Matthew 11:2-11 and Isaiah 35.1-10
Being a tourist in a foreign land can be a disorientating experience.
Even if you think you know what you're looking for, things don't always
appear as you imagine them. I well remember the first time I saw the Coliseum
in Rome. I was about 8 years old and of all the things we were to see
on our trip to Rome, the Coliseum was the magic moment I was waiting for.
I'd seen it in countless books and films. It seemed almost impossible
to me that something so ancient, so glorious and so terrifying could actually
exist on this earth. To see it with my own eyes was to be one of the magic
moments of my life.
Of course, there is the opposite experience too - rather more embarrassing - when you mistake something ordinary and mundane for something special. I vividly remember one afternoon travelling home to my student house in the Kings Cross district of London on the top of a Routmaster bus. The upper deck was packed out with a large party of Japanese tourists. And as we passed St Pancras station, one of them, in a state of high excitement, turned to the rest of the party and shouted out "Houses of Parliament!" at which point the entire upper deck rushed to the window and began furiously taking pictures (which they then no doubt showed the folks back home, probably telling them with complete confidence, that the clock tower was Big Ben). They seemed so happy, I didn't like to disillusion them.
Travelling through life is, in many ways, a similar experience. It's so easy to attach ourselves to the wrong thing, and just as easy to miss the things that are of real significance. And it's a problem we find the people of Israel wrestling with when they encounter Jesus. Even John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls "a prophet, yes and more than a prophet", is struggling. He is expecting someone and he was fairly sure that Jesus was that someone, but he turns out to be so different from what he expected, that now he's not so sure. So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
You see the people of Israel were full of expectation that God was sending someone to them and that their story was about to reach a climax. But the nature of that expectation was far from clear. There were some common elements among the things they were looking for. Firstly, they were expecting the Day of the Lord - a day when God's judgement would finally be pronounced and history would take a decisive turn. The kingdom of God would be established, justice would rule and there would be freedom for God's people - in our first reading today Isaiah was speaking of what it will be like. Secondly, most (but not all) were expecting a Messiah, a kingly figure who would set God's people free and usher in the kingdom of God. And Thirdly, many (but not all) were expecting the prophet Elijah, or someone in his mould, to come and sweep through Israel, turning the people back to God and preparing them for life in the kingdom of heaven.
So there were these three threads: the Day of the Lord, the Messiah and the coming of Elijah, but exactly how they were to fit together was very confused. Lots of people had opinions about it and (possibly because most of the people of influence were men) the fact that their opinions were cobbled together and confused didn't stop them from expressing them volubly as incontrovertible fact.
Now, we all know that some of the Jewish people were expecting the Messiah to be a warrior king who would rid them of the Romans - and indeed all Gentile interference with the affairs of Israel. But there were other strands of thought too. The Qumran community (the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls) appeared to expect two Messiahs - a kingly and a priestly one. Others were looking for a new Moses and others, like the Sadducees, apparently didn't expect a Messiah at all. John the Baptist seems to have expected an Elijah-type figure, who would sweep through Israel, destroying all the idols and recalling the people to true faith in the Lord God of Israel. In other words, he's expecting judgement. He, John, has prepared the way by calling on the people to repent. Now, Jesus is supposed to bring judgement down on the infidels.
But Jesus doesn't fit any of these expectations. Or rather, he sort of fulfils them all, but in a completely unexpected way. That's why, throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus batting off people's erroneous expectations of who he is and what he's about (something that, as a vicar, I understand all too well!)
And John is as confused as anyone. Jesus isn't, after all, doesn't seem to be judging anyone. Who is he? Has John just got it all wrong? Is he the one we were expecting or should we be waiting for another?
And Jesus responds by pointing to the signs that Isaiah and others set up - look at what you 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." I may not be what you were expecting, but look at what I am doing. Am I not doing the things we were promised the Messiah would do?
