Tag Archives: john the baptist

15 December – Offended at Jesus

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Advent 3

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

In a sentence
Jesus’ ministry troubles even his closest allies because, if this is the Messiah does, everything must change

A report this week related that Bill Shorten, the former leader of the federal opposition, was the least popular of Australian major party leaders for nearly 30 years. The apparent offensiveness of Mr Shorten and the policies of his party was enough, of course, to bring about the surprising election result of May this year.

Whatever we might make of that, what are we to make of Jesus’ declaration, ‘Blessed are they who take no offence at me’: ‘Blessed are they who are not scandalised by me’ (the key Greek word is the root of our English word ‘scandal’). We have some pretty clear ideas now about the offence given by Labor and its policies but why might people take offence at Jesus, given the kinds of things he has been doing? The blind are regaining vision, the lame are walking, illness is being overcome, the deaf are hearing, the poor are hearing good news and the dead, even, are being raised. What political leader could imagine that, if she were doing that kind of thing, she could possibly fail a political popularity test? To those for whom life is struggle for relief, Jesus is said to bring precisely what we desire, and we would consider anyone a saviour who performed such wonders for us.

So where is the offence? It is not the rumour of the miraculous. John would have expected the Messiah to be working miracles, and it is to him that Jesus makes this unexpected declaration: ‘Happy you are if I am no scandal to you.’

Indeed, John already knows and believes what is happening; it is Jesus’ incontrovertible miracles themselves which seem to cause him concern: are these the miracles the true Messiah would perform? What matters is not the miracles themselves but the kinds of miracles they are said to be, and for whom they are performed. This is to say that the offence which might be taken here is not the offence implied against ‘the laws of nature’. The offence is political; it is against the social, moral and religious order. Why is the Messiah performing this type of miracle? Why is the Messiah concerned with the blind, the ill, the poor and the dead? What are these in face of the expected approach of the reign of God?

Of course, we know – after a fashion – that God is concerned about such things. This is the source of Christian activism and political engagements, and also of many of their secular equivalents.

But the needs of the poor are not quite the point in Jesus’ comment, ‘take no offence’. That Jesus happens to help the poor is less the point here than that helping the poor is all that Jesus does; the only evidence that Jesus is the Christ is that he does these things for these people. In the context of his own preaching, John hears what Jesus is doing and wonders to himself: Is this the axe at the root of the tree? Is this the winnowing fork that sifts the just and the unjust? Is this the baptism with fire (cf. 3.1-13) which is God’s oncoming storm of righteousness?

Jesus tells the crowds, There has never been one ‘born of women’ who has been greater than John the Baptist and yet the one who can answer those questions with a Yes – the one who knows that the Messiah of this God would do such things – such a one is greater than John. The wild-eyed prophet who calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord knows that that the Lord is coming, but does not yet know the Lord. For it is the healing touch of Jesus which is John’s axe and winnowing fork.

What does it mean that the Messiah does this? It does not mean that we are to do as Jesus does. We are, of course, to do as Jesus does, but this text is not about us becoming healers or helpers. This is because the possibility that the greatest of us all might be offended at Jesus is the possibility that we might be offended at Jesus.

How could it be that a vision towards the improvement of the lot of those with less might be offensive? Mr Shorten would be right still to be pondering that. In that connection we might say that to be offended at Jesus’ expression of God’s righteousness is a ‘vote’ against him. And a vote against Jesus is a vote for what?

A vote against Jesus here is a vote for ourselves, against others. It is a vote against the thought that when God comes it might not be for us but perhaps against us. For, if we are not those in need of Jesus’ healing touch are we, then, among the ‘brood of vipers’ against whom John railed (3.7)?

In fact, the gospel doesn’t accuse us in this way. It simply raises the question: do you take offence that God’s righteousness comes for those who don’t look particularly righteous? Do you take offence that God’s righteousness comes not in disintegrating judgement but in integrating reconciliation?

Funny kind of righteousness it is which puts the axe to the root not of the person who might seem to deserve it but to the weeds which have grown strong and choked out the gospel for her. Funny kind of God it is whose winnowing fork does not separate the good from the bad but the needy from that which has made them so. Funny kind of fire it is which burns to heal.

There is a shock in ‘Blessed are those who take no offence at me.’ The shock is that we have no part in Jesus if do not, in one sense or another, know ourselves to be poor, blind, lame, in captivity, dead. If this is what the Messiah does, then the unrighteous and the unrighteous, the poor and the rich, the dead and the alive have some something to see and receive here.

The greatest of all born of women sits in a prison and wonders, Are you, who does this, the one we have been waiting for? Because, if you are, this changes everything.

9 December – God’s crooked way

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Advent 2

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Luke 3:1-6

‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’

And what was that word? In fact, today’s reading cuts out before we hear from the Baptist himself (next week!) but his preaching is characterised with a few lines borrowed from Isaiah: first,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.

