Sermon: Third Sunday of Advent, 11 December 2016, St John the Divine

Readings  Isaiah 35.1-10, James 5.7-10, Matthew 11.2-11

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

The Advent liturgies contain some evocative and thrilling words, not least the familiar blessing we hear in this season which reads: ‘Christ the son of righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path’. On one level, darkness is, of course, literal. But, symbolically, darkness can take many forms in our lives – for instance, excessive pressure or stress; fear or anxiety; addictive or compulsive behaviour; financial worries; job insecurity; relationships gone wrong; health problems; loss and bereavement. Doubt and disbelief can be no less disturbing, and can plunge us into spiritual darkness. We look to the divine for light in our darkness, sometimes clinging on by our fingertips, but still we may find ourselves wondering if anyone is listening or understands how we feel.

Advent is a season for waiting in the darkness: longing; yearning; expecting; hoping. The flickering candles of Advent signify some degree of light, and the light grows – mercifully – stronger each week. Nonetheless, shadows remain and the hinterland between darkness and light can still throw up strange spectres and doubts that can disturb us, and still we may be left wondering….

In this morning’s Gospel, John is in the darkness of prison, and the darkness of doubt. In this darkness, John finds – as might we – that what he thought were his certainties come under intense scrutiny. Alone, silenced and aware that a gruesome death might await him, John has some serious questions. As the last of the prophetic line, as the one who had gone out on a limb urging people to repent to prepare for God’s coming, he is still mystified about Jesus, to the extent that he has to engineer a visit by his own followers to Jesus to ask him: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ He had been so sure that Jesus was God’s chosen one; yet surely the Messiah, coming to bring God’s judgement, would by now have taken control and vanquished the opposition. John hears of miracles of healing, and teaching about loving your enemies, tales of a man who does not fast as a pious Jew should, and who consorts with sinners as a pious Jew should not. No wonder doubts creep in: can this really be the one we have been waiting for?

Well, as anyone who has woken up at 4 a.m., brain racing and heart thumping, can testify, the darkness of the night – literal or metaphorical – is rarely the best time to make sense of anything. In the dark, problems seem larger, worries deeper, and uncertainties stronger. Many people took offence at a Messiah who failed to live up to their expectations and who defied the conventions. But Jesus’ response to John is to ask him to think over the evidence: the miracles of healing and the proclamation of good news fulfil Old Testament prophecy of God’s servant ushering in a new age, and the Gospel writer asserts that those who have the discernment to see this happening in the life of Jesus are indeed blessed. Nevertheless, the last words the Gospel writer allows us to hear from John are a question: Are you the one?’ It seems Thomas was not the only one to have his doubts.

Even the saints – especially the saints – know what it is to wrestle with uncertainty. Mother Teresa walked with God, but, in the recesses of her heart, she wondered whether there was anyone there. She wrote in 1958: ‘My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains. People think that my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing, and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew.’ In another letter, she writes: ‘I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.’

How does Jesus deal with John’s doubts? It is a timely question, because anyone with a finger on our cultural pulse will realise that we have now entered into a new age of doubt when it comes to religious belief. One of A.N. Wilson’s books, God’s Funeral, is a history of doubt. An article appeared in ‘The Guardian’ some time ago entitled, ‘The Importance of Doubt’. John Humphrys published his own book, In God We Doubt, in which he probably speaks for many. Sometimes, some of us may find ourselves sharing John’s doubt and, indeed, contemporary doubts about Jesus and about God. Are you the one who is to come, or should we look elsewhere?’

Jesus does not confront John’s doubts – or ours – with irrefutable arguments. Far from providing support for faith, conclusive arguments – were there any – would eliminate the very possibility of faith. Instead, Jesus speaks to John of what he has been doing: the proclamation of good news to the poor; his compassionate ministry to the marginalised; his bringing of health, wholeness and reconciliation to people in those mysterious miracle stories which invite us to believe, but which never force us to. Jesus does not argue with John: he tells him what to do. John the Baptist had told people to look at Jesus. Now Jesus asks John himself to look at him.

Jesus invites John – and we are invited, too – to see what has been happening in the life of Jesus as the promise and pledge of a new day, however long delayed. God comes to us when we look at Jesus, heed his words, see what he does – and then go and do likewise. That is when the day of the Lord comes, the light outshines the darkness, the desert bursts into life, and the glory of the Lord is revealed. The experience of being in the dark will not go away; nor should we expect it to. It certainly didn’t for Jesus. Advent, however, while acknowledging the darkness, nevertheless points us towards light, however fragile and vulnerable the flickering candles may seem. ‘The night is far gone, the day is at hand.’ For it is true, as the majestic Gospel we will hear again this Christmas proclaims: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ‘Christ the Sun of righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path, and make you ready to meet him.’ – however, wherever and whenever that might happen in your own life and experience.

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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