December 15, 2019 / Advent 3 / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10; Second Reading: James 5:7-10; Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
Should We Wait for Another?
I treasure the scriptures – and I trust the scriptures – because they are so realistic, so true to life as we know it. The Bible presents the truth – and the truth is not always pleasant or pretty. But the truth is what you and I must have in order to make sense – to make sense of this unpredictable world and of our own experience. For most of us, a measure of anxiety, uncertainty and doubt are woven into our experience. Yes, we recognize the surpassing value of faith. And we know the Bible verse that tells us: “have no anxiety about anything, but pray about everything.” Nevertheless, we still have our precarious moments. There are moments when we question the path we’re on – when we wonder if our hopes have been misplaced, or are, perhaps, in vain. Times come when the foundation of our lives is shaken: scary words like cancer, divorce, downsizing or dementia can disrupt our equilibrium and dislodge our certainty. People and things we counted on are suddenly not so sure. Our ordered life is threatened by chaos. We struggle to keep our balance. We long for some kind of reassurance. Such a mood of uncertainty and disorientation was very present 19 months ago in the waiting room of the Intensive Care Unit at Edwards Hospital in Naperville. I was hunkered down there with family and friends as my brother’s life was hanging by a thread. It was hard not to wonder why this calamity was happening to us. It was difficult to keep faith strong and hope alive. Over the years I have spent time in many different waiting rooms. I have sat there with some of you, as precious lives were on the line. In such moments, questions inevitably come to mind: How can this be? Why is this happening to such a good person? Where is God in all of this? It’s good that the Bible does not shy away from such questions. Otherwise, it might be nothing more than a sentimental fairy tale. The scriptures do not pretend that people of faith are free of doubts, that they never question God or their fate. Far from it. The entire Book of Job is an extended reflection on suffering – and why God allows it. The Psalms do not hesitate to address hard questions to God. Questions like…
“Why do you stand so far off, O Lord, and hide yourself in time of trouble?” (Ps 10:1)
“Why have you forgotten me?” (Ps 42:11)
“Why have you hidden your face and forgotten our affliction and oppression?” (Ps 44:24)
“Has God forgotten to be gracious?” (Ps 77:9)
And then there’s that haunting verse that Jesus quoted from the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1)
The Bible presents real people struggling with difficult and painful challenges. Their faith journeys are not easy or obvious. Like many of us, they face dark moments of uncertainty and confusion. Today we are reminded that John the Baptist experienced such a trying moment. It was just last Sunday that we heard John boldly challenging the religious leaders and calling one and all to repent. Today we encounter John several months later. He has been arrested by Herod and is languishing in a prison cell. The rugged and fierce prophet who lived his days out in the expansive wilderness is now confined in a dank and dreary jail – awaiting an uncertain fate. What’s more, John is wrestling with doubts about Jesus. John had confidently pointed to Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. He proclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John testified that Jesus was the Son of God. However, the ministry of Jesus wasn’t quite living up to John’s expectations. John had anticipated a Messiah who would boldly confront the oppressors and evildoers, one who would finally separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. He warned that those who did not bear good fruit would be cut down like trees and thrown into the fire. From what John had heard, such things were not happening. Jesus was not bringing about the righteous and dramatic changes that John had expected. God’s kingdom was not arriving in a decisive and climactic fashion. So John was troubled in his jail cell. His own future was very much in doubt. And he was wondering if his great faith in Jesus had been misplaced. Since he couldn’t go himself, John sent some of his disciples to find Jesus and ask him a very pointed question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Can you hear the heartfelt longing and uncertainty contained in John’s words? He wants to know for sure. John was likely hoping to receive a simple “Yes” or “No” in response. Many of us would appreciate a similar answer to our searching questions: Can I count on Jesus? Am I naïve to depend on your promises? Will truly nothing be able to separate us from your love – not even death? Like John, we would like a direct answer: Are you the one, Jesus, or are we to wait for another? The answer we receive is twofold: Yes, Jesus is the one – our Savior. Yes, we do have to wait – not for some other, but for this same Jesus to come again.
You and I live within a paradox – this present time contains an already and a not yet. We have the wonderful assurance that Jesus truly is the one for us: Our Lord, Savior, Redeemer – the Promised One. The answer Jesus gave to John is good enough for us as well: “Go tell John what you see and hear: 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 preached to them.” What was promised and foretold through the prophet Isaiah has come to pass: In Jesus, God keeps his word. At the same time we still have some waiting to do. The coming of Jesus did not change everything overnight – as some had expected. Jesus did not seize power and right every wrong. Instead, like John the Baptist, Jesus was arrested and executed. Make no mistake: Christ’s resurrection has absolutely signaled the in-breaking of God’s holy reign and the overcoming of the power of sin and death – yet the final victory and ultimate reconciliation of all things are still to come. So we find ourselves living in an in-between time – Advent time – time between Christ’s first coming and his return, time between what Christ has begun and what Christ will one day bring to completion.
A waiting room is not a pleasant place to spend your time. We can agree on that. In a waiting room time slows down and weighs on your soul. When you’re waiting and there’s not much you can do, doubts can surface and questions arise – all the “Whys?” and “What ifs?” and “How comes?” That’s what happened to John the Baptist. But you and I do not live our lives in a waiting room. Like many faithful people before us, we can have our moments of uncertainty – our anxious questions offered up as prayers. But unlike John, we are not in prison. Christ has set us free. The kingdom of heaven has not fully arrived here on earth – yet we believe that we are already citizens of heaven. We pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And together we work to make it so: we try to live as instruments of God’s gracious will in this world. The words Isaiah spoke before Christ’s first coming provide meaning and direction and purpose for our lives as we look forward to Christ’s second coming: “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.’”
It is good for us all to come together to hear God’s holy word. It’s good because it keeps it real. We aren’t living some naïve fantasy. The Bible readily acknowledges the presence of sorrows and suffering, of uncertainty and doubt. God welcomes our questions. And it’s also good to be here because we are reminded that our hopes are not misplaced, that love is never in vain. God gives us good work to do: strengthening the weak, encouraging the fearful, loving the needy (which means everyone). God gives us a hope that will not disappoint us. Christ will come again to save us. Hope perseveres!
Thanks be to God!