A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 11, 2022 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: Matthew 11: 2-11
John the Baptist is perhaps most relatable in our Gospel reading today.
You’ll remember John started life as a miracle. A faithful old priest and his post-menopausal wife had always longed for a child and God promised a son. Not just any son. This child would have the spirit of Elijah, he would turn his people back to righteousness and prepare a way for the Messiah. The whole town had opinions about what such a special baby should be named and the story of his birth and what it might mean would have spread throughout the region. You can imagine what was said every time one of his friend’s mothers saw the young John getting into trouble “You can’t be stealing cakes and lying about your homework like other children, don’t you know who you are?”. You can imagine the sighs every time he did well at school “Awww, I told you he was special”. Combine this with the fact that he was the only child of ailing parents who probably died when he was in his teens.
That’s a lot for a person to hold.
You can hardly blame him for heading into the desert to live a simple life. Whatever happened there he came back whole heartedly accepting his identity as a truth activist. He metaphorically opened Twitter account and took no prisoners. His first tweet was to call the entire nation a “brood of vipers”. His second said “The axe is already at the foot of the tree. Any tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”. He turned up at the local swimming pool and invited anyone and everyone to be baptised and start life anew, turning from their wicked ways. He even took on King Herod for grabbing any woman he wanted to sleep with. He had some success but Herod continued and Israel’s leaders were still corrupt.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in such a society, activism like this landed him in prison awaiting trial. We join John at the point where he has been in prison for a while. The grim reality is starting to set in for John. This is it for John.
To understand John better perhaps we can look to a more contemporary parallel.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a promising young theologian. Born to a well respected family in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. He was brave. Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor of Germany Bonhoeffer (aged 27) appeared on the German equivalent of BBCRadio 4’s Thought for the Day and said “We must not simply bandage those crushed by the wheel but throw a spoke into the wheel itself!” Beeeeeep. “We apologise for the technical problem. Normal broadcasting will resume shortly.” The broadcast was so radical it was cut off halfway though.
But the German people did not rise up. Frustrated, Bonhoeffer retreated, taking a post in the East End of London. Whitechapel in the Great Depression would not have been easy but it was much less morally complex than Germany. At least everyone agreed what was right and wrong and he was thanked for working with the poor. He wrote to a friend, the theologian Karl Barth to explain his move. This was probably the wrong person to seek sympathy from. Barth wrote a blunt reply that he needed to get on the next boat home and not abandon the church of his homeland at the time they most needed his gifts.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and threw himself into anything he could to right wrongs. He helped smuggle out Jews. He set up an underground seminary. He was even involved with a plot to assassinate Hitler. There were some small success but nothing ultimately changed. Eventually Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 for one of his lesser crimes and held awaiting trial.
He managed to smuggle out letters so we have an idea of what was going on for him while he was in prison. He starts buoyant finding theological insights in his new setting. He wrote that there’s nowhere better to spend Advent than a prison cell where, nothing you do really matters and you are entirely dependent on someone else opening your door to liberty.
His friends try to keep his spirits up with Christmas presents. Warm clothing, scraps of meat, things to make him laugh. One smuggled in an Ostrich Egg, his family managed to get an entire Christmas tree with decorations for his tiny cell. His friend Barth smuggled in his favourite cigar.
But as 1943 becomes 1944 and eventually 1945 you can see a change of tone in his correspondence. More evidence of his crimes was being uncovered and the grim reality sinks in that this is not going to end well.
Two weeks before his death Bonhoeffer wrote a poem that I think resonates with John the Baptist. It’s called “Who am I?” He starts talking about all the ways he seems to be in control, he strides about like he owns the place. Is he this person? But then it jarringly shifts to how he feels when no one is looking, paralysed with fear and completely ineffective as a Christian. Is he that person? He ends with a heart breaking litany “Who am I? This or the Other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, And before myself a contemptible, woebegone weakling?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine…”
John too seems to have questions about his identity when all his activism is taken away and there’s little evidence that he has made a difference with his life.
