Third Sunday of Advent, Year A, Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11
John says, “Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?” How can John the Baptist wonder, at this point in his life, whether Jesus is the Messiah or not? We know that before he was born, upon meeting Jesus in Mary’s womb, John leapt for joy in the womb of his mother Elizabeth. Just last week in the Gospel we heard John say, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And we know that along the way John did baptize Jesus and the heavens opened up telling us that Jesus is God’s son. So how can John have doubts about Jesus after all he as seen and done. John sounds more like doubting Thomas than John the Baptist.
Look at where John is. He is in prison, captured by Herod; soon to lose his head. When life throws us challenges we often have doubts or get angry about all kinds of things. We get upset at the legal or political system. We get angry with our friends and family. And we even get mad at God. Each of us has probably seen this for ourselves when we encounter loss; the loss of a spouse, or a parent; the loss of a job or a marriage; or even the loss of good health when we find ourselves on the side of a terrible diagnosis. When something causes us pain we want to bite back. This isn’t necessarily a rational emotion but none-the-less we often get upset with the ones we love most. We wonder why God isn’t with us in our time of need.
I don’t think deep down John truly doubts who Jesus is, but John is suffering. In his imprisonment the world must look more bleak than it has in the past. The one who is supposed to save us, save him, is not there by his side. When Jesus receives John’s message he doesn’t directly answer him. We know what he says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Clearly we hear this echo from Isaiah as a prophecy of the future Messiah. But I do not think this is Jesus’ point or else he would have just say, “Yes I am.”
When we have severe doubts about our faith, we are brought to a crossroads. If we take one path we may view our doubts as a lack of faith. We may stop searching for answers and just give up. In this case the chaos of our current situation may distract us from our faith. We have less desire to search for meaning. We feel that we do not have enough energy to keep going. And some people stop; reading the Bible, going to church, or practicing their faith. At times such as these, and what I’m calling a spiritual crisis, our natural instinct is to pull away.
The other path leads us to dig deeper. To try to find the answers we are seeking; to channel our energies, not into the fear and anxiety, but into our faith. Amidst John the Baptist’s doubts, he doesn’t pull inward but asks a question. Jesus is it really you? Jesus’ answer is not, “Yes, I’m the Messiah,” it is “look deeper into what you know.” What have you seen in the world around you? What do you know within yourself?
When we dig down into our faith, learning and understanding more, we are strengthened. Much as Isaiah tells us that the majesty of our God, strengthens the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Through our digging we are strengthened. We receive more energy to keep going. Many of us have experienced this here at church, on a spiritual retreat, or even when we are out in nature. We receive energy to go further into our faith, not pull back.
Questioning is an act of refocusing our lives on Christ instead of the world around us. It is similar to what I spoke of last week in which repenting returns our lives to God. Today we are challenged to focus our faith into deeper understand or recognition of God in our lives.
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? Or maybe I could say “What did you come here today for?” Did you come to see people in fine clothing? Did you just come for the ambiance? Hopefully in this world of spiritual wilderness we came to deepen our faith. To learn how the stories of our faith reflect on our lives today. The days are gone for people to come to church just to be seen or network with others. The days are gone when people say they are Christian just because their parents were.
We Christians are called to stand in the world, to be the agents of change. Again Jesus said “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Christ is showing John and the people around him that the broken world is being restored. Look at these signs of a broken world, they are no more.
Jesus didn’t raise all the dead, make all the deaf hear, or cleanse all the lepers. He did what he could with the people he met. He has been working through us for two thousand years. And I say that the world continues to be a better place. What are the signs of our broken age that are being restored? Maybe it is civil rights for women, or our improved health, or an understanding of human impact on the world. What are the sign of a broken world? Poverty, child abuse, injustice. I’m sure you can come up with a list.
We need to look at our community and find the brokenness. Working together through Christ we can help restore the people we meet. We most likely cannot help the entire world but we can help the people we meet, our neighbors. We can bring light into their darkness so that they do not give up hope, so that their faith will shine. We can help people in their difficult times whether their prisons are physical or metaphorical.
John is the messenger who prepared the way for us to go into the wilderness. Now we are the ones who need to strengthen our faith so that we can be messengers and go into this wilderness, offering signs of hope, so that people can be reconciled to God.
Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples, (Part of a six panel series on John the Baptist) Tempera on panel by Giovanni di Paolo (1403–1482), Public Domain. Current location Art Institute of Chicago.