November 22, 2017

Sermon: Advent III – A season for doubters

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Blue Christmas. Photo by Y-Not

Sermon: Advent III
A season for doubters

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?” 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.

• Matthew 11:2-11

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A Season for Doubters (Matthew 11:2-11)

Today’s Gospel text reminds me that the Advent and Christmas season is for doubters.

Which means it is for all of us. There is not one among us with perfect faith. When we go through life with all its challenges, there are natural ups and downs. Sometimes the path of faith is clear, at other times we find ourselves to have wandered far off course.

There are moments when we feel the so-called “Christmas spirit,” and the world seems magical, generous, and full of kindness. But churches in recent years have also found it a good practice to hold what they call “Blue Christmas” services, because the holidays can be excruciating for those who have lost loved ones, who are alone, whose health is precarious, who face financial stresses and struggles, or who have to deal with family conflicts and concerns, which drain them of any sense of comfort and joy.

Last week, we talked about one of the most powerful people of faith the world has ever known: John the Baptist. Today we see him sitting in prison doubting Jesus, doubting his faith, doubting his calling, wondering if he will ever feel that sense of strength and conviction that once marked everything he did and said.

There he is, sitting in the darkness, and he sends messengers to Jesus, asking, “Are you really the One?” This is the same man who baptized Jesus, who saw the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, who heard the voice of God thundering, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But now, he is filled with doubt — “Are you really the One?”

Have I missed my calling? he’s asking. Have all those sermons and baptisms been for nothing? Has my faith led me to a dead end? Has the work I’ve done for God’s kingdom yielded no results? Has this whole Jesus thing meant nothing?

Does that say something to you? It surely does to me.

One of the best books I read this past year was called “The Sin of Certainty.” It was written by Pete Enns, who happens to be one of the finest O.T. scholars in the world, and I am privileged to call him a friend. In his book, Pete writes,

For many of us, faith is our rock-solid source of security and hope. It provides the map and values for how we navigate the world. But life has all sorts of everyday and ordinary ways of upsetting our thinking about our faith. I believe that, in these moments, God invites us to deepen and grow in our relationship with and our understanding of God.

Pete Enns talks in his book about how we all create religious systems for ourselves in our minds to help us feel safe. These can become fortresses of certainty, which keep us from questioning, wondering, and growing in our faith.

We call ourselves “Christians” and we think this means that we will not, cannot, and must not ever have thoughts like John had about Jesus. Nevertheless, who among has not ever thought:

  • Does God really exist?
  • Is what I believe the right way?
  • Why am I here? Is there really purpose and meaning in life?
  • If God is here, why does he feel so far away?
  • Why aren’t my prayers answered?
  • Why does life seem so unfair?
  • Why is there so much suffering?
  • Is there really a heaven after death?

We do have those thoughts, don’t we? Don’t we? We think that having faith means never thinking those kinds of thoughts, but I’m here to tell you, it just isn’t so.

Pete Enns suggests that modern Christians have changed the meaning of the word “faith.” We tend to think that having “faith” means we wrap our minds around a list of truths and adhere to them, and that the goal from that point on is to become so certain about them that we’ll never doubt them again.

Instead, he says that we should always think of the word “faith” in terms of the word trust.”

Though having right beliefs is important — after all, we confess our faith in the words of the Creed each Sunday — faith is not simply always having certainty in a list of truths. It is rather about trusting a Person, even when in our weakness we doubt the certainty of the truths we confess. Pete Enns says we can easily fall into the trap of putting faith in our own thoughts about what’s true rather than really trusting God.

I can tell you from my own life and from a lifetime of pastoral ministry that there are times when we all have more questions than answers. We won’t feel sure about the tenets of our faith. Our neat little systems of thinking and behaving will get upset, with pieces of them rolling all over the floor. The expectations we have about how God will or should act will get shattered. We will find ourselves in dark places where it feels like it’s all a cruel fairy tale. “Jesus, are you really the One?”

That’s where John the Baptist found himself. After all his strong words. After all his sacrifice and devotion. After persuading so many people to welcome the coming Messiah. After baptizing Jesus himself and sending him out to inaugurate the Kingdom of God in this world. There he was, after all that, wallowing in a pit of doubt and despair.

But I want you to note something in our text — Jesus did not scold John for having those doubts. Instead, he sent back John’s friends to comfort him and encourage him and give him news that a lot of good things were happening and Jesus was still there, going strong, bringing God’s promises to pass.

