I know I speak as someone with an unfortunate reputation for cutting it fine when it comes to timing, but when people arrive early for things it can leave you rather discombobulated. A year after I was ordained, a college chum from Cambridge followed me into the Diocese and we were comparing notes on what we had found out about our new contexts. "Do you find that people around here arrive early for things?" He asked. Well, yes, I had, though I had put it down to the fact that, even by Cambridge standards, I was known to be a bit last minute. But even now, I get caught out by wedding couples arriving 15 minutes ahead of the appointed hour, when I thought I'd left myself a short window in which to grab some supper. And I remember once travelling with my now retired Deanery Lay Chair to supper at the bishop's house. He, being a railwayman, was very fastidious about timing, and the combination of his early departure time and my no-nonsense driving style meant we arrived about 40 minutes early, before the poor bishop's wife had had time to change and put her face on. The look of horror when she opened the door to find our friendly smiling faces will live with me for years.
And something similar is going on with John the Baptist in today's Gospel reading. He understood his vocation as being that of making straight the paths for the Messiah and preparing the way of the Lord. And he had understood that his cousin, Jesus, was that Messiah, but now he wasn't so sure. The story had taken an unexpected turn and he was discombobulated. Worse than that, he was discombobulated and in prison.
John was expecting the Messiah at a particular time in history - a time referred to variously as the Day of Judgment, the day of the Lord or the Last Day. In Jewish thought, the Messiah would come as God's appointed king to usher in a period of God's kingship on earth. And as part of that, there would be a great judgment of the earth. Those who had been God's faithful people (the Jews) would be justified, shown to have been right and exonerated publicly before the whole world. Those who had not, would be judged: their leaders overthrown, the impenitent put to death and the rest would flock to Israel as the light of the nations, the mountain of the Lord's house, will be established as the highest of the mountains, all the nations shall stream to it and say, "Come, let us go up to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." In other words, they would realise that the Jews had been right all along.
And as part of that, it was widely expected that the Messiah would defeat all Israel's enemies by military force as a precursor to judgment. But this Messiah wasn't doing any of that. He wasn't even fighting to save his own cousin from prison. One had to wonder whether he had any intention of seizing power at all and if not, whether he was in fact the Messiah. And so John sends this message to Jesus via their respective disciples: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" It's pretty much a kick up the backside. Listen, matey, if you are the Messiah, it's high time you got on with Messiahing. Otherwise, we might just have to drop you and look elsewhere.
Well, Jesus points to other signs that God's kingdom has indeed been ushered in by their joint ministries: "tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them". These are all prophesies about what the Messiah will do when he establishes God's kingdom. The fact that Jesus has been doing these things is confirmation that he is indeed the Messiah. But we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that communities at Qumran and elsewhere in Israel were expecting these things to happen after final judgment, not before it. They were happening too soon. Jesus had come too early, in the middle of history, not at its end, at the inauguration of God's kingdom, not at its fulfilment. And John was discombobulated. How can these things be happening already? And what does that mean for final judgment? For vindication and justification?
Well, the clue to that lies in the final thing Jesus says to John the Baptist, "And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me". Jesus' kingdom might not look like a kingdom - there is no army, no judiciary, no fine robes, no symbols of power, but it is in fact more powerful than any throne and more subversive than any revolution. What king, what revolutionary, can heal the sick, or raise the dead? What king or revolutionary can make the blind see and the deaf hear (and not just the physical deafness or blindness)? What king or revolutionary, for that matter, really brings good news to the poor? Isn't the reality that their record in power invariably falls short of the rhetoric?
