Third Sunday of Advent

Third Sunday of Advent

The Gospel reading for this morning has always puzzled me.  The story is pretty simple; John the Baptist sends some of his followers to talk to Jesus, to ask if he is really the Messiah, or whether they should keep looking.  Then, rather than getting into a bunch of theological jargon, Jesus simply tells them to look around at what they see going on and to decide for themselves.  What they see, of course, is amazing.  The blind are receiving sight; people who haven’t walked in years are dancing for joy; untouchable lepers are hugging and kissing their children; deaf people are standing around swapping stories; and the poor are hearing sermons that make them smile.  It’s straight out of the book of the prophet Isaiah.  It seems obvious that Jesus is the Messiah!  The rest of the passage then tells about some comments that Jesus made about John, pointing out how special a role he had played in the unfolding drama. And that’s the story.

So, you may say, what’s my problem? 

Well, I have always wondered . . . why did John have to send his followers to ask Jesus who he was in the first place?  Didn’t he already know?  Wasn’t it only a few months earlier when Jesus and John had met by the river and John got all excited and announced, “Look!  He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world?”  That’s the way the gospels record it anyway.  Why is it that he had to send these guys now?  Wasn’t he sure anymore?

Well, some suggest that this is just one of the mysteries of scripture. They say that perhaps there are two different traditions about how John and Jesus met; one at the river, and one this way.  Some suggest that the confusion comes from the fact that each of the four gospel writers tells the story in a slightly different way, and we can’t be sure which one is actually the way it happened.  One thing we do know, puzzles like this certainly cause some people to wonder if you can understand or believe any of what the Bible has to say.

I see another possible explanation for John’s question.  Maybe John forgot. Maybe he did recognize Jesus at his baptism, but now, a few months later, he just forgot.  You have to wonder, though, what could make someone forget that Jesus is the Christ?  That seems a pretty unforgettable thing.  The best way to answer that may be to look at what makes many of us forget who Jesus is.

I’d like to tell you about someone I knew many years ago named Susan.  Susan was a “new” Christian.  In fact, she was raised Jewish and converted as a young adult—not a simple thing for someone who not only was Jewish, but grew up in New York!  Susan had just gone through a religious experience that totally changed her life, and as a part of her new life she wanted to become a part of the church.  She was running on high speed.  She had high hopes.  She was going to save the world, or at least the part of the world she could reach.  She watched her language.  She made sure to use the word “blessed” at least once in every conversation.  She started attending Bible studies and promptly made everyone there very uncomfortable.  But she meant well.  No one could blame her for her enthusiasm, because she had just recognized who Jesus was, and we could all remember how that felt. 

Then Susan decided to attend a Vestry meeting.

Susan bowed her head during the opening prayer and then studied the minutes of the previous meeting like they were holy scripture. 

She listened intently to the various committee reports and nodded as though she understood every word.  Then came time for John to speak.  Everyone knew what happened when John opened his mouth. With John, you just never knew what the topic would be.  Everyone knew that, of course, except Susan.  Tonight, the topic was the new church budget.  John started out on how he thought that money was being wasted on those expensive children’s bulletins “that really don’t do anything anyway!”  And, of course, he ended up reminding everyone of how different it was back when Father “So and So” was there.  Everyone grinned at each other and thought, “There goes John again. He’ll get tired in a minute and wind down.”  Everyone knew that, that is, but Susan.

Susan was shocked. This was the “church?” Susan’s bubble had been burst, and the air fizzled out all over the room.  That was the night Susan began to wonder who Jesus was again. 

This was NOT what Susan expected from a Messiah.  So, she thought, maybe she had been mistaken. Maybe Jesus was a “good man,” and still worth believing in, but not really a Savior.  Surely a real Savior would affect people in a far better way than this, she thought.

Maybe that’s what happened to John the Baptist.  Maybe John’s firey faith was cooled off a bit when he observed people continuing to behave the same old way—even now after the Messiah had arrived.  But then, John the Baptist was no newcomer to the faith.  So, that’s why I want to tell you about Dan.