Jesus also strongly affirmed John himself and encouraged others not to think badly of him simply because he was going through a rough patch in his faith.

When Jesus heard about John’s doubts, he didn’t turn his back on him. He encouraged him. He affirmed him.

My friend Pete Enns went through a similar experience when he resigned from the school where he taught after several stressful years and found himself at home and out of work for over a year. This is a man of faith, a seminary professor, but this is what he said his life was like during that year:

I felt adrift at sea, treading water with no shoreline in sight, not knowing where the tide was taking me — and just as often not even caring. My faith had transformed from ‘I know what I believe’ to ‘I think I know.’ Then, as if bicycling down a steep hill with no brakes, it moved more quickly to ‘I think I though I know, I’m not so sure anymore, I don’t really know anymore. Honestly, I have no idea. Leave me alone.

That’s a hard place to be, and it’s especially hard during this Advent/Christmas season, when everyone is singing songs of comfort and joy while you are sitting there feeling miserable in your doubts, wondering where all the comfort and joy is for you.

If you’re there, remember John the Baptist this Christmas. It can happen to the best of us; in fact, it happens to all of us. But I believe that’s exactly why Jesus came — to be with us in both the darkness and light.

And that’s also why we’re here as a church — to be there for each other, even when our doubts and difficulties imprison us. To rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep.

May God help us trust, even when we find it hard to believe. Amen.

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Photo by Y-Not at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    “I believe that’s exactly why Jesus came — to be with us in both the darkness and light.
    And that’s also why we’re here as a church — to be there for each other, even when our doubts and difficulties imprison us. To rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep.
    May God help us trust, even when we find it hard to believe. Amen.”

    thank you for this, Chaplain MIKE

  2. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

    My own deepest doubt goes something like this: Perhaps you/he are not the one; perhaps there is no other to wait for; and perhaps the only thing to await is an inevitable death of such power that it will erase me and all that I love, and sooner or later all memory of me and all that I love, forever in both directions, past and future, such that I never will have existed, and in truth do not even exist now.

    Kyrie eleison…

    • But even my most radical doubt is moderated and limited. Perhaps I will cease to exist, but something does exist or there would be no experience. If it exists, the law of conservation in physics says that, though it may change states, it cannot cease to exist. This then brings me back to Buddhism, which asserts that there is an parallel (and actually related and intertwined) metaphysical law of conservation which asserts that the component qualities that make up my experience of myself and the world rise and fall in different forms, but do not cease to exist. Perhaps under my Christian veneer I continue to be a Zen Buddhist in my most fundamental trust.

  3. William H. Martin Jr says:

    You Must read Mathew more carefully. When John heard all Jesus was doing. A reed shaken by the wind? I don’t see Jesus saying even John has doubted from time to time. Was Jesus leaving something out by omission. Never anywhere do we see in John anywhere else a wavering . He even jumped in his mother’s womb. Some of the disciples themselves sat with John when he told them about Jesus. Not every man born of women is the same. Yes our faith has it challenges. The disciples of John would not leave. This wasn’t what John desired because he was just a man making way for the one. The very first line was when John heard all Jesus was doing. How do you go from there to Jesus having to tell John’s disciples I am He. Who do you think needed to hear it. John or the disciples of John.

    Wish we knew the discussion between John and his disciples when they got back. It is the popular version of the sermon and I have heard it many times. I have witnessed miracles happen right in front of me and later wondered did that really happen. It was then I realized why so many struggled. I saw what I saw but it did not strengthen my faith anymore or any less. I go on. There is no choice and I didn’t do the miracles and they weren’t for me. I have had amazing things happen for me and no one can take them from me. I could witness and my witness would be true. Yet I go on.

    • William H. Martin Jr says:

      One thing Charles if this was Elijah come back it would seem impossible for me to believe one who had privilege to see the majesty of our Father then have doubt after being sent back to make way for the one. I have hard time believing this was Elijah sent back but one like Elijah crying in the wilderness. I am no Scholar as I haven’t the time. Just a simple tile layer who has been on his knees all his life. Been wrong a lot too. Sometimes I actually get some things right though.

    • I go on.

      “You must go on.
      I can’t go on.
      I’ll go on.” — Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

      • William H. Martin Jr says:

        Yes your right it is I will go on. Free will leaves me no choice….I do believe the last line in the scripture above is the most important being about the least. A new age was being ushered in. Paul said at times I am the least or most undeserving ( my words) or chief of all sinners. Amazing how connections become the whole and not just pieces for our own use. John”s honesty cost him his head. I wonder if he was able to see it.

