When hope fails us - 8 December 2020
By Hennie Symington
“Now, to what can I compare the people of this day? They are like children sitting in the market place. One group shouts to the other, ‘We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn't dance! We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn't cry!’ When John came, he fasted and drank no wine, and everyone said, ‘He has a demon in him!’ When the Son of Man came, he ate and drank, and everyone said, ‘Look at this man! He is a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts!’ God's wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results.” The people in the towns where Jesus had performed most of his miracles did not turn from their sins, so he reproached those towns. “How terrible it will be for you, Chorazin! How terrible for you too, Bethsaida! If the miracles which were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, the people there would long ago have put on sackcloth and sprinkled ashes on themselves, to show that they had turned from their sins! I assure you that on the Judgement Day God will show more mercy to the people of Tyre and Sidon than to you! And as for you, Capernaum! Did you want to lift yourself up to heaven? You will be thrown down to hell! If the miracles which were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would still be in existence today! You can be sure that on the Judgement Day God will show more mercy to Sodom than to you!” At that time Jesus said, “Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned. Yes, Father, this was how you wanted it to happen. “My Father has given me all things. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.” Not long afterwards Jesus was walking through some cornfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they began to pick ears of corn and eat the grain. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Jesus, “Look, it is against our Law for your disciples to do this on the Sabbath!” Jesus answered, “Have you never read what David did that time when he and his men were hungry? He went into the house of God, and he and his men ate the bread offered to God, even though it was against the Law for them to eat it — only the priests were allowed to eat that bread. Or have you not read in the Law of Moses that every Sabbath the priests in the Temple actually break the Sabbath law, yet they are not guilty? I tell you that there is something here greater than the Temple. The scripture says, ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ If you really knew what this means, you would not condemn people who are not guilty; for the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus left that place and went to a synagogue, where there was a man who had a paralysed hand. Some people were there who wanted to accuse Jesus of doing wrong, so they asked him, “Is it against our Law to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered, “What if one of you has a sheep and it falls into a deep hole on the Sabbath? Will you not take hold of it and lift it out? And a human being is worth much more than a sheep! So then, our Law does allow us to help someone on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man with the paralysed hand, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it became well again, just like the other one. Then the Pharisees left and made plans to kill Jesus. When Jesus heard about the plot against him, he went away from that place; and large crowds followed him. He healed all those who were ill and gave them orders not to tell others about him. He did this so as to make what God had said through the prophet Isaiah come true: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, the one I love, and with whom I am pleased. I will send my Spirit upon him, and he will announce my judgement to the nations. He will not argue or shout, or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed, or put out a flickering lamp. He will persist until he causes justice to triumph, and in him all peoples will put their hope.” Then some people brought to Jesus a man who was blind and could not talk because he had a demon. Jesus healed the man, so that he was able to talk and see. The crowds were all amazed at what Jesus had done. “Could he be the Son of David?” they asked. When the Pharisees heard this, they replied, “He drives out demons only because their ruler Beelzebul gives him power to do so.” Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he said to them, “Any country that divides itself into groups which fight each other will not last very long. And any town or family that divides itself into groups which fight each other will fall apart. So if one group is fighting another in Satan's kingdom, this means that it is already divided into groups and will soon fall apart! You say that I drive out demons because Beelzebul gives me the power to do so. Well, then, who gives your followers the power to drive them out? What your own followers do proves that you are wrong! No, it is not Beelzebul, but God's Spirit, who gives me the power to drive out demons, which proves that the Kingdom of God has already come upon you. “No one can break into a strong man's house and take away his belongings unless he first ties up the strong man; then he can plunder his house. “Anyone who is not for me is really against me; anyone who does not help me gather is really scattering. And so I tell you that people can be forgiven any sin and any evil thing they say; but whoever says evil things against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who says something against the Son of Man can be forgiven; but whoever says something against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven — now or ever. “To have good fruit you must have a healthy tree; if you have a poor tree, you will have bad fruit. A tree is known by the kind of fruit it bears. You snakes — how can you say good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good person brings