Today we light the Third Candle of Advent, the Candle of Love.
In their old age God gave to Zechariah and Elisabeth a son called John. John spoke to the people bravely in the desert denying his own comforts and prepared to die for what he believed. John taught that we should share what we have with others, treat each other kindly and show God’s love. He did this because he cared for people and wanted them to repent and find God’s forgiveness.
John the Baptist had arrived to herald the beginning of Jesus’s adult ministry, but he is incredibly rude to the people who flock to hear him preach their judgement and downfall, and they just love it; but by this morning’s Gospel reading, they have tired of him and the uncomfortable truths he tells, and he is in prison.
The career of John had ended in disaster. It was not John’s habit to soften the truth for any man; and he was incapable of seeing evil without rebuking it. He had spoken too fearlessly and too definitely for his own safety.
Publicly and sternly John rebuked Herod. It was never safe to rebuke an eastern despot and Herod took his revenge; John was thrown into the dungeons of the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains near the Dead Sea.
For any man that would have been a terrible fate, but for John the Baptist it was worse than for most. He was a desert-dweller; all his life he had lived in the wide open spaces; and now he was confined within the four narrow walls of an underground dungeon. For a man like John, who had perhaps never lived in a house, this must have been agony.
It’s no wonder that questions began to form themselves in John’s mind. He had been so sure that Jesus was the One who was to come, and so John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Then came Jesus’ answer; and in his answer we hear his confidence. Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples was:
“Go back, and don’t tell John what I am saying; tell him what I am doing. Don’t tell John what I am claiming; tell him what is happening.” Jesus demanded that he should be judged by the most stringent of tests, that of judging his deeds. Jesus was the only person who could ever demand to be judged, not by what he said, but by what he did. The challenge of Jesus is still the same. He does not so much say, “Listen to what I have to tell you,” as, “Look at what I can do for you; see what I have done for others.”
Finally comes the warning, “Blessed is he who takes no offence at me.” This was spoken to John; and it was spoken because John had only grasped half the truth. John preached the gospel of divine holiness with divine destruction; Jesus preached the gospel of divine holiness with divine love.
So Jesus says to John, “Maybe I am not doing the things you expected me to do. But the powers of evil are being defeated not by irresistible power, but by unanswerable love.” Sometimes we can be offended at Jesus because Jesus cuts across our ideas of what religion should be.
There are few men to whom Jesus paid so tremendous a tribute as he did to John the Baptiser. He begins by asking the people what they went into the desert to see
when they streamed out to John.
(i) Did they go out to see a reed shaken by the wind? That can mean one of two things:
(a) When the people flocked to see John, were they going out to see something as ordinary as the reeds swaying in the wind on Jordan’s banks?
(b) A shaken reed can mean a weak person who gives in,
Whatever else they went out to see, they did not go to see a weak person who would give in.
People like that do not end in prison as martyrs for the truth. John was neither as ordinary as a shaken reed, nor as spineless as the reed which sways with every breeze.
(ii) Did they go out to see a man clothed in soft and luxurious garments? Such a man would be a courtier, and, whatever else John was, he was not a courtier. He knew nothing of the courtier’s art of the flattery of kings; he followed the dangerous occupation of telling the truth to kings. John was the ambassador of God, not the courtier of Herod.
(iii)Did they go out to see a prophet? The prophet is the sayer of the truth of God. The prophet is two things —he is the person with a message from God, and he is the person with the courage to deliver that message. The
prophet is the one with God’s wisdom in his mind, God’s truth on his lips, and God’s courage in his heart. John was most certainly that.
(iv) But John was something more than a prophet. The Jews had, and still have, one settled belief. They believed that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald his coming. When the Jews celebrate the Passover Feast, a vacant chair is left for Elijah. Jesus declared that John was nothing less than the divine herald whose duty and privilege it was to announce the coming of the Messiah. John was nothing less than the herald of God, and no man could have a greater task than that.
(v) This was the tremendous tribute of Jesus to John, spoken with admiration. There had never been a greater figure in all history; and then comes the startling sentence: “But he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”
Here there is one quite general truth. With Jesus there came into the world something absolutely new. The prophets were great; their message was precious; but with Jesus there emerged something still greater, and a message still more wonderful.
But what was it that John lacked? What is it that the
Christian has that John could never have? The answer is simple and fundamental. John had never seen the Cross and Jesus’ crucifixion. Therefore one thing John could never know—the full revelation of the love of God. He might know the holiness of God; he might declare the justice of God; but the love of God in all its fulness he could never know. We have only to listen to the message of John and the message of Jesus. No one could call John’s message a gospel, good news; it was basically a threat of destruction. It took Jesus and his Cross to show to folk the length, breadth, depth and height of the love of God. It is a most amazing thing that it is possible for the humblest Christian to know more about God than the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. The person who has seen the Cross has seen the heart of God in a way that no-one who lived before the Cross could ever see it. Indeed the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than any man who went before.
So John had the destiny which sometimes falls to us; he had the task of pointing folk to a greatness into which he himself did not enter. It is given to some people to be the signposts of God. They point to a new ideal and a new greatness which others will enter into, but into which they will not come. It is very seldom that any great
reformer is the first person to work for the reform with which their name is connected. Many who went before him glimpsed the glory, often laboured for it, and sometimes died for it.
Someone tells how from the windows of his house every evening he used to watch the lamp-lighter go along the streets lighting the lamps—and the lamp-lighter was himself a blind man. He was bringing to others the light which he himself would never see. We should never be discouraged in the Church or in any other walk of life, if the dream we have dreamed, and for which we have worked, is never worked out in our time. God needed John; God needs his signposts who can point men and women on the way, although they themselves cannot ever reach the goal.
John has prepared the way and wants confirmation of what he already knows: that Jesus is the one for whom he was preparing. As evidence, Jesus points to the fulfilment of Isaiah 35; the blind see; the lame walk; lepers are made whole; the deaf hear; the poor receive good news. John’s work is done and Jesus reminds his hearers that the one they have heard was a true prophet pointing a way, to those who have ears to hear, to discover their own identity.
We know now that Jesus was the true Messiah, and that we must follow his example and teaching. More than that, we must be ready for his Second Coming, whenever that might be.
Love is like a candle shining in a dark place. As we look at the light of this candle we celebrate the love we have in Christ. Amen.