The Faithfulness of Doubt

December 15, 2019

3rd Sunday of Advent

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm 146:5-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly 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, NRSV)

Let us pray: Almighty God, you have made us and all things to serve you. Come quickly to save us, so that wars and violence shall end, and your children may live in peace, honoring one another with justice and love;  through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The last time we heard from John the Baptist he was full of what an old football coach used to call “piss and vinegar.” Last week John the Baptist was full of confidence almost to the point of being angry as he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1] And then he went even further to say, “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”[2] But now we hear a very different John the Baptist…a beaten man full of doubt and uncertainty.

Last week John the Baptist was knee-deep in the Jordan River, baptizing Jesus. But today we find him, sitting alone in jail cell, clearly, he is questioning his confidence and perhaps even his mission and his purpose.

Last week John seemed ready to conquer the world, confident, strong and true but today (some months later, but not too much later) he is in prison. He’s gotten crossways with Herod, and now he’s behind bars.  He’s confused.  He was once so sure about Jesus. Today not so much, as he sends a disciple to go and ask Jesus a poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one who is to come, or should we look for another?

John the Baptist, of course, knew his Hebrew scriptures well.  He knew all that Isaiah had promised regarding the Messiah.  Perhaps you noticed.  I’m sure John noticed.  Jesus had been going all over the place, doing what Isaiah said the Messiah would do: preaching good news to the oppressed, healing the blind and the deaf and the lame.  But John is now in jail.  If Jesus is the Messiah, why hasn’t he, as Isaiah promised, let the prisoners go free, particularly John?’   So, John sends messengers, asking “Are you the one or not?”[3]  Jesus’ answer, as you heard, is, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 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.”[4] John’s bound to be confused and not a little disappointed. The one that he thought was the Messiah isn’t doing what he thought the Messiah would do.[5]

I am reading an incredibly difficult book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, it is difficult because it tells the painful stories of the people he represented as their lawyer, many of them are African American, all of them poor and some of them on death row in the deep south.  He writes about trying to keep the convicts and family hopeful while being a realist in their situation.  One family in particular the family of Walter McMillian, who had been on death row for 6 years for a crime he did not commit.  His family said, “They’ve kept him for 6 years. Now it’s time they let him go.  They have to let him go.”  Stephenson responded, “I appreciated her optimism, but I worried, too. We’d been disappointed so often before. “We have to remain hopeful, Minnie.”

“I’ve always told people ‘no lie can live forever,’ and this has always been one big lie.”[6]

He continues, “I wasn’t exactly sure how to manage the family’s expectations. I felt I was supposed to be the cautionary voice that prepared family members for the worst even while I urged them to hope for the best.  It was a task that was growing in complexity as I handled more cases and saw the myriad ways that things could go wrong. But I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.”

Stephenson writes that he has grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who said that “‘hope’ was the one thing that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.  Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure.  But Havel said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather “an orientation of the spirit.” The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.”[7]

Having hope is especially difficult this time of year, because of all of the manufactured cheeriness of Christmas seem to make light of the pain and struggles we all face. To make matters worse if we voice them then we are left feeling like a scrooge or bah-humbug because this is the time to be happy and filled with joy.  Which is why this passage is perfect as we have grown impatient in our waiting in this Season of Advent.  It is ironic, I guess that this Sunday we light the “candle of joy.”  When we hear of John the Baptist’s doubt and it allows the reality of doubt to enter our journey to Bethlehem as we anticipate the birth of the Christ child.  The joy and happiness of this season is not unfounded because we know what the Baby in the manger symbolizes; the gift, of his life, death and resurrection promises new and eternal life…just not yet!  So, the Season of Advent is real life, because we wait, often times impatiently for a new heaven and a new earth.  The fact that we hear the doubts of John the Baptist is a bit of fresh air in this overhyped joy and happiness of the holiday season.  By sharing his doubts, we can be reassured and reminded that doubt is not the opposite of faith instead the Christian life is one full of ups and downs of doubts and questions, of anger at God and disbelief in the words and themes of faith.

          Our faith, the Christian faith follows the bible.  Which is full of stories of people who doubted.  Men and women who questioned, who questioned God.  Who needed hope.   In the end we all need to be reminded that God in Jesus did not become one of us as the victorious conqueror that we wished he would.  Rather, Jesus, as the Gospel of Matthew confesses, Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us. Instead of eliminating all of our troubles and removing all of our obstacles he instead goes with us through them.  Doubts, questions, and disbelief are welcome here because God is big enough to take them and yet small enough to care.

You may not even notice it, but a lot of what we do in worship is calculated, calculated to provoke a sense of hope.  The music, the lighting of an additional candle each Sunday on the Advent wreath, and the way in which we begin slowly with our sanctuary decorations, adding a little something each week; these are the means of stimulating our expectation and building our anticipation.  It’s a way of encouraging us to have hope.  There is a subtlety to the reading from Isaiah this morning that provides a kick-start to faith and to hope. All is not right, right now.  There are those of us who mourn during what seems like a joyous and happy season. John the Baptist shows us that we don’t have to pretend that we are fine, and everything is ok.  You see, his doubt in a very strange way is good news because it opens the door for us to be real and honest and true.  God is in the ongoing process of redeeming and reconciling the universe to Godself and, one day, not only will the blind see, the deaf hear and the poor have good news proclaimed to them, but God will set all the prisoners free and give light to those who sit in darkness. Amen! Come, Lord, quickly![8]

[1] Matthew 3:2, NRSV

[2] Matthew 3:7, NRSV

[3] Matthew 11:4, NRSV

[4] Matthew 11:5, NRSV

[5] Reverend K. C. Ptomey, A Homily on Matthew 11:2-11, The Westminster Pulpit Sermons Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37205-1899 for the Third Sunday of Advent December 12, 2004.

[6] Bryan Stephenson, “Just Mercy”, A story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson @2014 Spiegel & Grau a division of Random House, New York LLC. Page 219.

[7] Bryan Stephenson, “Just Mercy”, A story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson @2014 Spiegel & Grau a division of Random House, New York LLC. Page 219.

[8] Reverend Cory Driver, Lectionary blog: When Jesus disappoints. Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11 for the Third Sunday of Advent Dec. 15, 2019. Posted December 9, 2019.