Jesus is bringing a kingdom of real revolutionary power because, unlike any other movement in this world, his movement really changes what most needs to change in this world - the human heart. His is not a grand scheme that changes the balance of world power, but leaves individual human hearts full of the same greed, anger and selfishness they had before. That had been the mistake Israel had made when they first entered the Promised Land - they may have left their Egyptian slave drivers the other side of the Red Sea, but they were still the same selfish, greedy, ungrateful people inside and until that changed they would always be slaves to their own sin. But Jesus had come to transform those individual lives and to change the world through those transformed lives. It didn't need grand schemes or large numbers. A single broken reed in the wilderness would be enough, so long as his pride was broken and his heart humble enough to accept healing, so long as he would take no offence at Jesus, but welcome his gentle, one-soul-at-a-time saving grace and see in it, true power and glory.
But you see Judgment is happening too early as well, because people's hearts were already being judged by how they reacted to Jesus. If they took offence at him, if they could not recognise his kingship or embrace a kingdom where the blind see, the sick are healed - or for that matter, where last are first, the poor are kings and the meek inherit the earth - then they stand judged by their own offence at Jesus. But for those with the humility to dethrone themselves and put this kind, gentle, healing king on the throne of their hearts, they are vindicated and the kingdom is theirs.
But it is still true that Jesus had come too early. Final judgment is still to come, when Jesus fulfils his promise to come again. His first coming was not at the end of time, but in the middle of it, but the mystery of faith is that he will come again. But that final judgment will only pronounce what has already taken place here and now in relation to our reception of Jesus and his kingdom. The humble poor will hear and be glad, but the rich and powerful will be cast down from their thrones. How we react to this now determines the judgment that will be pronounced.
Now, I need to explain a little more here. I said, rather loosely, that the Day of Judgment is seen in scripture as the end of time, but it would be more true to say that it is seen as the end of an era. The Bible divides history not so much into a space/time continuum and eternity, but rather into the age that is passing away and the age that is to come, in other words, the pre-kingdom of God era and the Kingdom of God. And when the Bible refers to life in the age that is to come, it calls it 'life of the Age'. And that is the Greek phrase that we translate as 'eternal life'. So the phrase we translate as 'eternal life' is more literally, in the original Greek, 'life of the Age' - the life of the kingdom of God. And that is offered to us right now - too early. So not only is final judgment ours now, but so is eternal life. Yes, there will be final judgment, the final separation of good from evil, the vindication of God's faithful people and the resurrection of the dead. But final judgment does not begin eternal life, it confirms who is already living it. We begin living it now, too early, when we humble our hearts and let Jesus in; when we acknowledge that we haven't got it sorted, but that we're sick inside and need his healing; when we acknowledge that we don't know everything (or very much at all, in fact) and need him to open our eyes; when we acknowledge that we are, as the Christmas carol puts it, noisy men of strife and need him to teach us to stop the noise and hear the angels sing; when we acknowledge that, for all our respectability, we are not really good, but need forgiving and justifying; when we stop taking offence at Jesus and rebelling against his kingdom, but crown him our king and sit with him in the gutter, sharing our bread with the poor, touching the outcast with love, healing the sick, listening to the cares of the meek and bringing back to life those dying inside by feeding them with the bread of life, God's word.
It's too easy to forget, in the troubles of life, that the Messiah has come - and will come again. Jesus has come too early. We forget when life gets hard and we feel abandoned by God that he's already grappled with this world and suffered with us. We forget when we face death in our loved ones or in ourselves that he has already died and risen. We forget when we listen to the inner voice of guilt or condemnation, the voice that tells us we don't matter or can't be loved, that Jesus has already forgiven us and justified us. We forget, when we look at the suffering of the world and the wars of the nations, that the world already has a saviour, that God's kingdom is already here, too early. "What did you go out to the wilderness to see?" Jesus asks the people. Don't you know that what you're looking at is the kingdom of heaven? It's there among the meek, the sick, the blind, the poor, and the humble. They see it, which is why they are in fact rich, blessed, at peace. Do we see it? Are we still taking offence at it, fighting it? Or will we embrace it and live it - the life of the age to come, living, too early, here in our hearts, bringing the dead to life.
Preached: Thrimby (joint), 11 December 2016