Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent III 2013

Giovanni di Paolo - Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples

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

It’s a scandal! How often those words are said, or thought. Yesterday, the front page scandal in the Sun concerned the alleged domestic habits of Nigella Lawson. Tomorrow I expect it will be something else, perhaps MPs’ salaries. And scandal is always about what someone else has been getting up to.

But although scandal is something we disapprove of, we also can’t help wanting to know about it. Scandal both attracts and repels. And scandal is one of the key ideas running through the Bible. Skandalon, in Greek, means a stumbling block, a trap, a snare. It is an obstacle in our path that we can’t help falling against. And it occurs in the Bible again and again.

It is there in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says, in the translation we use, “blessed is the one who takes no offence at me”. But actually what he says is “blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”. Blessed is the one who does not find in Jesus an obstacle or a stumbling block.

Jesus says this in response to the question he has received from John the Baptist, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Things seem to have changed since last week’s reading, when the Baptist was proclaiming that the Messiah was about to appear. Then, you may recall, John said that he baptised with water, but one was coming who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But now things have changed, John is in prison, Jesus has begun his ministry. And John, it seems, is having doubts. Is Jesus really the Messiah after all?

Jesus does not give him a direct answer. He simply lists for him the things he has been doing:

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.
This in fact summarises the miracles that Jesus has worked in Matthew’s gospel up to this point. So why does John doubt?
Perhaps he doubts because this is not quite what he expects the Messiah to be doing. As we heard last week John expects wrath, fire, punishment. And not without reason, because the Bible seemed to say that’s what he should expect.

The way that Jesus lists his miracles in fact refers to five different texts from the Prophet Isaiah that give the signs which will mark the coming of the Messiah. We heard one of them this morning from Isaiah 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”.

But in each of these texts as Isaiah gives them the sign of healing and restoration is coupled with a promise of punishment and vengeance. Evildoers are going to get their comeuppance. So we had this morning “Here is your God, he will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” And there’s something like that in all five of the texts that Jesus refers to[1].

But Jesus only quotes the bits about healing and restoration. Now John knows the Bible. He knows that Jesus is giving some of the signs of the Messiah. But not all of them. The punishment of the wicked doesn’t seem to be happening. The corrupt Herod is still in his palace and John is still in prison. If Jesus is the Messiah, surely he would have thrown Herod out and taken over by now.

John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the forerunner of the Messiah. But he does not yet understand what the Messiah’s kingdom will be. As Jesus says, “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John”. And Jesus puts his finger on what John does not yet understand by saying “blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”.

Why would anyone find Jesus to be a scandal, a stumbling block? St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians: the crucified Messiah is “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”.

Jesus is the Messiah who has come, not to inflict wrath, but to suffer it. And unless we believe, that is unless we can enter into the mind-set of God in Jesus, that will be a scandal and a stumbling block for us.

And perhaps John, for all the depth and the strength of his faith, is a person who has been scandalised. He has viewed the world in two camps: us, the righteous; and them, the wicked. Scandal enables us to point the finger and think that we’re different. Last week we heard John’s response to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”

And John is now in prison because he has been scandalised by the behaviour of Herod. Herod had married his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive and John had kept telling him, “this is unlawful”. He couldn’t leave it alone. The sins of Herod both drew him and repelled him.

The key to understanding the verses in the prophets about judgement and salvation is that both apply to us. So when Isaiah says “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance… he will come and save you”, we are not to hear the bit about salvation as applying to us and the bit about vengeance as applying to someone else. We need to hear both, together, addressed to ourselves.
There is no “us” and “them” of the righteous and the unrighteous. The whole of humanity is in this together, as St Paul says in Romans “all have gone astray”. And the judgement of God comes to us for our salvation.

Judgement is when we see and know the truth of ourselves in the light of God. When we see our sins and failures as God sees them, that is judgement. But it is also salvation, because it is precisely when and where we fall into sin that God is waiting to save us. That is his nature. The name “Jesus” means “The Lord saves”. And the Lord in his death, in his becoming a scandal on the cross, meets us in the place of our judgement to set us free.

But we only can be saved if we are not scandalised by the Saviour who comes to redeem us right where we are in the squalid shameful mess of our sin. Which means that we must not be scandalised by him wanting to save everyone else as well.

If we own the truth about ourselves in God’s light then we see also that we are one with all humanity. One in our need of salvation, and one in God’s mercy and love freely offered.

The confession of our sins is not a morbid exercise of wallowing in guilt. To own our sins is to find ourselves where God finds us in his love and forgiveness. It is the opposite of being scandalised. This is why we begin every Mass with an act of confession.

And the Church offers to all the ministry of reconciliation through personal confession to a priest, and the declaring of absolution. It is an experience of great liberation to hear those words, said by a frail sinner, yes, but with the authority of Christ, “I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. That ministry is available here, and in many other churches. You can make an appointment or just call in when I’m here before or after services.  And it is particularly to be commended as part of our preparation before the great feasts of the Church’s year.

Because Christ is coming to save us. Coming to meet us right where we are. Because the place where we discover ourselves to be sinners, like everyone else, is also the place where we fall into the arms of the God who loves us and is waiting to embrace us in his forgiveness.

[1] The references are: Isaiah 29:18 (“vengeance” verse 20); 35:5-6 (“vengeance” verse 4); 42:8, 17 (“vengeance” verse 13); 26:19 (“vengeance” verse 21); and 61:1 (“vengeance” part of verse 2).

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