Last week at St. Peter Lutheran in Greene, we had the children’s Christmas program, so this week, the 4th Sunday of Advent, we picked up the Advent 3 readings we’d skipped last week.
Our readings for this weekend are Matthew 11:2-11, Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, and Psalm 146:5-10 (labeled, oddly enough, as verses 4-9 if you’re using the Lutheran Book of Worship green hymnal!).
Repent, for the kingdom of God is near! Remember two weeks ago, when we first heard about this character John the Baptist? He was a sort of wild man, a religious radical in the wilderness yelling at the people to repent, to change their ways, because God’s kingdom is coming.
He was so convinced of his message that he was willing to do whatever it took to proclaim God’s word. He didn’t have time for nice clothes, or normal food; his message was too urgent. He didn’t have any fear of offending people, even powerful people. That’s what eventually got him into trouble.
Eventually, he went too far for the powers that be. There was a scandal involving King Herod, who had apparently married his brother Philip’s wife. John publicly and repeatedly criticized Herod, until the king got tired of him and had him arrested. Herod didn’t like attention being drawn to his scandals.
So now, in today’s story, Jesus is going around teaching, healing people, and beginning to attract a following, and John is languishing in prison, and he’s wondering what happened. He’s wondering if he misunderstood, if maybe Jesus isn’t the answer. Maybe Jesus isn’t who he thought.
I wonder if you’ve ever had similar questions, similar doubts. What if we’ve completely misunderstood the point of the gospel? What if the atheists are right, and there is no god? What if when we pray, we’re just talking to ourselves, just making ourselves feel better? What if this life is all there is?
For some people, those questions are big enough that they abandon church, abandon being Christian. These are real questions.
Or, maybe the questions aren’t about whether or not God exists, but whether God is good, or loving. What if we don’t believe in God hard enough? What if we’re not good enough to get to heaven? What if we mess up one too many times?
Or, and I think this is the single hardest question for me, if God is so good and powerful, why doesn’t God act to stop suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God in places like Aleppo this week? Where is God when the diagnosis is cancer? Why doesn’t God act?
These are the kind of questions I dare say all of us if we’re honest wrestle with from time to time. No matter how much faith you have, there are still questions. Faith is hard.
John is in prison, wondering if he’s wasted his life. He called people to repent, and sure, some of them did, but look where it got him. No wonder he has doubts.
There’s another theory about this text. Maybe John wasn’t the one with the doubts and questions, but rather his disciples. Seeing their leader in prison, his disciples were losing faith, and so John sent them to ask so they would regain faith.
That interpretation is possible, but I think it’s just an effort to protect John, and I don’t believe John needs protecting. Even so, is it any better if John’s disciples are the ones struggling? I don’t think so.
John’s question is at the heart of Advent, maybe even at the heart of our faith. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Is Jesus really God? Does Jesus matter for us?
That’s the question we all should ponder during this time of preparation for Christmas. What difference does Jesus’ coming make? How does Jesus’ coming change our lives?
Sometimes, we treat doubt like it’s the opposite of faith. We worry about too many questions meaning we don’t believe. But that’s not it at all. Doubt can be an indication of the reality of faith, a sign that faith matters.
John’s questions don’t mean he’s lost faith; they mean he’s seeking something to trust. He’s seeking hope. His blind faith, and his optimism may have shifted, and in prison, who can blame him, but he still wants to believe. He’s still looking for hope. He’s still looking for God’s kingdom to come.
The thing of it is, though, John has misunderstood, at least partially. He’s right that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior, God in the flesh, but that doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. God is working on a much different time scale than John expects.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the man who said to God, “God, is it true that a million years is but a second to you?” And God said, “Yes.” “And is it true a million dollars are but a penny?”
“Well then,” the man said, “Would you give me a penny?”
And God said, “Sure, you’ll just have to wait a second.”
I like that joke, because it’s a good reminder that God’s time isn’t the same as ours.
In the second lesson, James says, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”
Being patient and waiting on God’s time is a lot easier said then done. Waiting is hard, because we’re people who want answers. What do we do when we don’t get the answers we want?
Instead of giving up, instead of falling into despair, instead of ignoring these questions, or worse, being ashamed of them, let’s follow John’s example and take them to Jesus. We’ve been focusing on John’s question, but look at how Jesus responds.
When John’s disciples come to him and ask if he really is the Messiah, Jesus doesn’t criticize him for asking, or accuse him of losing faith. Instead, Jesus sends back the messengers with instructions to go and tell him what they see. The blind are receiving sight, the lame are walking, the poor are getting good news, and the lepers are cleansed. It’s the beginning of the glorious vision laid out by the prophet Isaiah. But it’s just the beginning.
We might not get as clear of an answer when we bring our questions to Jesus—in fact, we might have trouble telling if our concerns and doubts are even heard—but we have the same evidence John had.
Actually, we have even more proof, because in addition to all the other miracles John got to hear about, we have the witness of the resurrection. We have the testimony of each other, the witness of the church throughout history.
Sometimes the promise of the Christian faith seems too good to be true. It sounds like a fairy tale, a dream, to talk about a world of peace. Streams in the desert, lions and lambs together, no more suffering, no more pain, no more death.
It’s not hard to pray for world peace, in fact it’s often what people pray for when they can’t think of anything else to pray for, but in a world where the news is full of fear, suffering, and tragedy, it’s hard to picture. When I pray for something like peace in Syria or Iraq, or for an end to poverty, I have trouble imagining what that would even look like.
Are you the one who is to come? Is God big enough to make that dream of peace and justice reality?
The answer, Jesus says, is yes. God’s kingdom is not an impossible dream. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s reality, and as we wait, if we look hard enough, we can catch glimpses, even in our own lives, of God’s light breaking in.
We wait with John for the new reality to be revealed, for God’s glory to be made plain and visible.
But our waiting is different than John’s, because we know how the story ends, even if we sometimes have trouble believing it.
No matter how cold–literally or metaphorically–it gets, we know it will warm up again. No matter how dark it gets, we know the light is coming. Wait, watch, and listen, for the Savior is coming.
Come, Lord Jesus.