’t make up our minds. Most of you will know it, I’m sure. One of us is staring at the menu in a restaurant and can’t decide between the risotto and the fish-cakes and someone says “I used to be indecisive and now I’m not so sure.” It is used too for bigger decisions like choosing between two possible special Christmas presents to buy or whether to go for a new job or a new car or even a new house or even last Thursday who to vote for. We don’t know which way to jump, which way to go. We used to be indecisive and now we are not so sure.
I’m tempted to use the saying against John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading although it might be more appropriate to accuse him of being decisive in the first place but now he’s not so sure.
When John first met Jesus at the river Jordan he singled him out as the one who is to come and at first asked Jesus to baptise him rather than the other way round and spoke of Jesus as being a man of power. In other words John saw Jesus as the promised Messiah. He seemed in no doubt and was absolutely sure of it.
So today’s gospel account comes as a bit of a surprise. John has been imprisoned by Herod for criticizing his marriage arrangements and it is from prison that John sends some friends to Jesus. They ask on behalf of John “Are you the one who is to come or are we to look for another?”
So why the indecision? Why has he become less sure of Jesus? We can only speculate and say perhaps Jesus is not fitting the role John had expected for him. Jesus tells John’s friends, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them”
Was John expecting Jesus to be a powerful ruler, a kingly figure who would draw people to him, challenge the Roman invaders and bring in a new age? It was a common view at the time. The people yearned for freedom from the Roman yoke and wanted the Messiah to come and lead them. The prophets and their religious leaders pointed them in that direction. And now Jesus was merely wandering around the countryside teaching and healing in a rather quiet and unassuming way. So perhaps Jesus does not fit John’s expectations of him and that’s why he is not sure any more and wants some reassurance. He used to be decisive but now he is not so sure.
This whole incident illustrates a flaw which human beings have shown throughout their history and it is the serious mistake of making God in their own image, of forming an idea of God with which they are comfortable or fits their expectations of him, and the same applies to our views of Jesus. Some people have seen Jesus as a dreamy hippie or as an angel in disguise or as the supreme human being and in art he has been portrayed in thousands of different ways.
So you and I need to take care. We need to get as near as we can to the authentic Jesus, the real person who has had such a massive impact on the history of our world and the individual lives of millions. As John the Baptist got his friends to check out this Jesus and to ask pointed questions, so do we.
And this is especially true for this time of year – Advent. Advent is four weeks of preparation for the coming of Christ, four weeks to prepare to welcome him once again and therefore it is rather critical that we check out our view of him. We need to anchor our faith and get it accurately fixed once again.
So let me suggest a way of doing this which I tried for myself a few days ago and found useful. For the last three Sundays in Advent our Gospel readings have been from Matthew, so I decided to take my New Testament, sit down and read Matthew’s Gospel from Chapter 1 to the end in one go. This was a way for me to discover once again the fully rounded view of Jesus according to Matthew. It took less than two hours but it recalibrated my understanding and set all sorts of questions running; like If a man had read Matthew’s Gospel right through would he have become a marauding Crusader a thousand years ago; if a man had read Matthew’s Gospel right through would he have tortured heretics for the Inquisition or fought in the wars between Protestants and Catholics. So many atrocities committed because of a misunderstood view of Jesus - an appalling history.
So we may be indecisive and we may not be so sure and therefore we should take our cue from John the Baptist - we need to check things out. So why not sit down sometime this week and read Matthew’s Gospel from beginning to end – you can skip the genealogy in chapter one and just remind yourself that Matthew was probably a Jew writing for Jews – but I will say no more. Over to you.