  4. Michael Jones says:

    Again, well done Well written and timely for many.

  5. William H. Martin Jr says:

    It was never my intent to be right or wrong. I just do not read this passage this way. I read it that John’s love for his disciples was to try and point them to the one. Are we to look for another.

    I just can’t understand why it is so hard to believe that John didn’t doubt. When I first heard Jesus after I was almost killed in a car accident it was on my father’s porch in the middle of the blackest thunderstorm. 6 months from the wreck and I was angry with God…….very angry and I kept asking him all the time why would you do this to me. I asked it a lot. I was 15. He said and to the point I am not the one who did this, I am the one who saved you and I love you. I have never doubted that ever. I am not deserving at all of such a thing. In fact I would consider myself way down on a list. Never, ever have I doubted him. He said it and I believe him. Not one day has ever gone by where I have not had to ask forgiveness for something, thoughts included. He said he loved me and I believe him…..

    I have always believed that not one sparrow falls that my father does not know it how much more important are you. I have never doubted this. Never, ever. This love I have encounter goes well beyond anything I am capable of understanding. I am trying to learn still, might be always. I certainly can’t be the only one who is this way. Am I really that alone here. I haven’t been to church for a year. I don’t know where I fit anymore. Man it’s hard. Really hard. Mostly I just want to go home.

    I didn’t mean to step on toes. I am passionate sometimes to much so. Jesus said born of women no one is greater than John. What a compliment. All those born till that time. What a list of God’s loved ones.

  6. William H. Martin Jr says:

    Last post as I will try to keep an open mind. Question goes out to anyone with an answer. Where did this teaching about this scripture originate and with who. Church Fathers or later such as post reformation? Just wondering as i would like to know that point of view.

  7. One of the most interesting NT quotes is Matthew 28:16-17

    But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.

    Don’t remember that one much from Sunday School.

  8. Hey Bill~ If you are asking where the idea that John the Baptist had doubts came from, seems to me it’s fairly plain from the quoted scripture. And why wouldn’t he have doubted? Like everyone else he would have been expecting the Messiah to show up and start kicking butt and taking names. The disciples who spent three plus years with Jesus expected it. Everyone did. Why would John have been different? I’ve spent my whole life in miserable conditions serving You and here I am now in this miserable prison. Why aren’t You busting me out of here? What’s the deal? And God might have said, there is no deal, pick up your cross and follow me. Which would have made no sense to anyone at that time. We can’t expect those people to see with our eyes, or even with the eyes of those who later experienced the resurrected Messiah.

    What I find most interesting about the quote is the last sentence. What it seems to say is that John was in a select group of important servants of God that likely would have included Noah, Moses, David, Isaiah, name whoever you will, and that he was not as important in the total scheme of things as you or I, if we might be designated as least in the kingdom. Of course Jesus was speaking before his crucifixion and thus the kingdom gates had not yet been thrown open. I would expect that John and all the Old Covenant servants of God were given opportunity after Jesus rescued them from Hades to join us as children of God. Not that you can’t serve God as a child of God, but John likely wouldn’t have understood this during his life on Earth.

    • William H. Martin Jr says:

      Dear Charles I am aware of the political climate of the day. What the Jews expected wasn’t the only dynamic. The Pharisee’s were trying to drive a wedge between the 2 groups of Disciples. John’s actually asked Jesus why his didn’t fast. Jesus tried to explain why you don’t fast when the groom is with them. John understood this because he truly and honestly rejoiced in hearing His voice. Old clothes new material and such.

      When John’s disciples meet Jesus to ask the question they were treated coldly as to they were not being so nice. John asked the only question that could actually show his faith, If Jesus was not the Messiah he wouldn’t have understood it. John was the one true attendant to the groom. Yes He came to a place that was dark. Seems everyone does at one time or another.

      John’s disciples were very zealous for him and this just served to make John even more sad as he was feeling he had failed in his mission. This compared to other scriptures concerning doubt just doesn’t do it for me.

      If you have time read “The life and times of Jesus the Messiah” by Alfred Edershiem. it is out of copy right and is free on line at CCEL. Scroll down and read John’s last witness to Jesus and to his beheading. If You come away with the same as you have written then I respect that. I was trying to get through it again last night but I grew to tired. it is a long read as books tend to be from that time period. Try and muddle through. It has been very profitable to me.

