(A sermon by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, based on Matt. 11:2-11). ______________________________________________________________________
This morning, we consider that state of John the Baptizer as he sends messengers to Jesus. Here he was, one of God's specially selected ones, THE VERY FORERUNNER OF CHRIST, who had some sense of call, but now sits languishing in prison. This John spent his ministry calling people to repentance, and back to God, preparing the way for the Messiah. And what does he get in return for his ministry, his faitfulness, his proclamation? He gets himself thrown in prison; his future destiny seeming to rest in the hands of a worldly ruler, who had taken offense at John's ministry.
Poor John must have sat in that prison trying to make sense out of what had happened to him. Maybe he questioned himself: "What have I done to deserve this?" or: "Maybe I wasn't doing what God had planned for me?" Perhaps he felt that God was angry with him. While, at the same time, John was probably a little angry with God. Here he had trusted God and now look at how God had allowed this misfortune to fall upon him. He may have felt betrayed by people and God. In short, John's faith and relationship with his God had been shaken to the foundation. It seemed that the very foundation of his whole life itself had been laid to waste and ruin. Out of a deep-seated desperation, while losing his perspective on life, John sends messengers to the one greater than himself.
There's a lot of freight in John's question that he addressed to Jesus: "Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?" What compelled John to ask Jesus such a question anyway? After all, didn't he himself baptize Jesus? didn't the Spirit come down in the form of a dove and say: "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased?" In this inquiry, John is not only questioning Jesus' identity and purpose; he is also questioning his own identity and ministry. Has his own life been a waste? Was John himself wrong, misguided? John's question is a valid one, for we all have a deep-seated need to know and live out God's purposes in our lives.
In a Charlie Brown cartoon, Charlie is standing on the pitcher's mound saying: "We lost again. I can't stand it. I just can't stand it! Our loses are so meaningless! I think that's what bothers me the most. We get beaten and nobody even knows about it. Our games aren't even important. If you lose an important game your loss would have meaning, but our games aren't even important. I think I'll go home and lie in a dark room."
Sometimes suffering, opposition and rejection makes us feel like our lives are so meaningless, and everything is up for questioning--including our connection with God. In our turmoil, we ask our Lord: "Are you really the giver of hope and peace, joy and love?" In our suffering we question: "Why are you not caring for us, have you forgotten us?" In times of despair, we too question our God, asking: "Can you really save us?" Or like John, we may be indirectly asking whether out trust and loyalty, our devotion to God has been misplaced-is it a waste of time? a fraud? an illusion?
We, like John, raise questions out of our own trauma and pain. The sense of insecurity and uncertainty overwhelms us at times. We look for something absolute, upon which to live out our lives. So, in our questioning of God we look for an answer; not just any kind of answer; but a particular type of an answer.
In one of the greatest novels ever written, Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov," a woman comes to a saintly old monk named Zossima with her questions about the faith. She says, "And I say to myself,'What if I've been believing all my life, and when I come to die there's nothing but burdocks growing on my grave? It's awful! How, how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? How unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely anyone else cares; no one troubles their heads about it, and I'm the only one who can't stand it. It's deadly-deadly!"
The old monk answers, "No doubt. But there's no proving it, though you can be convinced of it." "How?" she asks. "By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul."
From time-to-time, we too, like John or the woman want to prove God's absolute Godhood by doing something specific, or by giving us a clear answer. But, like the old monk said, it cannot be absolutely proved. Without the element of doubt or uncertainty, faith would no longer be faith. Rather, our faith comes as trust and an abiding with God without an absolute answer right now. If we had a question and doubt-proof answer, we wouldn't need faith.
Even Jesus' answer in today's gospel isn't a definitive "Yes." Rather, Jesus points to the liberating and life-giving activities which he performs.The miracles and preaching are signs of Jesus' power and authority. John's life was one of pointing to this Jesus, whom he now questions. Now Jesus points to his deeds and preaching as the sign that the kingdom of God is begun in him.
For us now after John's time, the work and the sign of God's power and authority includes the sign of the cross, and even beyond the cross to the empty tomb. When we,like John, question Jesus and confront him with our doubts, we are not always given the proof we seek, nor the specific freedom we desire. Rather, we are pointed in the direction of the cross, and the one who was raised up on that cross for all the world to see.
The Saviour and God we worship and serve is the crucified, suffering Jesus who is always present even among the doubts, the questions, the insecurities which we live with. Our loving God seeks to save us in the midst of our ambiguities, our desire for life and security, and our attraction to death-producing things. Our hope lies in the vulnerability and the mystery of the baby Jesus, the cross and the empty tomb. Amen.