Diagnosis and Healing Matthew 3:1-12, 11:11-19

A sermon at the church of the Good Shepherd in the Anglican parish of Kingston North in the Diocese of Ontario, Sunday December 9, 2001 by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)

On this second Sunday in Advent we are focusing on how the Messiah's work was totally different from that of John the Baptist. Jesus said "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11). How can such a very great prophet be less than the least in Jesus's Kingdom?

To answer that we need to remember the difference between diagnosis and healing. A few days ago my regular doctor diagnosed a skin cancer on my face that needed treatment. On Friday I went to Dr. Ruth MacSween, a dermatologist, and she excised it (that explains this big scar on my face - I wasn't hit with a frypan!). Similarly if we go to a radiologist, and an X-Ray reveals a dark patch in our chest, the diagnosis is very upsetting, but it was necessary, though it does nothing to heal us. We need a physician to treat us for that condition.

So the work of John the Baptist was to give people the diagnosis of what was wrong in Jewish society at that time. But he knew he did not have what would be needed for a cure. So he announced "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11). Repentance means turning, and John baptized disciples who wanted to turn and learn the diagnosis of what was wrong, and needed changing in their country and in their own lives.

Like John the Baptist, Jesus also baptized large numbers of disciples (John 4:1-2) to begin learning with him. But what they were going to learn was completely different. John had to give the bad news of a diagnosis indicating that much needed to be changed. Jesus enrolled disciples in his school (or hospital) to teach them how to look to the Holy Spirit for a cure. Jesus' ministry was the good news that there was forgiveness and hope for the change that ordinary people knew they needed. Of course it was also bad news for the religious leaders who did not want a change of heart, and felt threatened that people were turning away from them to be healed.

In our day we have many who function as prophets. Their work is to announce bad consequences. If you smoke, you are likely to get lung cancer. Drinking and driving don't mix. Jealousy and anger put up your blood pressure. If young people have unprotected sex, they will get AIDS and other venereal diseases. If we keep polluting our environment, we won't have lakes to swim in or air to breathe. That is all true and needs to be said. But it is like John the Baptist's preaching. It does not cure the human heart, or our bodies, or our environment.

Some of these modern prophets are very fine men and women, but they are not part of Jesus' good news of the Kingdom. And similarly John the Baptist was a very great man who had a very important work to do for God in exposing what was wrong in his day, but he was not part of the Messiah's good news ministry.

In one parish I served there was a woman who was the worst alcoholic I have ever seen. When I went to visit her in the clinic, I would find her shaking all over with DT's. She knew the diagnosis. She was killing herself. Her husband was very patient but the children were upset, and the whole family was coming apart. What she did not need was to be told she was a bad woman, and needed to smarten up. My job was to invite her to turn and look to Jesus' ministry of healing. So every visit I invited her to come to communion where she would be welcomed and the Holy Spirit would begin to change her from deep inside her heart. "Oh, but I am too sinful for that" she would say. I told her Jesus loved her, and he would welcome her. He specialized in healing the worst of sinners.

Finally one Sunday she believed me, and she walked from the clinic to our early morning service. When I gave her the bread and wine I thought I could see a change beginning. She did have to go for a month's detox treatment, but she was soon totally healed and her whole life was changed. I saw her the other day looking bright and happy and well - a beautiful wife, and mother, and grandmother, and she volunteers to help others in need. That was one of the most wonderful experiences I had in fifty years of ministry.

Not only was the message different, but John the Baptist and Jesus had very different styles of ministry. The last of the prophets was a severe, scary looking man. He wore "clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4). That meant he kept himself separate and rejected the usual clothes and food and drink of ordinary people.

Jesus explained that "John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'he has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 11:18-19). There is no suggestion Jesus ever got drunk, but this means he dressed like others, visited with people, and ate the ordinary food and drank the wine which was customary at meals in those days. And when the wine ran out at a wedding, and his mother who was in charge of the catering was very worried, he turned water to vintage wine (120 gallons is a lot of wine!).

He reminded them of the game children loved to play in the village. When the flute gave them a wedding tune, they all had to dance. But when the tune changed to a funeral dirge, the children began wailing and weeping (Matthew 11:16-17). The point is you don't ask a funeral director to be the master of ceremonies at a wedding. Their functions are both necessary in their own time but they are quite different. This is why Paul makes a sharp distinction between law and grace. Law reminds us of what we are meant to be, and condemns us because we cannot meet the standard. Grace is the healing we receive by the Spirit to change us from within.

So what does this distinction between John the Baptist and Jesus' good news ministry have to do with you and me today? When things are not going well, and you feel miserable, anxious, frustrated, loving your family and others is hard, and nothing seem to be going right, you need to get the diagnosis right. Ask the Holy Spirit to clarify for you exactly what is wrong. You probably know already, and others have ruthlessly pointed out some of your faults. Then when you have the diagnosis clear, you turn to Jesus the physician for sin sickness. Tell him what is going wrong. He himself said "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9:12-13). Rather than try to improve yourself from the outside, let him right into the heart of what needs changing.

Once you have experienced the change the Holy Spirit can make in your life, you will naturally want to commend this change to others. There is no need to point out the faults of others and keep lecturing them to smarten up and improve their behavior. They usually know what is wrong already, and nagging does not commend the good news. Young people do not appreciate moralizing. But they will listen if you pray for them, and wait for the opportunity to explain how you yourself were welcomed and changed by Jesus the great physician of the heart.

This is why the early churches grew, and some churches in our day seem to be alive and flourishing. They are full of welcoming people who never condemn, and they have the good news of what the Messiah is doing right now among them by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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