Like my Coliseum experience, John can't quite believe what he's looking at - until the penny drops. The Jesus he was looking at turns out to be the Messiah he was looking for after all. "Read the signs" says Jesus, and then you'll see that what you're looking at, turns out to be what you were looking for.
And having set John straight, he turns to the people. When you came to look at John, what did you come to see? Could you not read the signs? The man sweeping through Israel calling the people back to true faith - he was the Elijah figure, not me. You're all waiting for Elijah and yet you've already been looking at him. Read the signs and you'll see that what you're looking at, turns out to be what you were looking for. And when you see things from the perspective of God's kingdom, once you understand what you are looking at, it turns out to be far greater than anything you were expecting.
But what about us? How do we read the signs? Well, maybe there's a way that we too can put together the old familiar story in a way that transforms what we're looking at into what we're looking for. And the clue is in those signs.
Isaiah promises us a Messiah who will give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, cleansing from the unclean. And Jesus did, apparently, heal some people who were blind, deaf or leprous. But how does that really help? Isn't it just a drop in the ocean when it comes to righting the wrongs of the world?
Well, look again at God's story. The stories of God's dealings with his people throughout the bible have a common thread: his people are in need; God acts to meet that need; and then points to a deeper need and invites them to let him meet that need too - if they have eyes to see it and ears to hear what he is saying. It's only an invitation and it depends upon our willingness to see and hear what he has to say.
The people of Israel are in slavery in Egypt. So, God frees them from Egypt and gives them a land of their own. They are set free - and yet they're not, because they don't know how to use their freedom and they turn out to be their own worst enemies. So God invites them to look deeper - maybe real slavery is not inflicted by Egyptians. Do you have eyes to see what truly enslaves you? And can you trust that the God who rescued you from the Egyptians can save you from a more profound form of slavery too?
The people of Israel are in the Promised Land, but they're surrounded by enemies and the stronger Israel becomes, the more their enemies bear down on them. Political freedom turns out not to be true freedom after all. So, God protects them from their nasty neighbours and then invites them to look deeper. Do you have eyes to see what true freedom is? And can you trust that the God who set you free from the Philistines and the Midianites and the Moabites, can set you free from yourselves too?
Then the people of Israel are conquered by the Babylonians and, as I was saying last week at Cliburn & Great Strickland, this is the single most important event in their history. It is the backdrop to the whole of the Old Testament and, in particular, to the vast majority of the prophetic writings, especially those of Isaiah and Jeremiah. King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon sacks Jerusalem, razes the Temple, imprisons the last king in the Davidic monarchy and takes Israel en-masse into exile in Babylon. It is a devastating event that is to shape the Jewish mindset for the rest of history. God's chosen people is on the verge of extinction. So, God acts to defeat the Babylonians and send his people home. Exile is over. And yet it is not. They are still a vassal nation, now under the Persian Empire. Now they are in exile in their own home. So God invites them to look deeper - do you have eyes to see what it really means to be my chosen people? Can you see what is the true nature of your Promised Land? And can you trust that the God who brought back to the place you call home will bring you to your true home?
And in today's gospel reading, God's story is reaching its climax. The people of Israel are still in exile at home, under the Romans. They are oppressed politically, physically ill, and literally hungry. So God comes to them, feeds them with real bread and heals them - literally restoring sight and unstopping deaf ears. And he invites them to look deeper - do you have eyes to see what causes your real illness, your real blindness and your more profound deafness? And can you trust that the God who fed you with real bread, who healed blind eyes and deaf ears, can feed you with what you truly lack, can open your eyes to see clearly and can enable you to hear the very words of life itself?
And what about us? Can we see things from the perspective of God's kingdom? Do we have eyes to see that the Jesus we've been looking at all this time is the life we've been looking for? Do we have eyes to see what truly enslaves us, what real freedom is, where our true home lies and what cripples and blinds us most profoundly? And can we trust that the God who has repeatedly met his people's superficial needs can meet our deepest needs too?
Preached: Morland 12 December 2010 (Joint)