Reading: Matthew 11:11-15
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As many of you know my superpower is being dyslexic. I was diagnosed at around 10 years of age and was send to a boarding school which specialized in helping people with dyslexia, or at least it did at the time. I was required to take extra English lessons, to help me catch up with reading and writing which I had till I was about 15 and to be fair I suspect it helped me eventually catch up with my peers. But I don’t remember those lessons with joy because for a treat, my teacher would say, “come on, you’ve done well today, lets finish the lesson by playing boggle’. You know the game, the one where you jumble up letters and try and work out words to spell? Well, it didn’t fill me with much joy because as a dyslexic I already played a game where I saw a mix of letters and tried to make sense of it. I called it reading. Boggle was and remains a complete mystery to me. As do shows like countdown, although I can generally do the numbers bit. They are a complete mystery and for me the temptation is to change the channel – even though, all these years later, when I can spell and actually spend a reasonable amount of time writing professionally for things like sermons or eulogies much to my 10-year-old dyslexic surprise I still find that game and things like countdown or scrabble a complete mystery.
People can often treat scripture like that, seeing mystery and simply skipping over to the nice bit, the easy bit, that says things we can understand, rather than tackling the hard thing, staying in that uncomfortable place of uncertainty where life isn’t easy, but boy do we learn. In advent, we spend a large amount of time looking at prophesy and difficult passages and people can be too quick to skip over them.
Our reading from Matthew is very much like that this morning. What is Jesus talking about? He starts by telling us that John the Baptist is the greatest person ever born of woman, but despite this, the least in the kingdom of heaven is better than John the Baptist. Then there is that really weird verse that says “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” What on earth does that mean, before Jesus says “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!”
So, we learn that John is amazing but not as amazing as people in the Kingdom, that the Kingdom is suffering violence and that John the Baptist is Elijah. Doesn’t that boggle your mind? What is going on?
Well as always when thinking about a bible passage, context is king. This part comes in chapter 11, where the disciples of John the Baptist have arrived to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”.
You see, John is making the way straight in the desert, and pointing to the coming of the Messiah, and John via his disciples is asking, “So Jesus are you really the one?”
Jesus then spends the first half of the chapter teaching about John, pointing out that the evidence of miracles and teaching does indeed point to Him as Messiah. He explains what John’s mission is, to prepare the way for the Messiah to come. And then in our passage in this context Jesus continues teaching about the mission of John.
Firstly, Jesus is telling us that John is the greatest and last of the Old Testament prophets that all point to Jesus. In Advent, we spend a reasonable amount of time with John the Baptist exactly for that reason, because he points to the coming of Jesus at Christmas.
Secondly the verse all about violence is not about people being violent to God’s kingdom. In this context, we can understand that Jesus is using a simile, comparing the fervour for righteousness, the revival and interest in a Messiah that existed in Israel at that time, due in part to John the Baptist, as like an army violently trying to gain entry to the Kingdom, besieging it, because the people are so passionate trying enter the kingdom that it is like they are violently taking it by force. They had heard the message of john and now they are passionate about getting into this kingdom that he is proclaiming.
Lastly, in this passage why does Jesus point to John as Elijah? Well Jesus is saying that John the Baptist is the fulfilment of the prophesy in Malachi near the end of the Old Testament where it says “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” Or in other words, before the day of judgement, I will send Elijah to bring reconciliation, to turn the peoples hearts, father to son, son to father, which of course is what John the Baptist does, offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
So, you can see, I hope, in this boggling passage, that Jesus is saying John is the greatest Old Testament prophet preparing the way for Jesus, that he has caused people to violently want entry into the kingdom of God, and his ministry is a fulfilment of prophesy in Malachi. But what does that mean for us today?
First, I hope it will encourage you not to skip over those hard passages. They are often the richest if we spend some time with them. By the way don’t overwork, use google because people have thought about the bible for many of thousands of years and someone somewhere will have a reasonable and researched answer worth considering.
Most of all, I hope you hear the message of John the Baptist. Follow John’s leading and look to Jesus. Be passionate about being a citizen of the Kingdom of God and being within the Kingdom of God, violently if you have to. Finally listen to the cry of John – particularly in Advent a time of waiting and reflection, “repent for the kingdom of God is near”. Because when we are looking to Jesus, being passionate and repenting as individuals and as a church, my goodness, we can expect the holiness and blessing of God to rest heavily upon our little community. Amen.