“Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Matthew 11:7
Why were the people there? It’s the sort of question that will cross the minds of many preachers as the churches fill over the Christmas season: why have all these people come? What is it that draws them? What is there that still has the power to bring even the most reluctant through the church door?
Jesus asks such a question of the crowds. What is it you went to see, a reed shaken by the wind, a man dressed in fine clothes, a prophet? ‘What then did you go out to see?’ he asks and it is a challenge, a probing, as to what is in their hearts. John is in prison now, would they still want to listen to his words?
‘People from the whole Judean countryside’ had gone out to see John, we read in Saint Mark Chapter 1, ‘and all the people of Jerusalem’. John had attained celebrity status, the ordinary people had flocked to hear him, but so had the rich and the powerful. What was their motivation? What had taken them out to this barren, inhospitable place to hear the words of this radical preacher?
Some had come looking for spiritual renewal, some had come because they were curious. Some, we know from John’s denunciation of them as a ‘brood of vipers’ in last Sunday’s reading from Saint Matthew Chapter 3, saw John as dangerous, a threat to the established order of things.
What people saw in John depended on what was in their hearts as they went out to hear him. They could have gone to that rough and wild place and seen an odd and eccentric man, a man dressed in a primitive way, hair and beard unkempt, skin weathered and cracked by the elements; a man whose diet was locusts and wild honey; a man who cared nothing for polite company or social etiquette. They could have gone to see John and returned to their homes with tales of a strange sight and wild words.
Had we encountered John, aren’t those the things that would have struck us? Were we telling of what we had seen to people in our own time, wouldn’t we tend to tell of the physical facts, the things we had seen? The spirit of our age is one caught up with what we can see, what we can touch, truth is something surface deep.
Jesus’ question is a challenge to move beyond appearances, to look for deeper truths. To the authorities, he is a rabble rouser, a troublemaker, someone whose removal would be convenient. They would have been glad when he had been put into prison; they do not see beyond their perception of what suits themselves. It is those who can discern the deeper things who see John as he is. They see beyond the physical facts to the spiritual truth; they see God’s grace in the ministry of this homeless preacher.
John is seen as a prophet because there is a capacity to see deeper things; it is that capacity we need to rediscover ourselves.
The coming Christmas season is probably the worst time of the year for concern with the superficial, the surface things, the trivial things. Listen to conversation about Christmas and what do we hear discussed? Presents, parties, meals, money—a festival of mass materialism. Where in all the talk is there any mention of the spiritual, where is there any seeking after anything deeper?
Haven’t we become like those who might have gone out to see John the Baptist and seen nothing more than a bearded man dressed in rags? Haven’t we lost sight of the profound, the deep truth of what is being celebrated?
Going out into the wilderness, standing amongst the crowds listening to the preaching, what would we have heard? If our hearts had been open, we would have heard God speaking to us, but that would depend upon us, upon our willingness to hear. When Jesus talks of John’s ministry, he speaks of a need for people to make their own response, ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear’, he says, when he speaks to that crowd of people in Matthew Chapter 11 Verse 15
Approaching Christmas, what will we make of the things we hear? As we hear the story told repeatedly in the coming weeks, have we become immune to its power? Have we forgotten what it is saying to us? Do we listen to the tale of angels, shepherds and wise men and make no more of it than someone who was no more than casually interested listening to John the Baptist?
Seeing the presence of God’s truth in John the Baptist demanded an openness of heart, a willingness to change, an acceptance that there was a need for spiritual renewal. We need such an openness of heart when we listen to the Christmas story.
As John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, so the willingness of his listeners to hear and see God’s presence should set an example for us to prepare a way in our own lives.
‘What then did you go out to see?’ asks Jesus of those who went out to see John the Baptist.
As we attend Christmas services over the coming weeks, he might ask us that same question, ‘What then did you go out to see?’
Do we see something that is so familiar, it has no impact upon us, or do we see something deep, profound, life-changing?
Had we been among the crowd in the wilderness, listening to John the Baptist, what sort of listeners would we have been—one of casually curious or one of those to whom Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear.’
What then did you go out to see?