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Questions and Joy: Matthew 11:2-11

3rd Sunday of Advent: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016

Matt. 11:2-11 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recieve 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. And blessed is anyone who take no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

John the Baptist had not always been a man of questions. In fact, what we know of most of his life suggests that he was characterized by a level of assurance and authority that was remarkable.

This was certainly due, at least in part, to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In his mother’s womb he leaped for joy when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, paid a visit.

And his later ministry in the wilderness is also marked by unapologetic, confident proclamation. John knew that he had the truth and he was willing to call-out the religious and social leaders of his time, as we read last week.

What is more, both the gospel writers and Jesus himself name John as God’s prophet foretold in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Holy Spirit was definitely active in John’s life in ways that most of us can probably barely even imagine. But I wonder if there were not some very human factors that shaped his personality as well.

After all, he is the son of Zechariah - the righteous priest of God, who heard the annunciation of John’s birth from an angel – and then questioned it. John doubtless heard that story over and over in his childhood… which would mean he would have also heard the punishment Zechariah suffered for his questioning – the way he had been struck dumb, unable to speak for the entirety of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John.

I don’t think it would be possible to grow up with that story and to not learn the lesson that questions mean doubt, and doubt means punishment.

John took that lesson and he learned to speak unequivocal fire. He learned to be completely unapologetic and unshakably confident that he knew the truth and he would speak it, no matter what human power he offended. Which, of course, meant he suffered human punishment. John spoke truth about the immorality of King Herod’s marriage, and John was arrested and jailed for his speech.

And this is the point in John’s story when we see him today. Or rather, we don’t see him. We only hear from him… through his disciples. Because the wild and free wilderness prophet has been locked up. His life, which had been characterized by freedom from constraint, and activity, and conviction is now the exact reverse:

  • Instead of freedom, imprisonment;

  • Instead of the purpose of active ministry, the meaninglessness of a inactivity;

  • And instead of conviction… questions.

Jesus, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Imagine how hard it must have been to ask those questions. Try to imagine, just for a moment, the crisis these questions represent. This is not some pedantic theological query. John was asking whether his whole life had meant anything at all? He had preached in the wilderness with a wild assurance, and people had been drawn to him, drawn out to the desolate land, because John made them believe that life was there. Just as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad…”[1] that “a highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way”[2], just so John had called forth in the wilderness about the hope of a way prepared for the Lord.

But John had lost that wild confidence. His way had lead him not to the Messianic Kingdom, but to a cold, dark prison cell. He was alone, scared, and uncertain.

Are you the one…Jesus? Or did I waste my life?

If we apply the lesson of Zechariah’s interaction with the angel, this question represents a deep failure. One who had demonstrated inviolable faith has faltered in the face of suffering. We can even look at the reading from the letter of James[3] this morning and interpret a rebuke: “take the prophet, who spoke in the name of the Lord” “an example of suffering and patience.” Where is John’s patience? Why did he not “strengthen his heart” and continue to believe, with unshaken certitude that “the coming of the Lord is near”? After a lifetime of confidence, why question now?

I won’t pretend that the Bible is free of such harsh response to stories of questioning God… but the thing is, Jesus does not say any of those things here.

Instead, he says two very different things. He points John to the evidence that can strengthen his faith; and he praises John’s faithfulness to those who overheard the question.

From the reference to the evidence we see that Jesus isn’t asking John to just summon up faith out of nothing. In his moment of pain, when John reached out for help to maintain his faith, Jesus didn’t say “just trust me.” He said “Look. Look at what I am doing. I don’t need you to trust me in the absence of all evidence, you can see for yourself that I am enacting the Kingdom of God here and now:”the blind recieve 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…” Look at what God is doing… you can trust this evidence.

And then, Jesus affirmed John’s witness to the crowds, and he did so in a way that specifically contrasted John with the man who had imprisoned him. Jesus asked his own series of questions, ones that mocked King Herod.

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.”

The reed was a symbol commonly used by King Herod, and also a plant that grew by the banks of the nearby river where the rich and powerful had their vacation homes, where they would wear their soft robes.

With his own set of questions Jesus makes it clear that the markers of authority and power and luxury are not what inspires true faith.

And so, despite how things have turned out for John. Despite the fact that speaking truth to power brought that power down on John with a vengeance, and despite the doubt that this imprisonment seems to have caused to the wild wilderness prophet, Jesus still affirms John as a prophet. “Yes… and more than a prophet.”

Apparently, Jesus is not dismayed by John’s doubt.

And that is very good news for all of us in this room. Because I would be willing to bet that every single person in this room has experienced at least a momentary flicker of doubt in the face of suffering.

How could a good God let this illness, or this loss, or this violation happen to me, or to someone I love?

Or Trusting God is all well and good, but what good is faith if I can’t pay my bills?

Or Where is God? Where is God in my pain? Or the pain of the homeless? Or the pain of the veterans with PTSD? Or the pain of every victim of violence? God, are you even there?

Sometimes when we read the Bible, and we see the stories of faith it tells, it can feel like our doubts and questions are a betrayal, or at least a failure of faith. But this story tells us a different truth. It tells us that questioning can actually be an expression of faith. When we bring our questions to God, we are trusting God to hear them and to answer.

Christian writer Anne Lamott has beautifully expressed this nuanced understanding of the nature of faith. “The opposite of faith is NOT doubt, it’s certainty.” Certainty is seductive. It makes us feel safe and in control, but it’s not faith.

And maybe God calls us into the wilderness because the wilderness is not a natural place for certainty. It is a place that is linked, at least in language, with bewilderment: with confusion, and stumbling, and mystery. When we go to the wilderness we are not following the promise of “soft robes;” we bring no expectations of life being easy or never giving us reason to doubt.

But our texts today, both from Isaiah and the gospel, call us to the wilderness. And they promise us that the wilderness is a safe place ask questions of the God whose kingdom is not yet fully visible. In the advent season of waiting, faith, and maybe even joy, looks like asking God our questions.

Asking our questions is a statement of faith – faith that God can handle our doubts, and faith that God calls us into the wilderness for a deep kind of joy.

Thanks be to God. AMEN

[1] Isaiah 35:1

[2] Isaiah 35: 8

[3] James 5:7-10

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