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Sunday 15 December 2019: Advent 3

Is this the one?

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


By Liz Shercliff

Director of Studies for Readers in the Diocese of Chester and teaches preaching to Readers and Ordinands. She is author of Preaching Women (SCM Press) and An exploration of missional Reader ministry (Grove), and co-author of Straw for the Bricks (SCM Press).

Context: a Parish Communion congregation of regulars

Aim: to encourage the congregation to consider Jesus as the one prophesied by Isaiah and John the Baptist

‘Is this the one?’

It’s almost a seasonal question. I’ve been asking it a lot recently, because last year, it wasn’t the one. Last year, I bought the wrong gift for someone – and I didn’t know until I saw their face when they unwrapped it on Christmas Day. This year, I’ve done my research, I’ve listened carefully, and I hope that I have chosen the right one.

‘Is this the one?’ was also a question John asked himself as he languished in Herod’s jail. He had been standing in the Jordan river when Jesus approached him. He wanted to be baptised. Something in John had told him that this was the one, the one promised of old, the one sent by God. He had refused to baptise Jesus at first, but Jesus insisted, and John had gone ahead, and then he seemed to hear a voice, see something like a dove, as though God himself was confirming what John already suspected. Jesus was the coming Messiah.

The description of the Messiah was plain enough. His glory would be seen – was that the dove and the voice at Jesus’ baptism perhaps? The blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would dance. It all seemed clear enough.

Sometimes things have seemed very clear to me, as I have pondered the good news of Jesus. Didn’t He promise to be always with us? Didn’t he say where two or three are gathered together He would be there, and He would hear their prayer? Why then, is it not always so?

Among the preparations for Christmas, the trees and gift wrapping and carols and tinsel, this year there seems to lurk a similar question. ‘Is this the one?’ Do we have this right? Why are we experiencing such challenging times?

It was hard times that caused John to doubt. Where Isaiah had spoken of joy and singing, John had been locked up for speaking the truth about Herod’s marriage, and would eventually be martyred for his criticism. It’s hard to celebrate the joyous kingdom of God if you are imprisoned, or oppressed, in some way. The next part of the story, then, is important.

Should we look for another?

Firstly, John doesn’t hide his doubts. He is honest. He sends some friends to ask Jesus about them. ‘Are you the one or should we look for another?’ Secondly, and I think more importantly, Jesus does not condemn John’s doubt. He answers it. ‘Go and tell them what you see and hear.’ Give him the evidence he wants. Encourage him with facts. Look how closely Jesus’ response reflects what John would have expected. Isaiah prophesied that the eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame would leap like deer and tongues of the speechless sing. Jesus says, ‘Look what’s happening, the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and there is good news for the poor.’ ‘Is this the one?’ use your checklist.

Jesus goes even further than reassuring John, however. Not only is Jesus the one, the anointed of God. John too, is the one. ‘Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.’ John is a true disciple of Jesus, despite his apparent doubts.

He has been patient, sending his friends to speak to Jesus strengthened his heart. It’s just what James advised the early church to do. Follow the example of the prophets. That must include John, if Jesus identified John as the greatest.

John lived in turbulent times. His country was occupied. Many in government seemed untrustworthy. Power was in the hands of the wealthy. The nation was divided about how best to respond. John himself was killed for speaking out about corruption. He thought he knew that the kingdom of God had come, but events caused him to doubt.

Jesus sent reassurance. There is healing and release and good news. You just have to look in the right place.

Our response to difficult times should be guided by James’ letter. Be patient. Stand firm. Don’t grumble.

Just as a farmer knows there will be a crop in the right time, so we can be confident that God’s reign will be fulfilled when the time is right. Our job, as followers of Jesus, is not to complain about the time it is taking, but to remind ourselves and others that it will come. Our task is to work together to highlight the good news that already is, rather than join in the grumbling we hear around us.

‘Up to now there has been no one as great as John, but everyone who enters the kingdom after him will be even greater,’ says Jesus. John prepared the way of the Lord. May we do the same.

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