Renewal and restoration – a long way off, or already here?

Stephen Adam, 15 December 2019

James 5: 7–10; Matthew 11: 2–11

Last month my wife and I achieved a long-held ambition with a visit to New Zealand – a stunningly beautiful country – and everywhere we were met with warmth and friendliness. We spent a couple of days in Christchurch, our hotel just yards from the ruins of the cathedral so badly damaged in the earthquake of 2011 which also wrought devastation on the heart of the city, with 185 people killed and several thousand injured.

The response of the cathedral to this disaster has been to develop a prophetic vision for the future, undergirded by prayer. Against all sorts of difficulties the cathedral will be restored and renewed, the Word will again be preached in this place, and the cathedral will again be the glue binding the community together. It’s an inspiring prophetic vision for this Advent season which will demand patience and endurance to deliver – all the qualities set out in our epistle this morning.

We also visited the temporary building serving as the cathedral; with typical Kiwi humour this is known as ‘the cardboard cathedral’ on account of its corrugated external cladding. A sign outside proudly proclaims ‘The Anglican Diocese of Christchurch – Christchurch Transitional Cathedral’. I guess we could call our temporary home at Western ‘St Paul’s Transitional Church’! But whereas our vision, God willing, will be achieved within the next year, the Christians in New Zealand face a much longer and tougher road to realise their prophetic vision of renewal.

And so in our gospel reading we turn to John the Baptist, the last and the greatest of the prophets pointing to God’s promise of renewal and restoration with the coming of our Lord as Messiah. But what a contrast to our reading last week! Then John had been absolutely sure of himself, with a harsh and unremitting message of repentance and judgement, preparing the way for the Messiah who with a winnowing fork will separate the good wheat from the chaff. His testimony about Jesus had been fearless and unwavering.

But now, as Jesus’ ministry with his disciples develops, John the Baptist is in prison. His message had been an uncomfortable one to those in power and it’s no wonder that having accused Herod of philandering with his sister-in-law he was to end up being executed on the whim of a courtesan, who represents the unredeemed and seamy side of all our lives.

John is in the darkness of prison both literally and metaphorically. He is consumed by doubts; all his old certainties are being ruthlessly questioned. It’s one of those 4 am moments that we have all at times experienced: we wrestle and struggle, but the darkness of the moment is overpowering. And so John has a question to ask of Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

Perhaps the darkness of that prison cell had invaded his soul. Perhaps he felt abandoned and uncertain of his future. Even the saints – perhaps especially the saints – know what it is to wrestle with uncertainty and ambiguity. Mother Teresa famously wrote,

My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains. People think that my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew.

But there is perhaps another explanation for John’s questioning of whether Jesus really was the Messiah whose advent he had proclaimed so forcefully. Here he is in prison, and what he hears of what Jesus is doing doesn’t correspond at all with what he had expected.

To a fierce denouncer of sins, surely the Messiah’s prime task must be judgement. Yet here is Jesus going round teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, mixing with sinners and outcasts, and not being too fussy over fasting or following other strict rules. Jesus isn’t turning out to be the sort of messiah he had expected.

And that perhaps raises a question for us today – are we too limited in our understanding? Do we try to put limits around God’s grace, try to cut him down to some human-sized shape of what he should be doing to meet our expectations, rather than being lost in the mystery of his love for his creation?

Rather than give any proof to John about who he is, Jesus simply responds to John’s question – as he does to our questions – with an invitation. ‘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.’ The language immediately connects with Isaiah’s great prophecy of redemption and renewal (chapter 35), of how ‘the ransomed of the Lord shall return … they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away’.

To be sure, make no mistake, there is judgement in Jesus’ presence as the next few chapters of Matthew show the varying responses of people to his message, but his primary activity is the restoration of the needy and giving life and hope to the unloved.

There is judgement in Jesus’ presence, but his primary activity is the restoration of the needy and giving life and hope to the unloved.

John needed a new and enlarged understanding of Jesus’ mission.

John’s questioning from the darkness of his prison cell reflects the character of this season of Advent. It’s a time of darkness, of longing, of yearning for the coming of the kingdom; the sense of a world battered and bruised, longing for the redemption God promises in his Saviour.

This year, our Advent preparations seem more than usually fraught with danger and uncertainty. Yes, of course we live in a world pervaded by beauty, goodness, energy, creativity, love and joy; but it’s also a world poisoned by violence, hatred, cruelty and fear.

In our own country the political landscape for the past three years has been consumed by Brexit, cutting across traditional political and social divides. Political discourse has become angry and confrontational, public debate brutalised. Anger is always a hazard of politics at a time of rapid change, but anger alone is dangerous because it’s a mood, a cry of pain – it can’t be a strategy. Information technology has transformed the tone of global culture; smartphones and social media can encourage indignation and abuse and spread it like contagion overnight.

The events leading up to Thursday’s general election have been deeply divisive, yet somehow out of that we now have a responsibility to recover what the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, calls a ‘politics of hope’ – strengthening families and communities, rebuilding fractured relationships and seeking the common good.

In these uncertain times, in this uncertain Advent, what might our response as Christians be? Just to wring our hands in despair or cynicism? Or to ignore it all as beyond our competence or ability to influence, and carry on with Christmas as if there is no tomorrow? Or do we believe that God is faithful, even in uncertain times, even in the darkness, and is with us?

I’m reminded of those words from Psalm 139 where the psalmist declares his trust that God is intimately involved in every aspect of our being, through life and through death: ‘Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139: 12).

There’s a lovely liturgy from the Iona Community describing Jesus as ‘lover of the unlovable, toucher of the untouchable, forgiver of the unforgivable, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, writing heaven’s pardon over earth’s mistakes. The Word became flesh. He lived among us, he was one of us.’

Jesus, forgiver of the unforgivable, writing heaven’s pardon over earth’s mistakes

That understanding of the character of God, made known to us in the person of his Messiah, gives us grounds for our Advent hope and points us to our calling, both as individual Christians and as a church, to live out our faith in simple daily acts of service, love and care to those around us – a politics of hope.

In this season of Advent, we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. We don’t know when it will come in all its fullness and glory, but if we have eyes to see it’s already all around us.

Let me end by sharing with you a poem by R. S. Thomas simply entitled ‘The Kingdom’.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.