He sends his followers to Jesus to find answers. “You’re spending all your time with no-names in the suburbs and not even Instagramming the selfies. You haven’t even set foot in Jerusalem yet. I’m not being funny but I’m running out of time here. Are you going to wrap this up or have I backed the wrong horse?” You can hear the awkwardness of the disciple having to relay this question to Jesus, the tumbleweed of the crowds as they hear Jesus’ most loyal advocate, the fearless activist for righteousness, questioning Jesus’ ethics.
Behind John’s questions of Jesus seem to be questions about himself. Has his life been worth anything? Who is he if he is not bringing in change? What is he without his access to the internet?
Jesus responds not with a knockdown argument or putting him in his place, but with a similar invitation to the one he offered to his first disciples. “Come, see what I do” He lists what is actually a summary of Matthew’s gospel so far.
“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone is not offended by me.”
Had John been so focussed on challenging the wrong people in society that he had found Jesus’ ministry offensive? Has he lost touch with who he was called to prepare for?
The irony for poor John is that he is now the wrong side of his “right and wrong” paradigm. He is in prison, in an Elijah-like depression and without wifi, totally useless as an activist turning people back to righteousness. And now he is even publicly lashing out against the person he’s supposed to be preparing the way for. Sam often says that “Rich is the label we use to mask someone’s poverty and poor is the label we use to mask someone’s riches.” The same could be said for good and bad, righteous and evil. Even John, given the right circumstances could do things that were against the Kingdom of Heaven. He’s not the activist for righteousness now.
But Jesus invites John to expand his paradigm. Jesus invites John to see himself in a different way.
Jesus is with John in his weakness too. John lashes out at Jesus in spiritual and moral weakness. But Jesus speaks well of John, restoring his reputation. We remember John not as the person who confronted Jesus but as The Baptist… admittedly in Anglican circles this may not be the highest praise but it’s still impressive considering John’s behaviour.
I like to think John’s disciples told him what Jesus said about him too when they reported back. “Boss, you should have heard him. He told everyone that you’re a prophet, more than a prophet. He said you were the best person who has ever lived. No one has lived more wholeheartedly for what’s right than you.”
And yet Jesus says that the least person who is born within Christ is better even than John. The people born into the Kingdom of Heaven are born into Christ so share his strength, Christ’s life, Christ’s morality. One theologian put it like this “God does not merely contradict the world. God embraces the world, suffers the contradiction and overcomes it in love.” It is this all-powerful love that will restore the world not moral anger and rejection.
There’s a secret in the heart of the universe, even before Jesus came, even before the first humans ate an apple or whatever it was that invented sin and evil and wrong. We have an identity that is more than our failures and evils, more even than our achievements and successes. There is a deeper magic.
The thing at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, the heart of Christmas, at the heart of every atom in God’s creation, is that John’s identity and Dietrich Bonhoeffers identity and your identity and my identity and the identity of every person who has faced illness or exclusion due to a disability, and the identity of every person who is morally weak like John at this moment, even those who do acts of great evil, every Herod and Hitler and Harvey Weinstein, the most offensive statement in the whole universe: each of these people are now bound up with the identity of Jesus.
In Christmas 1944 Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his Christmas sermons.
‘The body of Jesus Christ is our flesh. He bears our flesh. So where the body of Jesus Christ is, there we are: indeed, we are his body. So the Christmas message for all men runs: You are accepted, God has not despised you, but he bears in his body all your flesh and blood. Look to the cradle! In the body of the little child, in the incarnate son of God, your flesh, all your distress, anxiety, temptation, indeed all your sin, is borne, forgiven and healed.”
To live in this reality is to live in the Kingdom of Heaven even when all around us is wrong and evil. God will bring all things into righteousness. We can participate in it now but it doesn’t all depend on us. We never have to sacrifice love for others or love for ourselves because God never does that. The Good News, the offensive news is that the world is not split into good people and bad people in God’s paradigm. God upholds your identity, and the identity of every human being who has ever lived within the identity of Christ.
There are no lonely questions of identity now. Dietrich Bonhoeffer ends his “Who Am I?” poem, two weeks before his execution with the words of peace. I like to think John the Baptist found this peace before his death too.
“Whoever I am, you know Oh Lord, I am yours.”