And then,

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

What we might miss here is that these two parts are in different verbal ‘moods’: ‘Prepare’ is in the imperative (‘Do this’) but ‘every valley shall be filled’ is in the indicative (what is or will be happening). This matters because Isaiah is not saying that God’s approach is dependent upon our preparing the way. The valleys shall be filled, the mountains and hills shall be made low. Whatever efforts we might make in this regard, only God can guarantee that it happens: God will prepare the way for God.

This is the kind of thing theological types – your preacher included – are likely consider to be a lovely little twist in the text. Yet, having shifted our hearing of Isaiah from an actionable imperative (which would at least keep us busy) to a promised indicative (which we might only need to wait for), we then have to deal with a troubling fact. For we have to say that, on the face of it, there is no way in which this filling, levelling, straightening or smoothing can be said actually to have taken place. Even if we allow what we must – that Isaiah speaks here metaphorically and not about Grand Canyons or Rocky Mountains high – there is little in the way of Jesus which is smooth and straight – metaphorically or otherwise. After an enthusiastic initial reception he quickly meets with opposition, and we know very well where he ends: precisely not a levelling or a smoothing but a raising up on what is crooked and rough, and a laying-down in a valley as deep as the grave of a God.

And so we are shifted suddenly to the thought that Isaiah’s valley, mountain, crookedness and roughness are metaphors of the cross of Jesus. It is the cross with which God must deal in his approach to us – even before Jesus’ cross has even appeared on the horizon. It is this which God guarantees will be overcome.

How can this be?

On a simpler metaphorical hearing of Isaiah, the valleys and mountains and challenging paths represent obstacles in us to be put aside so that God might draw near (or, slightly better, that God might put aside in order to draw near). Yet this is to imply that the human being is not one but two things – an inner self which is accessible apart from an outer self with its better and worse commitments and enthralments, its history of things done and suffered – all that might have been different, and better.

But God knows us better than this. The valleys and the mountains and the crookedness and roughness which get between us and God have not been swept away in any simple sense because they are us. They are not between God and the true us; they are not obstacles around which we could navigate (or God has to navigate) in order that the real God can meet face to face with our real selves.

These things are us: we are what we do. What the Gentile does to the Jew (and vice-versa!), what the free does to the slave, the male to the female; what the border patrol does to the asylum seeker, the coloniser does to indigenes, the rich to the poor; what the faithful do to their God – these are not ‘the devil made me do it’ moments, as if I and my actions were two separate realities. This is us and the powers to which we are subject bound in a symbiosis of such intimacy that the life and death of the one would the life and death of the other. To lay the mountain low and straighten the crooked way – in the simple metaphorical sense of setting aside the obstacles between us and God – this would be to end us, for there would be no ‘us’ left.

And so the obstacles stay in place and become manifest in the cross. The cross, then, is not an accident – something which just ‘happened’ to happen when God came. It is unavoidable without being either intended or desired or needed by God for salvation’s sake. The cross is God staying his hand, allowing the depth of the valleys and the height of the mountains to continue because they are what make us us.

And now we come to the sense in which Isaiah speaks the gospel of God’s way in the world. The valleys and mountains and byways are shown in fact not to be obstacles to God’s passage but simply features in a landscape in which God chooses to dwell. The salvation which ‘all flesh’ will see (Isaiah) is that we are saved as we are, here and now, valleys and mountains and crooked and rough ways that we are.

We hear more from John next week about what that salvation looks like, what life with such a crooked God looks like. But for now two final things, first a liturgical illustration of the point and, second, a poetic summation.

All we have been thinking this morning is why each week we take a sign of death as a sign of life – nourishment in bread and wine said to be body broken and blood poured out. It is ghastly imagery but we persist with it because the valleys and the mountains are not wiped away, the cross is not removed or forgotten. For these are part of us. The only question is whether such things divide us from God. The sacrament uses these things as signs of the gospel to say that they do not separate us, that they are no barrier. This is the way in which the valleys and mountains between us and God are overcome – they become signs of the power of God. And so this is what we mean when we declare that the kingdom and the power and the glory are of this God: nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus Christ the Son.

And finally, the poetic summation: as I reflected on Isaiah’s word in our reading this morning, the word ‘crooked’ reminded me of a poem which, I realised, slightly modified would serve well to summarise what I’ve been trying to say about the God who deals somewhat crookedly with us, reckoning as righteous what clearly is not, calling straight and smooth what clearly is not. For those of you who would like to check the poem without my changes, the original poet is Mother Goose.

There was a crooked God, who walked a crooked mile,
Who found a crooked people and spent a crooked while;
They found a crooked staff and the crooked God unfurled
The crooked way a crooked God would save a crooked world.