'Are we to wait for another?' or The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating
Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
16 December 2007, 10:30 (Advent 3)
I don’t know whether any of you have heard of Banksy. If you think I’m talking about the legendry English goal-keeper of the World Cup Winning side of 1966 – you’re wrong! (And it dates you). Banksy is very much a contemporary, controversial graffiti artist whose main aim I would suggest is to puncture pretentiousness through satire. He’s controversial because he doesn’t always ask permission of such laudable institutions as Hackney Council whether he could draws rats on drains or windows on blank walls which tell a story in themselves of those who live within. They still think of his work as graffiti and not art. Others are happy to pay thousands of pounds for his work as long as it’s not painted on the walls of their homes! Possibly his most famous graffiti isn’t in this country but on the wall that splits apart Palestian and Israeli at the West Bank. Here he painted the scene from the Palestinian side as if you’re looking through. It is so realistic that the blue sky on the wall matches the real blue sky beyond which would make the casual observer think that indeed the wall had been blown open, a huge hole opened up and you could just amble through. Fat chance, of course. But it’s visionary. And it’s a nuisance to those in authority who built the wall. He has also more recently painted a young Palestinian girl frisking an Israeli soldier as if they are standing against the wall.
As one who has only recently been introduced to his art I felt that he was the equivalent of a sort of secular John the Baptist, a deflator of the bumptious and arrogant, and calling all people to look at themselves again and realise that the world is in need of healing and hope. His is a sort of secular call to repentance but of course without the further reference that makes John special in our Christian story – in that his hope is not in satire nor in art but in a person, Jesus Christ. Whilst Banksy might rely on persuasion John the Baptist’s message relies on faith in the one who is to come, Jesus.
Yet, this is the very question which John asks as the prisoner of Herod incarcerated in the massive fortress at Machaerus. ‘Are you the one we are waiting for, or do we look for another? In some ways it’s a strange question for John to be asking, for he is the one who baptised Jesus in the river Jordan and who saw the Spirit of God alight on him like a dove. That important episode is nuanced with Old Testament references, as the gospel writer constructs one of the main themes that he wants his readers and hears to understand – that Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies from of old. John the Baptist was the prime mover there, to whom Jesus went. In Luke’s gospel we learn of the relationship between Jesus and John as cousins. So the strong connection is made. Why now does John begin to have doubts?
One of the reasons could be from the context of where he is. In prison. If you have ever been to the Dead Sea region you will know that there are immense temperature changes. Midday is intensely hot. You keep out of the sun. Indeed when I was there some years ago it was getting that way at 8 am in the morning. Conversely it can be intensely cold at night. I doubt whether prisoners were helped in any way to cope with this. So maybe these thoughts came to him in the dead and drear of the night when sleep is a problem and all sorts of things come to mind. How of course we come to know of this interior struggle is perhaps also a mystery because it’s difficult to see how his disciples would have got wind of this unless they were allowed into prison to see him and bring him food. But maybe there’s an honesty about this story in that John the Baptist, who always seems self-assured and confident about what he is doing and saying, also has moments when he wobbles in his understanding about Jesus, just as Peter was to do later on in the gospel story. But what he does is to share his question with the very person who can answer it – Jesus himself. He doesn’t go to a guru or some other wise person, he contemplates Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all to learn when we go through those moments of doubt – can what I believe in really be so? – we ask. Our worship provides us with that very opportunity – to contemplate Jesus himself through scripture, prayer, reflection and worship. For the answer which comes back is - that what is envisioned in writings of the prophets is actually coming to pass in the ministry of Jesus: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the poor are brought good news.1 If you go back two chapters in Matthew’s gospel you will read there - that’s exactly what has been happening wherever Jesus has been going and meeting with people in need.
John gets his answer. (Actually as I was writing this my two grandsons, who were staying with us, came in to tell me that it was time to move the crib figures on. They have been putting the wisemen, sheep, Mary and Joseph around the house as they journey towards Bethlehem – we haven’t quite established where that is to be yet – but gradually they will meet up as the days draw closer to Christmas. But it occurred to me that this was what was happening to John the Baptist – he was being urged to move on in his faith by asking the pertinent question and hearing an answer which pointed beyond himself to the person it is all about and the kingdom he has come to establish. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. John is pointed towards the ministry that is Jesus himself.
What John had asked is really the overarching question that lurks behind the gospels and which is in the minds of all of us as thoughtful believers. Is Jesus the one we are looking for? Is he truly God and truly man? Or is there another way of finding out the meaning of life and why we are here and for what purpose? And is there a creator behind all of what we see? And if there is can we say that he is a God who loves us?
The Christmas story is a profound yes to all this. It’s in the gospels, the graffiti of faith, and it’s worth even writing on the walls of the proud and in the hearts of the arrogant. As R. S. Thomas, the Welsh priest poet, wrote in his later poems:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on: Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; the mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.2
Faith, green as a leaf. Now there’s a bit of graffiti for the outside of a cathedral!
1 Matthew 11.5
2 R.S. Thomas Later Poems quoted by Stephen Platten in ‘Rebuilding Jerusalem’ p 171