      • Bill, it has been thirty or more years since I have read Edershiem. People back in the nineteenth century had a lot more time on their hands and a lot less information to wade thru. I did search thru an online copy, skimming to try and find all that was relevant. The first I ran across said “But then John was at the time in prison, and passing through the temporary darkness of a thick cloud towards the fuller light.” The rest that I found pretty much expanded on that, that John had experienced a natural period of doubt considering his situation, as had his disciples, and that he came thru this to rest in his trust of God before being murdered.

        The reason I spent even this much time away from my own studies was in trying to figure why it seems so important to you to deny the possibility of any time of doubt for John, and your desire to convince others of this. At the same time I am observing a lot of people here who seem to be going thru their own cloud of doubt, or at least have experienced this, and want the reassurance that this is normal, or at least not the Unforgivable Sin.

        Like you, I have not experienced any fundamental doubt since the moment I said yes to Jesus over forty years ago, and I don’t much understand how it happens. Doubts about religion and the organized church, justified doubts, but none about Jesus or the God we serve. At the same time I recognize that under different circumstances I am quite capable of doubt along with the whole range of darkness, and I pray that I don’t have to go thru any of it to understand better. You are probably the strongest person in this congregation, both in physical strength and in your determination. I’m not physically strong any more, never was all that much, and most of how I have gotten thru has been with gritted teeth and clenched determination. I’m trying to learn a better way, but it does seem to be the only way at times. There is a natural tendency for people who are strong in determination to become judgmental toward others, and that way lies danger.

        Apparently it is entirely normal to have doubts. We talk about Doubting Thomas, but all the disciples doubted Jesus, his family doubted, most of his nation doubted. Looking at it from the outside, Jesus may have gone thru his own cloud before his arrest. We have the advantage of Monday-morning quarterbacking in all this, and it would be self-righteous to look down on any of these people or any today for moments or periods of doubt. Again, it appears to be normal human experience. I do not want to invite such a period of darkness for myself so as to learn more compassion for others whose strengths may lie in different areas than mine. And the older I get, the more apparent it becomes that physical strength is not the best foundation to build on, tho good health practices make a huge difference both body and soul. As to doubt, I’m with Peter, the guy who later denied Jesus three times over. Who else are we going follow? I pray that lasts for us all, as it did for John in the end.

        • William H. Martin Jr says:

          I guess I was zealous. I apologize. I have no need to convince anyone nor do I think I ever would. I was saying how this particular passage was speaking to me. I saw the darkness John was in and having to face. I am sure I have had to face it in my own life not of the same circumstance but it didn’t effect faith in anyway. Maybe I was lucky that way. I surely understand doubt especially in churches and men and such.

          Yes I understand I am not of the culture back then and it would be hard pressed of me to separate this man and go there.

          I thank you for the dialogue and I see your point as I reread Alfred for the third time. At least I wasn’t talking to myself like I always seem to be doing. Hope the rest of your week goes well….I thought that here we could discuss these things and I must be doing it wrong or at least going about it wrong. Quite capable of that. I would of got out of the boat and probably sank to but there isn’t no way I wouldn’t have tried. I guess I’ll go up around the bend…

          • You aren’t doing anything wrong, Bill. We here talk about churches where you aren’t allowed to ask questions but sometimes we seem to have the same uncomfortable reaction to questions here. Or maybe just don’t know the answers. Most of the time I feel like a disturber here, but then I figure Jesus probably had the same feeling during his ministry. It’s all good. If you weren’t here I would be much less inclined to hang around.

            • William H. Martin Jr says:

              I have so many things I would like to say. I don’t because I’m not a big fan of being dumped on. I see in such a passage so much to say about love and I don’t get it when we seem to use it another way. It seems quite less than to me. We are not Jews living in that day expecting something that God was not going to do otherwise he would be just like our adversary. John’s disciples were basically being attacked by the religious people and they were throwing a wedge into the mix. Of course they would have doubted. John loved them and wanted them to go to Jesus. Jesus loved John and faced his own darkness in the garden but it didn’t win just like his fore runner. In context this kind of passage shows so much love and it actually screams it to me. I just don’t get it why we have a need to be consul led by this one when there are so many all through the old and new even though we by no means live in the context of that day. Apples to oranges. Not the way of love. Divine love does not change. Light cannot be darkness.

              I have to many dialogues with self as my work keeps me alone and silent. Wish it could be that way in my head sometimes but then how would I get through the day doing something I have done 1000’s of times before. It isn’t my wish to be talking or typing and be turning people off. I have silent time ahead of me here.