I love skiing and I am lucky enough to have just come back from a week away in the Alps - right on the border between Italy and Switzerland. Anyway, my wife and I went for a week to learn to ski better with a skiing academy. It’s a grand sounding name for a set of brilliant instructors who try to help people who can ski already, to improve.
One of the most important things drilled into us during our holiday was to ski looking down the mountain. Your legs can turn as they direct the skis, but the upper half of your body must remain heading down the mountain. This technique is called separation: because your legs are doing something the rest of your body is not. By looking down the mountain you can lean forward and get well stacked over the skis, meaning you will be more balanced.
Well this is all fine, when the slopes are quiet, when the slopes are wide, and when the incline of the slope is gentle. You can look down the mountain all you like. But when you narrow the piste, add a few other people and turn that soft incline into a steep drop, you try leaning forward on a pair of skis slipping down the slope ... for the natural thing to do is to lean back.
Ever stood on a ledge and leaned forward? No, what you do instinctively is to lean back, away from the drop. The problem doing this when skiing is that by leaning back, you make yourself more unbalanced and even worse you push your skis away from you. This means you are likely to ski the steep slope more quickly and less steadily as your weight is in the wrong place. So, what do you do then? Yes, of course, you lean further back and on it goes until you either fall or somehow manage to stop. The instructor told us we have to resist doing the very thing we might expect would be the natural thing to do. We had to try and do the opposite.
It seems to me that, when in terms of what we believe and our journey as Christians, a gap begins to open up between what we expect and what actually is then doubt starts to set in. Just such a gap opened up for John the Baptist when he asks of Jesus, ‘Are you the one?’. He was in a far darker situation than being on the top of a piste wearing a pair of skis. John had been arrested and was now in prison. He had spent years announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven was near; the Messiah was coming.
But what had happened? The vicious and violent occupying forces continued to rule the land he called home; the weak local complicit leaders rolled on amassing wealth but did not follow God’s law. Where was the victory that was promised? Where was the ‘winnowing fork’ and the ‘unquenchable fire’ that the Messiah would bring? Instead what John the Baptist got, what the world got, was this poor itinerant preacher who round him had gathered small crowds and tales of healings and mysterious stories. Was this it?
There it is - the gap between what we expect and what we get. But despite that gap we are called to have faith, as we wait for the coming of the Messiah. We can do this by learning to look for the unexpected, the glimpses, the signs of where God is at work and we might find them just in those places and situations where we might not necessarily expect God to be. This is Jesus' answer to John the Baptist’s question. This is what Isaiah promised and that is what Jesus is doing as he gives the blind their sight, he heals the lame, he opens the ears of the deaf and cleanses the lepers. When he gives hope to the dejected. These are the signs of the Kingdom of God, not the vanquishing of enemies and great displays of status and power.
Two significant events took place on Thursday which will affect this church. Where are we more likely to find the signs of the Kingdom of God? The first is the General Election. I write this not knowing the result. I have my own hopes and I pray that God’s will is done in terms of who wins power. However, is this where we will find the glimpses of God’s Kingdom that I have been talking about: the grandeur and might and potential of government?
I wonder whether it might be seen more easily in the second event? For the second week on Thursday, members of our church will have volunteered, like many others, at the Milton Keynes Night Shelter. They will have made beds, cooked, cleaned, welcomed and got to know some people from our community who are homeless. There would have been no pomp and circumstance, there was hard work, a certain uncertainty among all, a helping hand, a smile, a joke and some rest. No great shakes in and of itself but there in the midst of these gestures and actions is the promising of good news to the poor, the loving of those who feel unloved, the bringing of hope to dispel despair.
This is where we are to find God’s Kingdom and, it’s probably the last place many would look. We never get to hear what John the Baptist thought when he got Jesus’ answer. I hope that in his cell, his expectations were enlarged so that his doubts about who Jesus was and what the Kingdom of God looked like began to fall away so that his sight was restored. So that he could truly see who this person was.
Whatever our own lead up to Christmas and the coming of Christ is like, whatever we are likely to do or say may we take to heart Jesus’ answer to John: may our eyes be opened to the reality of God’s Kingdom, however unexpected; may we be ready to do the thing which may not seem sensible or obvious; and may we be ready to respond to others out of love for the one who came among us to reveal the love of God.