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Thursday, 15 December 2016

Doubting John the Baptist

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

John the Baptist had had a great ministry. He’d gone from being a nobody to having the religious leaders of his day coming and asking whether he was the next Elijah. He had not only recognised Jesus as Israel’s Messiah but had baptised him as well. And as he had baptised Jesus, he had seen the heavens open and God’s Spirit coming down on Jesus and had heard God the Father saying to Jesus, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am well pleased.” At the end of his life, however, everything came to a crashing halt as he was imprisoned by Herod, until his life was cut short by Herodius asking for his head on a platter. How was he affected by this sudden end to his ministry which had had such an impact?

Well, we get a clue from our gospel reading (Matthew 11: 2-11) because John sent a message to Jesus to ask if Jesus was the one that they had been expecting or whether they should look out for someone else. In other words, as he sat in his prison cell, John the Baptist doubted what he had earlier been certain of. After he had baptised Jesus, John had seen the Spirit of God come down and stay on Jesus and had confidently told others that Jesus was the Son of God. Now though he wasn’t so sure and so he sent some of his disciples to Jesus with this question.

Isn’t that similar to our experience as Christians? Don’t we often go through times when we experience a real sense of closeness to God when we feel absolutely certain of what we believe. Times when God feels so close to us that we could almost reach out and touch him. But then there are other times when that kind of confidence and that awareness of God’s presence seem to be far away in the past and we wonder how we could ever have been so sure about what we believed. In these times we haven’t lost our faith but we don’t have the sense of assurance that we once had. Does this mean that we are not following God’s plan for our lives? Does it mean that we have failed or sinned or stopped trusting? The answer to all those questions is no. Think for a moment about the way in which Jesus replies to John’s question.

First, Jesus doesn’t criticise John. He doesn’t tell him to pull up his socks or to be more trusting or to have more faith or to repent for his sins. And then he tells the crowds that there has never been a man greater than John the Baptist. Jesus knows that doubt is part of the journey of faith. Even the greatest man who ever lived experienced periods of doubt. If John the Baptist did, then we should certainly expect to too. Jesus welcomes John coming to him with his doubts and sends back a message of encouragement. John was isolated in his prison cell. He had some contact with his disciples but he was not free and his disciples would only have been able to see him at certain times. In his isolation, it would have been easy for him to retreat into himself with his doubts and allow them to grow and play on his mind without being answered. But that is not what John did, instead he shares his doubts with Jesus. In the same way, we need to share our doubts and difficulties with each other and with God himself. And when others share their doubts and difficulties with us, we need to be like Jesus and give encouragement.

In the message that Jesus sends to John he asks him, firstly, to look again at himself, at Jesus. When we do this, when we honestly look at the Jesus who is revealed to us in the gospels, we see a man who is genuinely like God. We see a man who does and says the things that only God could do and say: “the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor.” When we doubt our faith, as we all do at different times in our lives, one of the best things we can do is to remind ourselves of what Jesus is like. Could anyone do and say the things that Jesus did and said and not be God?

The message that Jesus sends to John also asks him to look at the signs of the kingdom that can be seen in Jesus’ ministry. Those things that Jesus said and did were the first signs that the rule and reign of God was coming about on earth. As John looked at these tangible signs of God’s kingdom he could see the prophecies about God’s rule on earth coming true. Like John, we also need to look in our world for signs of God’s kingdom in changed lives and changed communities.

Sometimes as preachers we give the impression that the Christian life should be all highs and no lows. Sometimes preachers even deliberately preach that God’s plan is that we can all become champions, successful in all that we do. But that is to preach and read only a part of what the Bible says, not the whole. God’s way for us often involves apparent failure and hardship. Look at John in this passage. A faith that survives the difficult times is longer lasting that a faith that only knows ease and comfort. It is in the testing times that our faith is stretched and grows. Jesus understands our doubts, he encourages us to share our doubts with others and to support others in their doubts and difficulties. He points us to himself and to the signs of God’s kingdom in our lives and the lives of those around us as an encouragement to us to hold on in those difficult times and see our faith grow and develop as a result.


On Jordan's Bank, The Baptist's Cry.

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