Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
December 15, 2019
John the Baptist paces back and forth in his narrow cell. Imprisoned by King Herod, he questions how he lived his life. Last Sunday John stood beside the Jordan preaching in the wilderness. He seemed so sure of himself. But now that he faces a stupid death, he’s not so sure. He has doubts.
Jesus did great deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee, but John still wonders if and when God’s kingdom will come. Meanwhile Jesus’ list of enemies continued to grow. “Look, [they said, this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Now John the Baptist whose very conception occasioned an angelic visit, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the first glimpse of a pregnant Mary sent word to ask Jesus, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3) I’ve staked my entire life on you. Has it all been for nothing?”
This is not the sort of faith story we like to tell—but I many of us, including me, has lived some version of it at one time or another. We like conversion stories that go straight “from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from despair to joy.” Yet, John’s story doesn’t follow this happy trajectory. It’s an anti-conversion story. “John’s journey is a backwards one. From certitude to doubt. From boldness to hesitation. From knowing to unknowing. From heavenly light to jail cell darkness.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “Has It All Been For Nothing?”, 12-8-19)
We might call it spiritual failure, or maybe faithlessness? Backsliding? We might get mad. Jesus doesn’t. Jesus responds to his cousin’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and understanding. Life can be unfair. What was happening to John wasn’t fair.
The season of Advent teaches us it’s okay to doubt, question, even shake your fist at God –just as many of the psalms do. “On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational. Entropy is built into nature. Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent…This leaves every human being with a choice between despair and longing. Both are reasonable responses to a great mystery.” (Michael Gerson, Washington Post) Jesus has compassion for John. Despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties.
Christians worship the Crucified One, so why do we have a hard time hanging in there with extreme doubt, despair, and suffering? Somehow, we feel a need to blunt the edges. To soften the blows. To make God okay. But this story is not “okay,” and many of our own stories aren’t okay either. The prison bars that hold us don’t always give way. Our doubts don’t always resolve themselves. Justice doesn’t always arrive in time. Questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for. (Thomas)
To add icing on the cake, soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and brother. Perhaps, they want to take him home and hide him away. How does Jesus answer? What did he say?
Jesus took John back to the bible. He invited him to consider a different vision from within its pages about who the Messiah is. In Christ, we see that God is a friend of the lost. In Christ, we hear that God stands in the midst of our suffering. God opposes injustice and evil. God befriends us in the midst of whatever lostness we find ourselves. We are not alone with our pain. In Christ, God entered our world of darkness and death, and decisively filled it with light and life.
We heard in Mary’s song (the Magnificat), God has lifted up the lowly and brings low the mighty. According to Matthew, the world turned with John the Baptist. A new age of Christ had dawned. Jesus is Emmanuel –God’s Wisdom come in the flesh. There will be new duties and new commandments. The period of the Law and the Prophets was over. The time of fulfillment is at hand.
Yet, for John, the dawning of this new age in Christ does not mean that he will be freed from prison. Although John was there to herald Jesus’ beginning, he will not live to see Jesus’ end. The victory won in Christ may be decisive, but often our deliverance is limited. How did John respond to Jesus’s answer? Did it satisfy him? Did it quell his doubts? Did it renew his joy? We don’t know.
The pious stories of our youth feel more reliable, filled with ready-made answers. Yet these are not jagged enough for the world we actually live in. “They’re too lukewarm, too clean, too polite. They move to closure and triumph so quickly that they turn pain into an abstraction. They dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering. Where is the Christian story that can handle horror? Where is the Christian story that will equip us to sit gently and patiently in the darkness with those who mourn, fear, rage, or doubt?” (Thomas) Well, they’re right here in our bible, in these readings of Advent.
St. Paul contrasts our present sufferings with future glory. In the epistle for this week James urges patience in suffering at least five times. The book of Hebrews honors all the saints who died “without having received what was promised.” The baby born in the barn will die a criminal death. John’s death will be both tragic and capricious—a travesty of injustice.
Our readings this week all point to something John missed that is essential to the character of God. “All five passages emphasize the people toward whom God is biased. These Scriptures describe at least eighteen — eighteen! — sorts of people in pain who might be forgotten by the world but who are nevertheless remembered by God: the blind, the lame, the diseased, the deaf, the dead, the poor, the dumb, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the bowed down, foreigners, orphans, widows, the humble, and then, my three favorites, those with feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts.” (Daniel Clendenin)
The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of the world. The way of God, it turns out, is to enter into, draw close, and patiently endure all the suffering and violence this world can dish out in order to show God’s peace, love and mercy. That’s how God is turning this old world inside out and upside down.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom,” promises Isaiah. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus. This holy season of Advent invites us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world. To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice. To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror. To feel deeply, because that’s exactly what God does. (Thomas)