Matt 11. 2-11 - What did you go out into the wilderness to see?

Fr Alec
Sunday, December 15, 2013 - 9:30am



For some time now there has been a newspaper column with the intriguing title: ‘Important Questions to which the Answer is No.’ The idea is to find risible questions in the media and from popular culture which, in actual fact, have only one sensible answer. For example:


'Are Militant Atheists Using Chemtrails to Poison the Angels in Heaven?’


‘Could Abu Qatada Trigger a Snap General Election?''


‘Is Spongebob Squarepants the new Che Guevara?’


Of course the world is full of nonsense, and we use rhetorical questions like these as ways of grabbing attention, and drawing people’s eyes into the deeper truth of the sitation.


When Jesus questions the crowds about John the Baptist in today’s gospel, we could imagine it almost like a call-and-response sermon in a gospel hall.

‘What did you go out to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A moral weakling who blows with public opinion, and says what you want to hear?’ NO!


‘What then? A celebrity in flashy clothes?’ NO!

‘Well then, you must have gone to see a prophet!’ YES!


The questions are all about identity, and Jesus is responding to John’s own question: ‘Are you the one who is to come?’ Are you the Messiah, the Son of David whom we’ve been expecting?


Now, first of all, we might ask why John is asking this question. He seemed sure enough of Jesus’ identity at the River Jordan- why the sudden crisis of confidence?


Well, it may be that John is sending his disciples to Jesus as a lesson for them, so that they can understand for themselves the truth of the Messiah. Alternatively, we might suppose that John, (by now sitting in prison,) having predicted Christ coming as Judge - his winnowing fork in hand, having foretold his baptism of Fire, is wondering why Herod, his persecutor, has not been the recipient of some much needed and well-deserved thunderbolts.


Whatever the case, Jesus was the object, throughout his earthly ministry, of many such questions from friends and enemies alike about his identity. And this is not surprising, for though in many ways, to us John is the rather stranger, and more surprising character of the two, with his fondness for camel’s hair apparel, and his diet of locusts and wild honey, it was Jesus who would have confounded the expectations of the time.


John played the role of the prophet very well. A mysterious outsider from the desert. A wild-haired ascetic preaching judgement against the decadence and injustice of his own time, he fitted well into people’s expectations of a man of God. He was believable as a holy man in the mould of Elijah. If people had paid close attention to the scriptures, then this was the sort of figure they had imagined who would come to save the day.


Jesus, on the other hand, as far as the populace was concerned, kept fluffing his lines. He spent far too much time in the company of undesirable characters like tax collectors. He is compared unfavourably to John, and called a glutton and a drunkard. Had John begun to doubt that he was the one? Or was this all an object lesson in carefully managing our expectations?


In his characteristically indirect answer to John’s question, Jesus instead recalls the prophecy of Isaiah about the redemption of Israel:


The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’


In other words, Jesus encourages John’s followers to look beyond appearances, and to see the power of God at work in his actions. They have received the prophecies of God’s kingdom, but they are blind to it in their midst.


Just as they had approached John with certain expectations, expecting to have them fulfilled, so they sought to judge Jesus by the same expectations, seeking to find the Messiah of their own imaginations.


Instead, Jesus call them back to Scripture, to the promises of God’s salvation, and invites them to reimagine what might be the fulfilment of these words.


Faith is a matter of imagination. It is the fulfilment of hope, not fantasy. God supplies us with what we need, but not necessarily what we expect. It is for this reason that the salvation of Christ was so often linked with Recognition- with people coming to understand who was in their midst.


For us, Advent is a time of expectation, but a time also for re-examining our preconceptions, and asking ourselves again just What Christ’s coming again might mean, and what it might look like. It is a time for stretching ourselves beyond the easy answers and wish-fulfilment of popular imagination, and meeting God on his own terms.


As we approach Christmas again, let us seek to turn afresh to Christ. To meet him again for the first time. To recognise once more the compelling freshness and strange familiarity of his presence. Let us come again to his table, not like those who have brought their own food, but as the beggars that we are, humbly to receive the gift he offers, which is his very self.