On 11 December we celebrated the Third Sunday in Advent. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 146:4-10, Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11.
You may be familiar with the story of Scheherazade. In the book of One Thousand and One Nights, the Persian king Shahrya found his first wife was unfaithful to him. In his anger and distress he married a virgin every day and had her beheaded the next day before he married the next virgin. This went on until he had killed 1000 women.
Scheherazade was the daughter of the vizier. She was very well read, having studied all that she could find about the previous kings and about famous people from the past. She was reputed to have collected 1000 books of history about kings and peoples. She had also learnt poetry off by heart and was well versed in philosophy, the arts and the sciences. She was a pleasant person with a good sense of humour.
Although her father naturally disapproved, Scheherazade volunteered to spend a night with the king, despite his bloodthirsty reputation. When she was taken to the king’s chambers she requested a chance to say farewell to her sister, Dinazade. Dinazade had been told by Scheherazade to ask for a story to be told to her. The king listened as Scheherazade told her story to Dinazade. As dawn was approaching she stopped speaking but the story was not finished. The king spared her life that day as he wanted to hear how the story continued. The next night she finished off the story and began another which she didn’t complete, thus living through the next day. In this way, Scheherazade lived for 1,001 nights, telling 1000 stories. When she no longer had another story to tell, the king had already fallen in love with her and her life was no longer in danger; she became queen.
John the Baptist, though a very different character, was in a similar position to Scheherazade. Herod had arrested John for his bold challenge to Herod about his marriage to his sister-in-law. Herod feared the crowd and so did not have John killed. He also feared John but was drawn to his teaching which he found perplexing. It seemed that as long as Herod was fascinated by John’s teaching, John would stay alive in the desert fortress of Machaerus east of the Dead Sea so that Herod could continue to listen.
The gospel passage for today suggests that John had access to his disciples still but it’s not possible to know just how much access. It seems likely that there were many long hours when he was alone with his thoughts. In such a situation, it’s not surprising that John should perhaps look over his life and ministry and wonder if he’d got things right. There was plenty of evidence to say he had got it right: the circumstances of John’s birth and of Jesus’ birth, his bold preaching in the wilderness which drew such a positive response, the appearance of the dove and the voice from heaven when Jesus was baptised. Some writers suggest that John was expecting the type of Messiah which fired the popular imagination, a bold military leader who would bring freedom to his people; to me that seems unlikely. John introduced Jesus as one who was the Lamb of God – a figure representing sacrifice, although he also mentioned judgement. Surely, he could have used the term Lion of Judah, used of the triumphant Jesus in the book of Revelation, if he had meant a military leader.
I think John was seeking clarification and reassurance during a very dark time in his life, a time when his life could be forfeit at any moment. Notice that Jesus does not condemn John or the disciples who carried John’s message: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Instead he answered in a language that John would understand, Scripture. Being born into a priestly family, John would have had the correct upbringing for a Jewish boy: circumcised on the eighth day, attending synagogue and learning the scriptures in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah. Jesus urged John’s disciples to notice for themselves how scripture was being fulfilled by Jesus. What Jesus said to those questioning disciples matched up very well with the passage we have read from Isaiah today.
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:
* the blind receive their sight
(Isaiah: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened)
* the lame walk
(Isaiah: then the lame shall leap like a deer)
* the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear
(Isaiah: and the ears of the deaf unstopped and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy)
* the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Though Isaiah wrote about judgement, the evidence he cited for its coming was precisely what Jesus was doing. It seems that this was enough to convince John’s disciples who returned to report to him. Hopefully John was reassured that he had lived his life as God had intended, as a forerunner to the Messiah, and that there was no mistake about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.
Once John’s disciples had left, Jesus went on to commend John. He was the last in the line of prophets, but he was so special that he was more than a prophet, the herald, the returned Elijah, the one given the task of announcing that the kingdom of God was inaugurated.
What can we learn from this great man? Firstly, it’s acceptable to be honest about our doubts. John shared them with his disciples rather than pretending all was well with him. Secondly, the right place to take our doubts is to God. It is a fair question to ask, like John: ‘Is this really it, the kingdom of God? Is this really what you promised despite appearances to the contrary?’ Thirdly, when others question the reality of our faith, as the body of Christ, we who belong to the church should be demonstrating what Jesus was able to demonstrate, that those in need of healing and care are receiving it. Only then do we earn the opportunity to explain the hope that is in us, that Jesus came to earth once as a baby and that he will come again.
We look forward in hope to a time which Isaiah anticipated when:
the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor