Sunday, February 02, 2014
Sermon: Luke 7: 18-35 Greater Than The Greatest
It’s a question that provokes endless debate. It might be about something as small as a particular ability or hobby. Or it could encompass everyone who has ever lived. I’m sure that at some time, you have attempted to answer the question: who is the greatest? Get a group of bowlers together, and they’ll eventually talk about the best bowler they’ve ever played against. Get a group of musicians talking and they’ll argue about who the greatest singer is.
We’re coming up to the Oscars, when the celebrities walk along the red carpet, waiting to hear who has won best actor and best picture - the award committee are trying to decide who is the greatest. Not so long ago Portugal buried the man many considered to be the greatest football player - Eusebio. Some might have an interest in the Time Person of the Year - last year Time magazine gave it to the Pope.
But what about the greatest person who ever lived? Who do you reckon it would be? In our reading today, Jesus answers the question for all time, and gives us a perhaps surprising answer. Look with me at verse 28. It’s as if Jesus is opening the golden envelope, and brings out the name at the awards ceremony: ‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John.’ According to Jesus, John the Baptist is the greatest person who has ever lived, out of everyone who was born of women.
He might not have been who you would expect. Yet Jesus gives us the reason in verses 24-27. The people crowding around Jesus had first of all gone out to listen to John the Baptist. But why had they gone? It wasn’t to see a reed shaken by the wind - nor someone in fine clothing.
John the Baptist, with his strange clothing and bizarre diet, was ‘a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.’ John was the one who a verse of scripture was written about - the promise of the last book of the Old Testament: ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ (Mal 3:1)
John the Baptist was the greatest person who ever lived, because he was the one who announced the coming of Jesus. He was the person who got the people ready for Jesus - like the warm-up act. No one, no matter how great their achievements, could beat that. And that’s exactly what John did. He announced the coming of Jesus, he called for repentance, he baptised people to symbolise their turning from sins and turning to God. What a privilege. What a great man!
Yet if you look again at verse 28, Jesus says a remarkable thing. John is the greatest person who has ever lived - yet it’s possible to be greater than him. ‘among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’
To get the reason, we need to rewind to the start of the passage. We’re now in Luke 7, but away back in chapter 3, John the Baptist, the messenger, the greatest person to have ever lived, was thrown into prison. King Herod didn’t like him, and so he was in jail. Every prison visit, his remaining disciples have been bringing him news of what Jesus is up to. He has heard about the miracles and the teaching. And John is confused.
Flick back to Luke 3:17. He’s talking about what he expects Jesus’ ministry to be like: ‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ John’s ministry was one of judgement - proclaiming the coming judgement and the need for repentance. He expected Jesus to pick up where he had left off and immediately bring the final judgement and put all things right.
No wonder he’s confused and (maybe even) disappointed by what Jesus is doing. He just doesn’t understand what he’s up to. So he sends messengers to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In other words - Jesus, what are you playing at? You’re not quite as fire and brimstone as I expected you to be.
Have you ever found yourself asking the same question? Is Jesus really the one to trust in, or should we go and find something else to do? Could it be that you expect Jesus to do something and then he doesn’t do it? What’s happening?
Jesus points him to scripture to answer the question. John may have expected the fire to fall immediately, but Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom and to show the kingdom in his miracles. ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (22-23)
Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom, fulfilling the Old Testament promises in his life as well as his death on the cross. The healing that Jesus brought is a sign of what will ultimately happen to all in the kingdom when we’re given our new resurrection bodies. - whole, healthy, and happy.
John might have been the greatest person born of woman, but Jesus says that those who are in the kingdom are greater. We have the privilege that John did not have - because he was the last of the Old Testament prophets, the last pointer towards the kingdom which is now come in Jesus.
There is no more need for the prophets to point forward to what the king and the kingdom will be like. That would be like watching the trailers and adverts for a film or TV programme rather than watching the real thing.
Jesus invites us to join his kingdom, where even the least person is greater than John the Baptist. No wonder the tax collectors are so happy in verse 29 - they had heeded John’s warning, and went where he was pointing, and are now following Jesus, they’ve been included in the kingdom.
Jesus ushers in an expected kingdom in an unexpected way. The people in Jesus’ day were like children playing games in the street - one moment there’s music but they’re not happy and won’t dance, the next, they’re pretending to mourn, but they won’t cry. You couldn’t please them.
They saw John and thought he had a demon because he fasted and drunk no wine; they saw Jesus and thought he was a drunkard and glutton. Jesus, the sinless one, was bringing in his kingdom of joy and wholeness and healing. A kingdom where you can be greater than the greatest person who ever lived - because Jesus the king has died for you and welcomed you in.
It’s something to be celebrated today, as we gather around the table. We rejoice in the privilege we receive, as we look for the fulfilment of the kingdom when sickness will be no more. John couldn’t get his head around it, but this is the kingdom we are a part of. Won’t you come today with gladness, as we share the bread and wine until he comes.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 2nd February 2014.