Sermon: Advent III
A season for doubters
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As 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? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly 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.
• Matthew 11:2-11
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A Season for Doubters (Matthew 11:2-11)
Today’s Gospel text reminds me that the Advent and Christmas season is for doubters.
Which means it is for all of us. There is not one among us with perfect faith. When we go through life with all its challenges, there are natural ups and downs. Sometimes the path of faith is clear, at other times we find ourselves to have wandered far off course.
There are moments when we feel the so-called “Christmas spirit,” and the world seems magical, generous, and full of kindness. But churches in recent years have also found it a good practice to hold what they call “Blue Christmas” services, because the holidays can be excruciating for those who have lost loved ones, who are alone, whose health is precarious, who face financial stresses and struggles, or who have to deal with family conflicts and concerns, which drain them of any sense of comfort and joy.
Last week, we talked about one of the most powerful people of faith the world has ever known: John the Baptist. Today we see him sitting in prison doubting Jesus, doubting his faith, doubting his calling, wondering if he will ever feel that sense of strength and conviction that once marked everything he did and said.
There he is, sitting in the darkness, and he sends messengers to Jesus, asking, “Are you really the One?” This is the same man who baptized Jesus, who saw the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, who heard the voice of God thundering, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But now, he is filled with doubt — “Are you really the One?”
Have I missed my calling? he’s asking. Have all those sermons and baptisms been for nothing? Has my faith led me to a dead end? Has the work I’ve done for God’s kingdom yielded no results? Has this whole Jesus thing meant nothing?
Does that say something to you? It surely does to me.
One of the best books I read this past year was called “The Sin of Certainty.” It was written by Pete Enns, who happens to be one of the finest O.T. scholars in the world, and I am privileged to call him a friend. In his book, Pete writes,
For many of us, faith is our rock-solid source of security and hope. It provides the map and values for how we navigate the world. But life has all sorts of everyday and ordinary ways of upsetting our thinking about our faith. I believe that, in these moments, God invites us to deepen and grow in our relationship with and our understanding of God.
Pete Enns talks in his book about how we all create religious systems for ourselves in our minds to help us feel safe. These can become fortresses of certainty, which keep us from questioning, wondering, and growing in our faith.
We call ourselves “Christians” and we think this means that we will not, cannot, and must not ever have thoughts like John had about Jesus. Nevertheless, who among has not ever thought:
- Does God really exist?
- Is what I believe the right way?
- Why am I here? Is there really purpose and meaning in life?
- If God is here, why does he feel so far away?
- Why aren’t my prayers answered?
- Why does life seem so unfair?
- Why is there so much suffering?
- Is there really a heaven after death?
We do have those thoughts, don’t we? Don’t we? We think that having faith means never thinking those kinds of thoughts, but I’m here to tell you, it just isn’t so.
Pete Enns suggests that modern Christians have changed the meaning of the word “faith.” We tend to think that having “faith” means we wrap our minds around a list of truths and adhere to them, and that the goal from that point on is to become so certain about them that we’ll never doubt them again.
Instead, he says that we should always think of the word “faith” in terms of the word “trust.”
Though having right beliefs is important — after all, we confess our faith in the words of the Creed each Sunday — faith is not simply always having certainty in a list of truths. It is rather about trusting a Person, even when in our weakness we doubt the certainty of the truths we confess. Pete Enns says we can easily fall into the trap of putting faith in our own thoughts about what’s true rather than really trusting God.
I can tell you from my own life and from a lifetime of pastoral ministry that there are times when we all have more questions than answers. We won’t feel sure about the tenets of our faith. Our neat little systems of thinking and behaving will get upset, with pieces of them rolling all over the floor. The expectations we have about how God will or should act will get shattered. We will find ourselves in dark places where it feels like it’s all a cruel fairy tale. “Jesus, are you really the One?”
That’s where John the Baptist found himself. After all his strong words. After all his sacrifice and devotion. After persuading so many people to welcome the coming Messiah. After baptizing Jesus himself and sending him out to inaugurate the Kingdom of God in this world. There he was, after all that, wallowing in a pit of doubt and despair.
But I want you to note something in our text — Jesus did not scold John for having those doubts. Instead, he sent back John’s friends to comfort him and encourage him and give him news that a lot of good things were happening and Jesus was still there, going strong, bringing God’s promises to pass.
Jesus also strongly affirmed John himself and encouraged others not to think badly of him simply because he was going through a rough patch in his faith.
When Jesus heard about John’s doubts, he didn’t turn his back on him. He encouraged him. He affirmed him.
My friend Pete Enns went through a similar experience when he resigned from the school where he taught after several stressful years and found himself at home and out of work for over a year. This is a man of faith, a seminary professor, but this is what he said his life was like during that year:
I felt adrift at sea, treading water with no shoreline in sight, not knowing where the tide was taking me — and just as often not even caring. My faith had transformed from ‘I know what I believe’ to ‘I think I know.’ Then, as if bicycling down a steep hill with no brakes, it moved more quickly to ‘I think I though I know, I’m not so sure anymore, I don’t really know anymore. Honestly, I have no idea. Leave me alone.
That’s a hard place to be, and it’s especially hard during this Advent/Christmas season, when everyone is singing songs of comfort and joy while you are sitting there feeling miserable in your doubts, wondering where all the comfort and joy is for you.
If you’re there, remember John the Baptist this Christmas. It can happen to the best of us; in fact, it happens to all of us. But I believe that’s exactly why Jesus came — to be with us in both the darkness and light.
And that’s also why we’re here as a church — to be there for each other, even when our doubts and difficulties imprison us. To rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep.
May God help us trust, even when we find it hard to believe. Amen.
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Photo by Y-Not at Flickr. Creative Commons License