good things out of a treasure of good things; a bad person brings bad things out of a treasure of bad things. “You can be sure that on Judgement Day everyone will have to give account of every useless word he has ever spoken. Your words will be used to judge you — to declare you either innocent or guilty.” Then some teachers of the Law and some Pharisees spoke up. “Teacher,” they said, “we want to see you perform a miracle.” “How evil and godless are the people of this day!” Jesus exclaimed. “You ask me for a miracle? No! The only miracle you will be given is the miracle of the prophet Jonah. In the same way that Jonah spent three days and nights in the big fish, so will the Son of Man spend three days and nights in the depths of the earth. On Judgement Day the people of Nineveh will stand up and accuse you, because they turned from their sins when they heard Jonah preach; and I tell you that there is something here greater than Jonah! On Judgement Day the Queen of Sheba will stand up and accuse you, because she travelled all the way from her country to listen to King Solomon's wise teaching; and I assure you that there is something here greater than Solomon! “When an evil spirit goes out of a person, it travels over dry country looking for a place to rest. If it can't find one, it says to itself, ‘I will go back to my house.’ So it goes back and finds the house empty, clean, and all tidy. Then it goes out and brings along seven other spirits even worse than itself, and they come and live there. So when it is all over, that person is in a worse state than he was at the beginning. This is what will happen to the evil people of this day.” Jesus was still talking to the people when his mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside, asking to speak with him. So one of the people there said to him, “Look, your mother and brothers are standing outside, and they want to speak with you.” Jesus answered, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does what my Father in heaven wants him to do is my brother, my sister, and my mother.” That same day Jesus left the house and went to the lakeside, where he sat down to teach. The crowd that gathered round him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it, while the crowd stood on the shore. He used parables to tell them many things. “Once there was a man who went out to sow corn. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. The seeds soon sprouted, because the soil wasn't deep. But when the sun came up, it burnt the young plants; and because the roots had not grown deep enough, the plants soon dried up. Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up and choked the plants. But some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants produced corn; some produced 100 grains, others sixty, and others thirty.” And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!” Then the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?” Jesus answered, “The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. For the person who has something will be given more, so that he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing will have taken away from him even the little he has. The reason I use parables in talking to them is that they look, but do not see, and they listen, but do not hear or understand. So the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them: ‘This people will listen and listen, but not understand; they will look and look, but not see, because their minds are dull, and they have stopped up their ears and have closed their eyes. Otherwise, their eyes would see, their ears would hear, their minds would understand, and they would turn to me, says God, and I would heal them.’ “As for you, how fortunate you are! Your eyes see and your ears hear. I assure you that many prophets and many of God's people wanted very much to see what you see, but they could not, and to hear what you hear, but they did not. “Listen, then, and learn what the parable of the sower means. Those who hear the message about the Kingdom but do not understand it are like the seeds that fell along the path. The Evil One comes and snatches away what was sown in them. The seeds that fell on rocky ground stand for those who receive the message gladly as soon as they hear it. But it does not sink deep into them, and they don't last long. So when trouble or persecution comes because of the message, they give up at once. The seeds that fell among thorn bushes stand for those who hear the message; but the worries about this life and the love for riches choke the message, and they don't bear fruit. And the seeds sown in the good soil stand for those who hear the message and understand it: they bear fruit, some as much as 100, others sixty, and others thirty.” Jesus told them another parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man sowed good seed in his field. One night, when everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. When the plants grew and the ears of corn began to form, then the weeds showed up. The man's servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the weeds come from?’ ‘It was some enemy who did this,’ he answered. ‘Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?’ they asked him. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, tie them in bundles and burn them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.’ ” Jesus told them another parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man takes a mustard seed and sows it in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows up, it is the biggest of all plants. It becomes a tree, so that birds come and make their nests in its branches.” Jesus told them still another parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with forty litres of flour until the whole batch of dough rises.” Jesus used parables to tell all these things to the crowds; he would not say a thing to them without using a parable. He did this to make what the prophet had said come true: “I will use parables when I speak to them; I will tell them things unknown since the creation of the world.” When Jesus had left the crowd and gone indoors, his disciples came to him and said, “Tell us what the parable about the weeds in the field means.” Jesus answered, “The man who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed is the people who belong to the Kingdom; the weeds are the people who belong to the Evil One; and the enemy who sowed the weeds is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvest workers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered up and burnt in the fire, so the same thing will happen at the end of the age: the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather up out of his Kingdom all those who cause people to sin and all others who do evil things, and they will throw them into the fiery furnace, where they will cry and grind their teeth. Then God's people will shine like the sun in their Father's Kingdom. Listen, then, if you have ears! “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man happens to find a treasure hidden in a field. He covers it up again, and is so happy that he goes and sells everything he has, and then goes back and buys that field. “Also, the Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man is looking for fine pearls, and when he finds one that is unusually fine, he goes and sells everything he has, and buys that pearl. “Also, the Kingdom of heaven is like this. Some fishermen throw their net out in the lake and catch all kinds of fish. When the net is full, they pull it to shore and sit down to divide the fish: the good ones go into their buckets, the worthless ones are thrown away. It will be like this at the end of the age: the angels will go out and gather up the evil people from among the good and will throw them into the fiery furnace, where they will cry and grind their teeth. “Do you understand these things?” Jesus asked them. “Yes,” they answered. So he replied, “This means, then, that every teacher of the Law who becomes a disciple in the Kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who takes new and old things out of his storeroom.” When Jesus finished telling these parables, he left that place and went back to his home town. He taught in the synagogue, and those who heard him were amazed. “Where did he get such wisdom?” they asked. “And what about his miracles? Isn't he the carpenter's son? Isn't Mary his mother, and aren't James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? Aren't all his sisters living here? Where did he get all this?” And so they rejected him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is respected everywhere except in his home town and by his own family.” Because they did not have faith, he did not perform many miracles there. At that time Herod, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus. “He is really John the Baptist, who has come back to life,” he told his officials. “That is why he has this power to perform miracles.” For Herod had earlier ordered John's arrest, and he had him chained and put in prison. He had done this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. For some time John the Baptist had told Herod, “It isn't right for you to be married to Herodias!” Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid of the Jewish people, because they considered John to be a prophet. On Herod's birthday the daughter of Herodias danced in front of the whole group. Herod was so pleased that he promised her, “I swear that I will give you anything you ask for!” At her mother's suggestion she asked him, “Give me here and now the head of John the Baptist on a dish!” The king was sad, but because of the promise he had made in front of all his guests he gave orders that her wish be granted. So he had John beheaded in prison. The head was brought in on a dish and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. John's disciples came, carried away his body, and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart was filled with pity for them, and he healed those who were ill. That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the villages to buy food for themselves.” “They don't have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!” “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. “Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about 5,000, not counting the women and children. Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the lake, while he sent the people away. After sending the people away, he went up a hill by himself to pray. When evening came, Jesus was there alone; and by this time the boat was far out in the lake, tossed about by the waves, because the wind was blowing against it. Between three and six o'clock in the morning Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water. When they saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. “It's a ghost!” they said, and screamed with fear. Jesus spoke to them at once. “Courage!” he said. “It is I. Don't be afraid!” Then Peter spoke up. “Lord, if it is really you, order me to come out on the water to you.” “Come!” answered Jesus. So Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he was afraid and started to sink down in the water. “Save me, Lord!” he cried. At once Jesus reached out and grabbed hold of him and said, “How little faith you have! Why did you doubt?” They both got into the boat, and the wind died down. Then the disciples in the boat worshipped Jesus. “Truly you are the Son of God!” they exclaimed. They crossed the lake and came to land at Gennesaret, where the people recognized Jesus. So they sent for the sick people in all the surrounding country and brought them to Jesus. They begged him to let those who were ill at least touch the edge of his cloak; and all who touched it were made well. Then some Pharisees and teachers of the Law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and asked him, “Why is it that your disciples disobey the teaching handed down by our ancestors? They don't wash their hands in the proper way before they eat!” Jesus answered, “And why do you disobey God's command and follow your own teaching? For God said, ‘Respect your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses his father or his mother is to be put to death.’ But you teach that if a person has something he could use to help his father or mother, but says, ‘This belongs to God,’ he does not need to honour his father. In this way you disregard God's command, in order to follow your own teaching. You hypocrites! How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! ‘These people, says God, honour me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!’ ” Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand! It is not what goes into a person's mouth that makes him ritually unclean; rather, what comes out of it makes him unclean.” Then the disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that the Pharisees had their feelings hurt by what you said?” “Every plant which my Father in heaven did not plant will be pulled up,” answered Jesus. “Don't worry about them! They are blind leaders of the blind; and when one blind man leads another, both fall into a ditch.” Peter spoke up, “Explain this saying to us.” Jesus said to them, “You are still no more intelligent than the others. Don't you understand? Anything that goes into a person's mouth goes into his stomach and then on out of his body. But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these are the things that make a person ritually unclean. For from his heart come the evil ideas which lead him to kill, commit adultery, and do other immoral things; to rob, lie, and slander others. These are the things that make a person unclean. But to eat without washing your hands as they say you should — this doesn't make a person unclean.” Jesus left that place and went off to the territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman who lived in that region came to him. “Son of David!” she cried out. “Have mercy on me, sir! My daughter has a demon and is in a terrible condition.” But Jesus did not say a word to her. His disciples came to him and begged him, “Send her away! She is following us and making all this noise!” Then Jesus replied, “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” At this the woman came and fell at his feet. “Help me, sir!” she said. Jesus answered, “It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” “That's true, sir,” she answered; “but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters' table.” So Jesus answered her, “You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you.” And at that very moment her daughter was healed. Jesus left there and went along by Lake Galilee. He climbed a hill and sat down. Large crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the dumb, and many other sick people, whom they placed at Jesus' feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed as they saw the dumb speaking, the crippled made whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they praised the God of Israel. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I feel sorry for these people, because they have been with me for three days and now have nothing to eat. I don't want to send them away without feeding them, for they might faint on their way home.” The disciples asked him, “Where will we find enough food in this desert to feed this crowd?” “How much bread have you?” Jesus asked. “Seven loaves,” they answered, “and a few small fish.” So Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, gave thanks to God, broke them, and gave them to the disciples; and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up seven baskets full of pieces left over. The number of men who ate was 4,000, not counting the women and children. Then Jesus sent the people away, got into a boat, and went to the territory of Magadan. Some Pharisees and Sadducees who came to Jesus wanted to trap him, so they asked him to perform a miracle for them, to show that God approved of him. But Jesus answered, “When the sun is setting, you say, ‘We are going to have fine weather, because the sky is red.’
During this season, as we anticipate the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the question asked by John the Baptist languishing in prison comes to mind. He sends Jesus a message asking: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2b). For John this was an existential question: Had his life and preaching been in vain? Did the hope of encountering Jesus as the Messiah vanish into thin air? Did he get it wrong and put himself out on a limb? Was there perhaps another Messiah with a more respectable lineage born somewhere in a palace?
Like John the Baptist, we too are familiar with the attributes of the Messiah, but often our loyalties lie elsewhere. Often we are enticed by the promises of other Messiahs we meet along the way: our love of material goods, success, security, luxury, selfishness and pride, which all promise to save us from our sense of hopelessness. How then shall we recognise the Messiah in the midst of all the attractions and distractions of the “festive season”?
Perhaps we should tune our ear to Jesus’ reply to John’s followers: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5). Being human, we’re prone to missing the signs of hope. Hope is not born of the vain expectations of a culture, which has abandoned the promise of salvation along the way a long time ago, or has bartered it for the empty promises of the rich and mighty. Hope comes to pass where new life is born.
May you celebrate Advent this year as a time of renewed hope and rekindled joy for you and your loved ones.
Prayer: Lord, as we celebrate the season of hope, remind us once again of the shepherds who took the message from the angel to heart and set out to find the Child. May we celebrate this Advent season with stars in our eyes and great expectations in our hearts. Amen