2When 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.
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?”
Some people when they daydream they daydream about vacations to Europe, or winning the lottery. But I have to confess; when I daydream it’s about things like how cool it would be if someone made a “VH1 Behind the Music” special about John the Baptist. They could feature interviews with Elizabeth and Zechariah while old Photos of young John eating his first locust fade in and out of the background. Then after they could go on to feature his juggernaut of a Prophetic career. The fiery street corner preaching, the sold-out crowds at the Jordon. But then his disciples would inevitably talk about when the problems started. “he just never knew when to stop. The success did weird things to him” they would say. “It was like the pressure of being compared to Elijah got to him” So at this point in my daydream there would be a commercial beak with a teaser. Next on “VH1’s Behind the Music: John the Baptist”, John hits bottom and has a wake up call while in prison.
John the Baptist in our reading tonight from Matthew’s gospel is pretty much at a low point. He is simply not the guy we think of when we hear the name John the Baptist. Gone is the image of the bug eating Wild man shouting repent. Gone is the image of a wild-eyed prophet preparing the way of Lord through his own feral oratories. Gone is the street corner preacher shouting of repentance and fire and brimstone. The screaming and baptizing and preaching to enormous crowds is a distant memory.
Instead we meet John the Baptist today as he sits imprisoned by Herod and wondering if he maybe got this whole thing wrong. I wonder if he seemed…shorter somehow now that he is profoundly less sure of himself. Surely imprisonment can take a few inches off one’s spiritual stature.
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, When John heard that Jesus was not instigating a takeover of the Roman occupation, when John heard that Jesus was not picking off Herod and burning all their enemies with unquenchable fire as John had expected, he loses his faith. And when he loses his faith he starts telling himself his own story.
It was Jesus’ disciple Thomas who ended up with the moniker “Doubting” but it could very well have been John the Baptist. There he sits in a cold dank jail cell with nothing for company but disappointment and his own thoughts. And does he preach from the cell or sing hymns like Paul and Silas? No. He doubts. He wavers. He sinks into disbelief. So much so that he sends his disciples to go ask Jesus “are you the one?”
When I was growing up there was this tradition in my family where on the day before Christmas and the day before Easter my Mom would dutifully approach each of us kids one by one and ask the solemn question. A question – the answer to which would determine if we were to receive presents and candy. With all the fake seriousness she could muster Peggy would ask “Do you still believe?” Facing our mother as though she were an independent tribunal for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny we would without fail answer yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I was reminded of this last week when Tracy posted on my Facebook wall that she had seen a Christmas t-shirt that said you have to believe to receive.
It can be easy to make Christianity into something similar. you have to believe to receive. as though our success as Christians is partly determined by how robust and unyielding is our faith. Yet the one in the Gospels whom Jesus described as the greatest among men and more than a prophet – even John the Baptizer as he sits in prison does so in a state of unbelief.
Bonhoeffer writes that Advent is like this. He says that Advent is like sitting in a prison cell waiting for someone to open the door, waiting for the Word which will release you from prison. The Word that will release you from prison. If God can create from a Word…if God can speak and it is made real, if the Word of God can be made flesh and dwell among us to comfort and save, if God’s Word can do all of this then maybe God’s Word can open our prisons of disbelief. Because when John, the Preacher from the desert, sits in his prison of disillusionment Jesus does not rebuke him for his unbelief. He does not bemoan a perverse and faithless generation … he sends people to tell him what they see and what they hear. Jesus sends the preacher a preacher. He sends others to go tell him the story again and he does so by quoting Isaiah. the 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. In John’s moment of disillusionment and despair, in his moment of doubt and isolation when he begins to tell himself his own story Jesus sends people to be his Storyteller. They are sent to bear the story of what they have heard and seen. They speak the Word of God to their own preacher as some of you have done on occasion.
You see, there is no shame in unbelief. In fact, if you are struggling with your faith it’s probably just your turn. The Western individualism in our culture has really done a number on us convincing us that faith is something we must possess in sufficient quantity as individuals, when in fact faith has always been a team sport. When Jesus Said “Where 2 or more are gathered I am with you” I don’t think it meant that like a diva Jesus needs a guaranteed minimum audience before showing up. I think it means that we bear Christ to one another. That we hold the faith on one another’s behalf. That faith is never given in sufficient quantity to individuals it’s given in sufficient quantity to the community. This is what being a people of The Book, people of The Story is all about.
If God forbid something awful happened to one of my children I’m pretty sure I couldn’t believe in God in that moment. I’m sure I would not want to come to church. I certainly wouldn’t be singing hymns of praise and I for sure would be really pissed at God. Would all of this mean that I was no longer be a woman of faith? no. It just means that I would need you to do all of these things for me. Because that’s just how it works. There is no shame in unbelief. In fact, there are times when only in doubting do we begin to take our faith seriously enough for it to be unthreatened.
When you yourselves struggle with what you believe it makes you no less people of faith. About 9 month after this church got going, someone asked if I would go for a walk because there was something they wanted to talk to me about. We circled City Park as they proceeded to tell me with some hesitation that they didn’t have the same theology of baptism than I did. They had different beliefs. After cautiously and painstakingly informing me of this fact I look at them and said “I’m so glad you told me because now I know you better. But please don’t take it personally when I say…I don’t actually care.” I don’t really care what you believe. I care what you hear. Beliefs are fluid and go up and go down. People in this church believe all sorts of stuff. Trust me on that. But we aren’t responsible for making sure we have pure doctrine and right belief about everything…we’re just responsible for hearing the story and telling the story. That’s what we do as the church.
And in this Advent season as we are surrounded by the cacophony of competing stories – some of our own making and some of the consumer culture swirling all around us…may we listen for the Word. listen for the story all around you the story of a God who creates life from a Word and for the story of the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. Tell others of what you see and hear. Because I think Bonhoeffer was right. Advent is like sitting in a prison cell waiting for someone to open the door, waiting for the word, the story, the Christ, the friend, the song, the faith of your brother or sister which will release you. Amen
(We then during Open Space - the time for reflection and prayer that follows the sermon - wrote what prisons we need to be freed from on the paper sky lantern that we then released into the night sky at the end of liturgy. See photo by Amy Clifford above)