To listen to the sermon for Jan 22nd 2012 (Epiphany 3) entitled Mercy triumphs over judgement Hosea 6:1-6 Matthew 11:1-15
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3rd Sunday of Epiphany 22nd January 2012
Jesus a jump ahead of John Matt 11:1-15 John the Baptist, whose preaching encouraged so many to go the River Jordan to be baptised, is now in prison. Imprisoned by King Herod. This is not the Herod who had spoken to the wise men and then slaughtered the baby boys in Bethlehem, but the son of that King Herod. And what had John done to offend him? Well he’d only been preaching that God’s true king was coming, and to an insecure despot like Herod, to hear that he wasn’t the real king and that God would replace him was too much. And that wasn’t all – John had publically denounced him for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. So Herod, keen to put a stop to John’s preaching had him locked up.
John could probably have coped with the termination of his public ministry if Jesus, whom he had baptised recently, was doing all John thought he should. But no, Jesus wasn’t acting at all like the Messiah John had expected – so John fearing he’d got it all wrong sent a few of his followers to ask Jesus who he really was.
6 weeks ago in Advent, Graham/Caroline spoke about the start of today’s reading from the perspective of John, but today I want us to gaze at this passage through the eyes of Jesus to really understand what was being said.
Jesus must have felt at least a twinge of discomfort when John’s followers had reported the Baptist’s concern. No doubt John had hoped that Jesus would be a man of fire like Elijah, who would sweep through Israel, and confront evil, toppling Herod to boot. But Jesus wasn’t doing that job, and John needed to know, was he or wasn’t he the long-awaited saviour? Jesus could have gone defensive, like we often do when we are challenged, for here was his close relative who had announced his arrival at the start of his ministry, now questioning his identity. But no, Jesus just spoke of all that he was doing. That was the evidence that Messiah had come. “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and good news is being preached. Tell John all of this.” “Well yes, we can see that” John’s followers must have thought, “but still are you the Messiah?” But as they start to wander off, Jesus begins to speak again, and they must have paused to listen, for now Jesus reveals a new way of understanding all that had happened.
Jesus wants the crowd to really consider who John was and then, by implication, who he himself is. Jesus’ words are cryptic for he doesn’t want to announce he is the Messiah at this point – to do so would be an affront to Herod, and if Herod heard Jesus effectively saying he was the King of the Jews, then John’s fate would be sealed, and Jesus’ ministry would probably be curtailed in another execution. No Jesus had to be careful, he had much more work to do, and so he had to speak in code. That’s why he ends today’s reading saying “He who has ears let him hear”...
Now to understand what Jesus says I want to tell you a story:
It’s 1912 and we are in the workshop of a family business. The family make horse-drawn carriages and they are the best at making them in the county. For years the orders have come flooding in and the future of the business looks secure. In the workshop brother David supervises the small band of carpenters, whilst in the office Philip spends his time designing new models. And out on the road is Harold who travels around taking orders and making sure all the family’s customers are happy. For decades the business has run like clockwork, and Philip who has just taken over the supervisory role in the workshop from his dad, is looking forward to spending his working life there. Then one day Harold comes back from his travels with some disturbing news. He’s been to the local town and seen the number of motor cars is now beginning to significantly increase, and he’s spoken to other business men about the way things are going. He gathers his brothers together and breaks the news gently. “You guys design and make fabulous carriages – the best there are. Nobody makes them better then you. But the problem is this – the number of motor cars is increasing and carriage sales in other businesses are declining. We won’t be able to make carriages for too many more years for the market is turning. Soon I’m afraid that an apprentice car mechanic will be doing better than us.”
The shock in the office is etched on Philip and David’s faces. They look accusingly, disbelievingly, at their brother. Surely he is mistaken – he’s got it wrong. The way they’ve been doing it must be the right way – surely?
Yet we know makers of horse-drawn carriages soon went out of business as the motor car industry grew.
