Sermon given at Gordon Chapel on 11 Dec 16 by Jeff Lowndes
John the Baptist was one of the greatest men in the Bible. Jesus himself said so. He said, “Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer” (v. 11). What more could anyone say – if Jesus says you’re the greatest then it must be true.
But John expresses doubts about Jesus. He’d preached fire-and-brimstone sermons – calling people to repent – to be ready to receive the Messiah.
He was looking for the Messiah to come like a cleansing fire purifying the world. Jesus didn’t do that – his was a teaching, healing, nurturing ministry, he was gentle – not what John expected – no wonder he had misgivings about Jesus.
But God called John to be a prophet, denouncing sin wherever he found it – even when the sinner was King Herod. He might have got away with that if it hadn’t been for Herod’s wicked wife persuading him to imprison John.
So John’s wonders what’s gone wrong. Jesus hadn’t worked out as expected – everything John worked for had turned out badly. Sitting in prison didn’t make it any easier – he’d time to think – brood – question and to feel confused. So he sent a message to Jesus asking, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” (v. 3).
We should admire John for asking that question. It would’ve been easy to criticise Jesus – force his hand – pressure Jesus to live up to expectations. But John did none of that. He simply asked: “Are you the one?”
And Jesus sent John’s messengers back to tell him what he had been doing. But Jesus did more than give John a list of miracles. His message was couched in language from the prophet Isaiah, telling John that he had fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies. – he was doing his job. The blind received sight, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed and even the dead were raised. The poor were having the Good News preached to them (v. 5). So in other words, everything was going to plan – John could relax, have faith and trust.
And then Jesus said this: “Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling in me” (v. 6). At first glance, that seems like an odd statement. John hadn’t taken offence at Jesus – he’d simply asked a question. Who could take offence at someone who was helping people and performing miracles?
But there were people who did take offence. While Jesus was comforting the afflicted, he was also afflicting the comfortable. The poor and vulnerable were his friends, but not the rich and powerful – when Jesus came into contact with them usually sparks flew. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy, made them look foolish, often in front of crowds. No wonder they took offence.
Matthew tells us about others who took offence at Jesus. When he went to Bethsaida, they refused to listen to him (11:20-24). When he preached in his hometown, his sermon infuriated the congregation and they took offence at him (13:57). And of course, the religious leaders took offence to such an extent that they would arrange to have Jesus killed.
We might think, “that was then, but this is now. Surely nobody would take offence at Jesus today.” But that isn’t true is it? People take offence at him all the time. Throughout the world, people are persecuting Jesus’ followers:
In Kazakhtsan, Yklas Kabdukasov, a former Muslim, was arrested for his Christian activities. He’s now in a labour camp. Last October in Oregon, a teacher and 8 students were killed after admitting to being followers of Christ – not an unusual thing these days.
An international Research Center reports that “Christians face religious persecution in more countries than any other religious group.”
Pope Francis labelled the persecution of Christians today as a form of genocide, and we read all the time that throughout the world such persecution takes place. Often in small ways, like objecting to Christians wearing symbols of their faith
And it’s not just in a few isolated places around the world that people are taking offence at Christ. For example, Christmas has become increasingly secular, often in the guise of being PC and it’s not just in third world countries and those we consider to be under dictatorships. It’s now among us!
I’ve read that some schools wont have Nativity Plays, and discourage children from singing traditional Christmas Carols. Well, not here – we will fight for our traditions and our faith – wont we!
The Christ in Christmas is vanishing – we must stand firm and give our Lord his proper place.
I Googled the word “Jesus” and found a site that offers Jesus dress-up fridge magnets. One is a picture of Jesus on the cross – with arms outstretched. The others are super-hero costumes that can be superimposed on the Christ figure. The idea is to dress Christ in amusing outfits as he hangs on the cross.
Just imagine the uproar if someone were to treat Martin Luther King’s assassination in that mocking way, or do it with a figure of Mohammed – but it’s tolerated when it is Jesus – why? Why should Jesus be a stumbling block for anyone – his teachings should indicate the opposite.
But the fact is that Jesus can be offensive. Even we are tempted to take offence at him, though we may not recognize it:
We want him to make us rich or at least well off, but he calls us help the poor, give as much as we can, and to be poor in Spirit.
We want him to understand human frailty, but he tells us that if we look at someone with lust, we’ve already committed adultery with them in our hearts. He doesn’t leave us with much room for excuses!
We want him to protect us from injustice, but he says, “If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also”.
We want him to take our side in a fight, but he calls us to love our enemies.
He calls us to ‘turn the other cheek’ (which can be taken in many ways!).
Jesus is offensive because he asks us to live now as if we were already living in the kingdom of heaven. He asks us to give up our “this world” instincts to live by “the new kingdom” rules. He asks us to live as if this corrupt world were good. That’s hard to do. We are tempted to take offence – to make excuses and try to wriggle out of the straight and narrow!
But Jesus does call us to live now as though we’re living in the kingdom of heaven, because we are. He promises that the kingdom has come near. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” – not “will be the Kingdom of Heaven” but “is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
For those who believe in Jesus – who become poor of spirit for him – the kingdom of heaven is present tense – it is now! That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something better waiting when we die, but it does mean that Christ sowed the kingdom seed and brought a bit of heaven to earth. Those of us who believe in Christ have one foot planted in heaven – believe it!
And Christians have been cultivating the kingdom since then. When The Baptist doubted, Jesus told John’s disciples: “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”. But importantly – those things were not just for way back then!
They still happen today. Men and women who’ve become poor in spirit for Jesus are working all over the world now to bring healing, education, clean water – and Christ – to people in need. Think of those helping in war torn areas like Syria, and in refugee camps like ‘The Jungle’ near Calais. People help as best they can, using their God given gifts and talents. We know folk who help with Food Banks and Traidcraft and many other charitable ways to help those in need – all doing their ‘bit’ and those bits add up to a greater whole. In fairness – many non Christians are also very active in these things.
It is no coincidence that this happens – for Christ is still with us – and we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. Many of us here will be able to testify to this though we may be shy about it – it’s the British way not to speak too much about religion and our faith. We don’t have to be radical evangelists. It’s more simple than that.
Lovers of Christ have left comfortable homes and promising careers to serve in the name of Christ – but not just those who are poor – even the rich and powerful benefit – for Christ does not withhold his love and care from anyone. And the world is a better place because of the sacrifices of those who work in his name.
It must bring us encouragement when we learn of what Christ has done for us. A church historian called Philip Schaff summed it up like this:-
Jesus of Nazareth, without money or arms, conquered more people than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; Without science and learning, he shed more light on things human and divine than all the philosophers and scholars combined; Without the eloquence born of a great education, he spoke words of life such as were never spoken before or since, and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; Without writing a single line, he has set more pens in motion and furnished themes for more sermons, discussions, works of art, learned volumes and songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.
Born in a manger and crucified as a criminal, he controls the destinies of the civilised world, and rules a spiritual empire which embraces much of that world.
Jesus says, “Blessed is he who finds no occasion for stumbling in me.” And so we are blessed when we love the Lord, blessed are our families and our world. Because when Christ blesses us, he desires that the whole of the creation will share in those blessings now and in the days to come.
Do you remember the pop song by Slade called ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’….. I heard it on the car radio yesterday, and was struck by lines in the chorus which contained something quite profound and wonderful. They said : “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun”.
Today – as we take communion – our future begins anew – the Grace of God allows us to come before him and begin again – we repent and we are renewed.
So, when we leave here today to love and serve the Lord – let us go out in the name of Christ – and take those blessings with us – “Look to the future now, it’s only just begun”. Amen