Who is he?
—11 December 2016, Rev Margaret Bird
Isaiah 35. 1–10.
James 5. 7–10.
Matthew 11. 2–11.
There are still many questions that we would like answered.
How did the universe begin?
What is the meaning of life? (If you are a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan then you will know it’s 42!)
What did come first—the chicken or the egg?
Why does toast always seem to land butter side down?
Human beings were made with enquiring minds. We demand answers to questions. As a young child develops, they ask questions; that is how we learn. As we grow, we begin to make discoveries for ourselves.
Some questions remain unanswered—like questions of faith that we find difficult—questions that perhaps cannot always be answered and must remain in a sort of limbo between certainty and doubt.
So when John’s disciples go to Jesus looking for answers we can sympathise with their predicament. Matthew tells us that they were sent by John the Baptist to question Jesus, because John has spoken out against Herod. (You remember how finally he was put to death on the whim of a young girl and her mother, for the moment he is in a prison cell awaiting his fate.)
We can imagine him pondering what has happened during his lifetime. How did he get here? His meeting with Jesus near the Jordan.
The miracle of his birth and his commitment to this extraordinary way of life. His ministry: the call to repentance and his dedication to serve God no matter how hard and how difficult that might become.
Then there were the followers that gathered around him and his boldness, even facing up to the immoralities of those who could harm him like Herod who was the reason he was there, in prison, in the first place.
So why has he sent these followers to Jesus with their questions?
All too much for John?
Is he now in a place of doubt?
After all this is his cousin—perhaps they were brought up together; knew each other. Jesus is family, so how can this man whom he has known since boyhood be the Messiah? The one he has been preaching about and telling everyone that he is near? The Messiah is very close!
Has John heard what Jesus has been doing and this is now a life-changer. He now sees what was hidden or challenging to believe...or does he come from a confident, trusting place but sends his disciples to discover for themselves just who this Jesus is so that they might believe and accept too?
We can only come to our own conclusions.
But Jesus reply is very interesting: he invites those whom John has sent, those with questions, to weigh up the evidence for themselves and make their own judgements. There are no direct answers, only more questions
What were they looking for? Who were they looking for?
If Jesus was the Messiah then what would they expect to find?
What did the scriptures say about the one who was to come?
Did their expectations match what they saw and heard?
Right at the beginning of his ministry, in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes an astonishing statement in the Synagogue of his home town of Nazareth. Whilst he is reading from the scrolls, a passage from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells the assembled crowd that these words are about him.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’, he reads, ‘because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
But now, instead of answers, Jesus reminds them of the miracles he has performed that they have witnessed or heard about. He points them towards the scriptures: words very familiar to them because they have been waiting for so long for the Messiah to arrive. But first, God promised to send the one who would come to prepare the way; and they knew him: the prophet that Isaiah had told them about, the messenger. But what did they expect to see? A prince in a palace? Or a God-fearing man, living in poverty. Did the John that they knew, the John they had followed, the John that baptised them in the Jordan, living representation of those familiar words from the scriptures?
Jesus doesn’t give any explicit answers: he gently leads them and invites them to examine the evidence for themselves.
What miracles has he performed? What have they seen? Have the blind received their sight? Have the lame walked? Have the dead been raised? Can the deaf hear? Has Jesus brought good news for the poor? Isn’t all this what the prophets have been saying about the promised one? The one who saves, the one sent by God? The one John talks about?
Jesus is encouraging them to see in him what they have been searching for. He wants them to believe that he is the Messiah, not because that is what they have been told, but because they know in their hearts that Jesus is the one.
Jesus is asking them to own their faith for themselves. He wants them to be a disciple and not just a hanger-on. If John had been there and told them that Jesus was the Messiah, they would have believed because he told them; but Jesus wants them to weigh up the evidence for themselves and come to a personal decision based on seeing, on experiencing and on owning a living faith that grows within them.
Children who are born into a Christian family are encouraged to learn about God, about Jesus from an early age; but there comes a point in all our lives when we have to make our own decisions about our futures. Most of us choose our own life partner, our own career path and don’t rely on our parents to make that choice for us. When we choose a new car, a school for our children or where we want to live or go on holiday—do we rely on someone to decide for us? When we become an adult we accept responsibility for our own decisions and don’t expect others to make them for us. Isn’t that what a dictatorship or a fascist regime is all about? I’m sure you can think of a few places past and present that fit into that scenario!
So why would we want to be told what to believe especially when it comes to our faith?
We can still doubt, still question because that is a trait of being human; we question to learn, to understand the incomprehensible—but our faith must be our own and not that of our family and friends. It should be embedded in our hearts so that our lives are ordered by it. Faith will not grow if we retain a childish view of the world or just follow the herd without any thought or reflection on what the birth of Jesus means to us.
So I suppose we must ask ourselves: Do we need signs of wonder and magic to prove that Jesus is our Saviour or that God exists? What are our experiences? What do we see around us that strengthens faith? Or perhaps it is also our doubts, our questions that help us to believe.
Sometimes we see the extraordinary in the very ordinary. A quiet reflective moment in a busy day, the healing touch of a friend or an act of unexpected kindness from someone we hardly know. God reveals himself in unexplained ways. Miracles need not be exceptional because miracles are part of God’s created world. This is how God ordained the world we live in.
This is our world, our time. We don’t have the advantage like those followers of John to see Jesus at work (healing, teaching) we can’t listen to him speaking. Yet he is inviting us to make up our minds too.
In this Advent time of waiting, of wondering and contemplating on Jesus promise to return, we hold in our hand precious gifts: the words from the Gospel writers and the early Christians, the inspired thoughts and writings of Christian men and women down the ages and the companionship of our fellow travellers as we discover and reflect together.
Jesus shakes us out of our lethargy and asks us to remember that something special is about to happen. The theologian, Thomas Merton said, “Into this world, this demented inn in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited.” We have the same evidence, the same words from Jesus, the same message that John’s disciples saw and heard.
Who is he? Jesus says: You decide who I am.