So how does this relate to what Jesus said? Well, firstly Jesus pays John some great compliments, like Harold complimented his brothers. But Jesus’ words aren’t immediately clear, so let’s unpick them. Jesus refers to the reed swayed by the wind – this is a subtle reference to Herod, for the despot’s emblem on his coins was a reed waving in the wind. John wasn’t royalty says Jesus, for he didn’t have fine clothes either. No John was a prophet, and not just any prophet, but the prophet that previous prophets had spoken about who would prepare the path for the Messiah. Then Jesus says that John was the Elijah-like prophet, the great man of fire, the prophet of pronouncement, who was to herald the arrival of the Saviour. John was the great final prophet. It’s like Harold telling his brothers they are the greatest carriage makers of their generation, before speaking of the great change about to come.
But this highest of praise for John’s ministry comes after this amazing verse “among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” John may have been the greatest of the prophets preparing the way for the coming Messiah, but even the most insignificant person who accepted God’s Kingdom and lives accordingly is greater, because they live in the time of fulfilment. Jesus has brought in a new reality and anyone who lives in it is greater than even the greatest living in the old way, because the old age of the Law and the Prophets is being wound up. It’s like in our story Harold telling his brothers they were the best Carriage-makers, but now because a superior age of motor vehicle transportation had arrived, a junior mechanic working in the new age had greater significance than they. It wasn’t because they were a failure that their work would be wound up, but rather because a new age had dawned which rendered their work obsolete. And so with John – the law and the prophets were looking ahead to a time that was to come, but now that time had arrived, their work was complete. And that was why John felt the conflict he did in prison. All he had proclaimed and done had now ushered in the Messiah, and in the dawning of God’s Kingdom, he was disorientated by the total change in emphasis.
Our reading from Hosea beautifully captures this change that has come. Hosea, the prophet, speaking the Lord’s words, tells of how God sent the former prophets to proclaim the people’s unfaithfulness and need to repent:
“therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth.”
But also speaks of a time to come:
“he has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After 2 days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us that we may live in his presence.”
Clearly the 2/3 day reference is to the resurrection and the ministry of Jesus. But why does God restore us? Because as it says in verse 6 “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Jesus came to usher in an era of mercy. John had expected the Messiah to bring judgement, but the mercy which usually follows judgement broke in with Jesus. Mercy was at the heart of Jesus’ messianic mission, and it must remain at the heart of both the church’ and our ministry today.
In our Gospel passage as we said, Jesus isn’t just telling the crowds about John, but also he’s telling them about himself. For if they realise who John truly was, then by implication they must realise Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus didn’t come straight out with it not only because such a pronouncement be dangerous, but also because he wasn’t the sort of Messiah who would force himself on people. His way was not generally to pronounce God’s judgment, but to reveal God’s mercy to those he met, and in so doing reveal the path to salvation.
And there is something deeply profound in this for us too. For if we just go around telling people we are Jesus’ followers or preaching at them, they aren’t going to respond very favourably. We will be likely to receive all sorts of flak. But if we follow Christ’s example and model Christian living which challenges the culture of our time, then people will ask us, like they asked Jesus, who we are to be doing such things.
The other week I was in a conversation with someone who was talking about the difficulties they had had at work, and how they had tried to overcome them. They spoke about how they had read in one of those self-development books, how saying thank you and apologising for mistakes in the workplace disarms even the sharpest critic. So they tried it out and found to their amazement an astonishing change in their office. The first time they said thank you to a colleague, the other person had twice said pardon in disbelief being accepting the compliment. And subsequently this had led to their fellow office workers beginning to express appreciation for what others were doing. Likewise the first time he said sorry for a mistake he made, it totally disarmed his boss, and, like saying thank you, a culture of apologising for errors has developed over the weeks. Behaving counter-culturally in the workplace has transformed his relationships with workmates.
So how much more could Christians at work, at home, in their neighbourhood, acting mercifully, graciously and lovingly, affect those around them? The questions that Jesus faced would frequently come our way too if we dared to be as different as Jesus wants us to be – salt and light in the world...
So yes be prepared to give an account for your faith when asked, but first be prepared to live out the radically different life. As Paul wrote in Romans “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
What can I do differently tomorrow to bless those I live/work with?