Advent is a time of waiting. Preparing. But what are we waiting for? For what are we preparing? For happier times? A better world? For our longing for peace and justice to be stilled? Advent is a time of waiting and wondering, looking back and looking forward. Advent is a time of hoping and searching. Advent is the time of light shining in the darkness, peace overcoming conflict and war, and warmth entering the cold of the world we live in. Advent is a chance of new beginnings – often small, but almost always significant. Keep this in mind as we hear today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.
John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.’” As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people with expensive clothes live in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man to whom the Scriptures refer when they say,
‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,“I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is! -- Matthew 11: 2-11
and he will prepare your way before you.’
Christmas excitement is building up in the Braddock house. Two more weeks to go and it is Christmas again. Two more weeks to get everything done. We make plans with friends and family. We decorate the house. I look for strange gifts for my family and friends. We do all this because we are supposed to remember what this season is about: joy, peace, light and happiness. These are God’s gifts to us. But they don’t come to us easily. We all know that this time of the year is not necessarily a happy one for everyone. This can be one of the loneliest times of the year for some. It can be awful and cruel and painful. Memories of deaths, of hurt, of broken relationships and lonely journeys through times of darkness ask to be taken seriously, as we start this journey through Advent.
We prepare. We wait. We are get ready. And we don’t want to miss it… the joy that is promised and the joy available, when we eventually grasp that Jesus comes in a different way than the one we’d expected.
Our Gospel lesson today leads us right in the middle of all that: waiting, hoping, working for God’s purposes in this world. We hear this story about John the Baptist. It’s a lot different than last weeks story. Last week, John the Baptist burst on the scene with fire and vengeance, full of confidence and certainty. He announced the coming of Jesus with great hope and expectation. But, today, John reminds us about another side of Advent. In today’ story, John is tired. He is discouraged. John the Baptist is like us. He has questions. He even has doubts. He even has doubts about Jesus. He isn’t sure Jesus is the one he prepared the way for. He needs to find out. As he sits in prison, he struggles. He questions. He doubts. He wonders.
He might have been thinking, "Lord, where did I go wrong? I did what I thought you wanted. I said what I thought you wanted me to say. You told me that the Messiah was coming. But where is he? Where’s the fire? Where’s the judgment he’s supposed to bring? And why, if he’s here, would he let me stay in this dungeon? I’ve heard rumours about Jesus. I thought I knew him well. I remember that glorious day in the Jordan when I baptized him. I knew it was all beginning then. God’s whole plan was being put into play. But, where is he now? Why isn’t he doing what I said he would do? Is he really the one or should I look for another?”
Questions. Wondering. Doubts. Is that all okay? Are we afraid to doubt? Who of us have not cried out with John,” Are you the Christ, or shall we look for another?”
…when life gets tough and we see innocent people suffer.
…when the bad so often succeed while the good fail.
…when we face a world locked in the death grip of one meaningless war after another;
…when we witness the destruction of nature as greed and desire for comforts drain the earth of her natural resources;
…when we choke on pollution and stumble over wrecked lives of people struck down by drugs and alcohol?
Is it not tempting to cry out, “If you are the Messiah, why this? Are you the one who can change all this, or shall we, look for another?”
No, John is not so far away from us, is he? Sometimes we wake up and realize that faith does not have all the answers. Faith is a risk. Faith is a life of trust, not of certainty and security. God never promises answers to all our questions. God never promises life without stress. God only promises to give God’s self to us, with all the dangers and risks and blessings that come with it. I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was disintegrating, those are the times I grew the most.
In so many ways, doubt can be good for us. It can motivate us to study and learn. It can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. It can humble our arrogance. It can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. It can remind us of how much truth matters.
John had his doubts. He questions. He wonders. But, he does not stay with those doubts. He seeks answers. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one. Listen again to the answer Jesus gives. He says:
Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.
Jesus did not come with just the grim news of repentance, fire and judgment. Jesus responds with a love that says you are forgiven, you are to be made whole, you are good just as you are. Jesus says, "Look around, see what happens, and decide for yourselves. What does the evidence show? What do you think? Is Jesus the one?”
Jesus does not fit John’s expectations. In his actions, Jesus shows that he ‘s the Messiah …that the world is changing, that God’s great plan of salvation unfolds. Only John did not really understand. John’s whole life had been focused on his belief that he was the herald, preparing the way for the one who was to come to fulfil the promises and affirm the faith of the people. Now he sits in prison. He must know that his chances of getting out alive are slim.
Behind John’s question was nothing less than the search for the meaning of his whole life. I hope John, just shortly before his beliefs cost him his life, could see and understand that his life was not in vain, that Jesus was the one he’d been preparing the way for. I hope John could see that Jesus fulfills the highest expectations of human values,. I hope John could accept the outstanding, and the wholeness Jesus brought to people, the healing of body and soul, the forgiveness and the new self-respect to the sinner, the dignity and acceptance to the outcast… All that and so much more.
I hope that John could hear the voice of Jesus inviting him and claiming him and all of us as God’s beloved children. I hope that John could hear what Jesus did not express in straight forward words: I am he… I am the one to whom your unrest points. I am he – the one to come. I am the one for whom you and so many have hoped. I am the fulfillment of the promises given to generations of people living in fear and dark, holding fast to the dream of salvation.
I hope we all rise from our questions and doubts and believe this good news. Jesus Christ comes to release people. He releases us from our inner prisons of fear and meaninglessness, and shows us where to go!
May he come to each one of us on our journey through Advent, through this season. May this be the time when we transform the way we live. May this be the time when we transform the world into a place where power is shared, and all have what they need, a world in which people can live in relationship, in celebration, in joy and in peace.
As we see the brokenness of our world, may we also see the unexpected chances of change and healing. May this allow us to continue to work for justice and peace in our world – bearing John’s questions in mind and affirming Jesus’ answers by the way we choose to live: waiting and wondering, hoping and searching, and making a difference.