Third Sunday of Advent 15 December 2019
(Isaiah 35:1-10 Psalm 146 James 5:7-10 Matthew 11:2-11)
“Jesus, Are You Real?”
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
If that isn’t a question that breaks your heart only 10 days before Christmas, I don’t know what question could do it! Or. . . or maybe it speaks a truth that so often we can’t find the words, or the strength, or the courage, to speak.
Today I do not want us to miss that truth. I don’t want to make this story of John the Baptist in prison so pious that it is not jagged enough for the world we actually live in. Let’s not wrap this story in a beautiful red Christmas bow, making it too lukewarm, too clean, and too polite so that we can’t even recognize it as part of our lives.
Last week I took you to the wilderness. This week let’s go to prison.
Again, we have John the Baptist in front of us. But this week, John is on a new place. This fire and brimstone preacher of repentance, this out-of-the-box guy is now literally in a box, in prison. He is in chains and, I believe, in crisis, wondering if he has staked his life on the wrong promise and the wrong person. He’s gone from freedom to the captivity of the cell. No longer in the wilderness. No longer baptizing in the Jordan River. No longer having people come to him, wondering who he is. Now he is doing the questioning.
Gospel-writer Matthew is offering us uneasy company to a broken-hearted John the Baptist. The Messiah, as far as John can tell, has changed nothing since their encounter at the Jordan River. Jesus was supposed to make the world new. This Messiah was supposed to bring justice, fairness and order to human institutions.
This Messiah was supposed to finish the costly work begun by John so boldly in the wilderness – to wield the axe, to bring on the fire and renew the world.
Something did not just quite add up for John. Matthew puts it this way: “When John heard. . . . .what the Messiah was doing, he sent word. . . and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” [Mt. 11:2-3]. Jesus did not fit his idea of a Messiah. He was not acting the way John thought a Savior would act. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was not taking Herod’s sin away. After all, Herod was the one who put John in prison, and Herod was still out there partying in his palace!
So John wondered.
John’s “prison” question (the same question we ask ourselves when we feel imprisoned in our lives) is: “Jesus, are you for real, or should we wait for another?” That is really John’s question.
Too often as we look at the world close to us and oftentimes farther away from us, we become imprisoned by our own uncertainties, our fears, our doubts, our anger, by what we see happening right before our very eyes. Our question (although maybe we ask it in a different way) becomes the very same question that John the Baptist asked from prison: “Is Jesus real?”
I want us to be rattled by this Gospel text, this story about John the Baptist in prison, questioning if this is really Jesus? I want us to be rattled by John’s question that surely sounds like doubt and pain and uncertainty. Maybe even despair?
John was one of those people—we all know them—who seemingly did everything right and suffered anyway! The Nobel Prize winner with the sharpest mind who comes down with dementia. The young woman who never smoked a cigarette in her life and develops lung cancer. The solder who survives nine years in Afghanistan only to come home and gets hit by a car two days after being home. The innocent children killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook!
Where is this Jesus “. . . who so loved the world. . .”?
The Paul Bunyan John the Baptist I painted a picture of last weekend, today seems disillusioned and afraid, unsure of his Messiah. And three chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, John dies a senseless death; and it seems as nothing he had hoped for has been accomplished. “Jesus, are you really the One, or should we look for someone else?”
So if this Gospel story does not rattle your faith even a little, I’d want you to pay close attention to why not.
Let’s not soften the edges of this story in order to make God “okay.” I want you to hear from me this morning that this story is not a “warm fuzzy” story, and many of our life stories are not always “warm fuzzy.” The prison bars that hold us in our shame, and the chains that grip us to our embarrassment do not always give way. Our doubts do not always resolve themselves. Justice does not always arrive on time. Questions do not always receive the answers we hunger for.
So what do we do with all this? The verse we struggled with the most on Wednesday morning was verse 6. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” So I spent extra time on this verse these past few days.
Some of what makes sense to me is that some stories, some parables actually do offend us, and that includes this story of John today. Let’s not run away when a story of Jesus offends us; in fact, today we are being told that we are blessed when we are offended.
When a Bible story is offensive to our understanding of a loving God who is in total control of the world, let’s not run away or quit. Being offended too often causes us to build a wall because reality is too often harsher and more complicated. There are some stories in the Bible that are terrible. Some break our hearts and end badly. In some stories people flail and people die. But this is what the life of faith looks like. So don’t take offence. Don’t flee. Don’t run away from these stories because some of them are our stories.
Last week I asked the question, “What are we being invited to?” I will ask it again today. In these disturbing, horrible stories might we be invited to create space in our lives for grief, space to rage against injustice? To let joy be joy; let sorrow be sorrow, let horror be horror. Might we be invited to feel deeply, because God feels deeply.
And in this story about the Baptist, might we be invited to hear an indictment of any form of Christianity that promises us safety, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behavior? What if our faith isn’t meant to dull our discomfort or blunt our uneasiness?
As we are only 6 days until the longest night of the year when we experience the most hours of darkness, might we hear the invitation to honor doubt, despair and silence in the midst of a broken world, and to realize that God not only is coming but has already come.
“Are you the one who is coming?” John asked in possible despair and in deep longing.
Jesus answered in love, “You decide! You decide!” Amen.