Dan had been a figurehead in his church and community for 65 years. There were few who had not, at some point in their lives, been touched and strengthened by Dan.  He was a Christian’s Christian and was admired and praised.  His living room wall was covered with plaques and certificates from charitable service organizations. Dan seemed to know full well who Jesus was and sought to serve him. Then he became ill.

Dan was nearly 80 years old and had not been sick for more than a few hours of those 80 years.  Then the doctor told him he had cancer.  At first, Dan nodded and said that after 80 good years he had no complaints.  But as the days passed, he grew quiet, the smile left his face, and the love left his eyes.  He worried constantly and complained just a bit more than that. “I’ve tried to do good,” Dan said. “But I just don’t see why God would do this to me.  This isn’t what I expected at all.  Maybe I’ve been mistaken all this time.”  After traveling alongside Jesus for nearly 80 years, Dan was now having second thoughts.  Faced with his own mortality, Dan really started to wonder, perhaps for the first time in this life, who Jesus really was.  Dan began to really doubt.

And if we’re truthful about it, most of us do that. We get this comforting idea that if we follow Jesus, life will somehow be smoother, or at least all fit together in some good way.  Then we run smack into the reality that the only guarantee Jesus made to us had to do with the activities that come after this life.

In fact, Jesus very clearly expected that his followers would have a harder time getting through this life than those who walked away.  But we still have these expectations of a “Savior” and when Jesus doesn’t measure up to those expectations, we begin to wonder if he really is who we thought he was.

There are thousands of empty church pews that used to be full of people who believed in Jesus.  But then he didn’t live up to their expectations.  Even after having faith in Jesus, their families still fought, they still had frightening decisions to make, the world still wasn’t quite the way they thought it should be, and they began to wonder if they had made a mistake.

Maybe that’s what happened to John. John said that he had come to baptize with water, and that the one following him would baptize with “fire from heaven.”  So where was the fire?  So far, the Pharisees and Sadducees were still in charge of the faith, and Rome was still in charge of the government.  In fact, instead of bringing in the kingdom, Jesus had kept pretty quiet up north while John got himself arrested and thrown into one of Herod’s dungeons on a mountaintop by the Dead Sea.  That just might make a person ask some questions.  That might make a person question whether his faith was more wishful thinking than divine intervention.

Difficult times are, very simply, that—difficult times.  We’re living in them these days!  And having faith in Jesus is not going to make the difficulties simply go away.  I guess that’s why we call it faith.

But there is one more lesson for us to learn from John the Baptist today that might help.  Because, if I’m right—if that really is what happened with John, then maybe there’s hope.  Because, if John the Baptist still had some questions, maybe there is still room for me and for my questions.

Now, it strikes me that after this sermon, and after a short moment of reflection, we’re all going to stand and profess our faith using the words of the Nicene Creed.  A significant portion of that Creed addresses what we SAY we believe about who Jesus is.  So, does that mean I’m a hypocrite for having doubts?  Does it mean I’m not being honest with myself or with God if I sometimes question who Jesus really was and is in my life?  Of course not.  The Creeds of the Church were written down in an effort to state succinctly and clearly what the Church says about God.  And if I stand and profess those words, some of which I may doubt or question at times in my life, then far from being hypocritical, I am just being honest. 

When I recite the Creed, I am stating that which I either believe now or have believed in part at some time.  But more importantly, I am also stating and defining the faith to which I aspire.

Because if John the Baptist—the one who announced the coming of the Messiah,–the one who baptized Jesus himself—if THIS man could have times in his life when he had second-thoughts, when he wondered out loud whether his faith was true, if John the Baptist needed reassuring at times, then just maybe there’s hope for me.  Maybe there is room in this faith of ours for someone who isn’t always certain of who and what he believes.  Maybe there is room for someone who actually wrestles with this thing we call “faith.”  And if that’s the case—and I think it is—then there truly is hope.  And that is very good news indeed! Amen.