This week, we find our hero from last week, John the Baptist, locked up in prison. At this point in Matthew’s gospel, we don’t have any information about what had landed John in jail. The story is told in a later chapter, where in Matthew 14:1-2, we learn that Herod Antipas had ordered his imprisonment, and John the Baptist was being held at Herod’s fortress near the Dead Sea. From his cell, John apparently received news of the activity of the One whose coming he had announced. And the news he heard seems to have troubled him. What John experienced when he baptized Jesus had convinced him that Jesus was the Messiah. But now he seems less sure.
So John sends some of his followers to go and see Jesus to ask him if he is indeed the Messiah, the One whom John had prophesied about. And Jesus responds by saying that John's disciples should go back and tell John what they have seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears: The blind can see! The lame can walk! The lepers are healed! The deaf can hear! The good news has been preached to the poor! And those who have taken no offense have been blessed!
It is interesting to me that even those who knew Jesus personally entertained doubts from time to time about whether he was truly the Messiah. Even John the Baptist, whose entire job, as the gospels portray it, was to prepare the way for Jesus, and who baptized Jesus and found himself convinced in the moment, seems to have slipped in his certainty at this point. We don’t know why. All we know is that he sent his own disciples to get confirmation once more.
I think it is a normal thing, even for those of us who love Jesus and call him our Lord and Savior, to “slip” back into wondering occasionally. This time of the year, as we are preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth, naturally lends itself to asking ourselves once again why we follow him and what it means to us to celebrate his birth and call ourselves his disciples.
I write these words in the middle of summer, just as the national Republican and Democratic Conventions are winding down. At this point, we have two major party candidates: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. By the time you are reading these words, we may have progressed to having a single president-elect.
As I write these words, Jurisdictional Conferences in The United Methodist church across the United States have concluded their work of electing and consecrating bishops for the next quadrennium. The election of an openly married, lesbian bishop in the Western Jurisdiction, Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, has created new tensions in the denomination. The South Central Jurisdiction has already filed paperwork with the Judicial Council calling for a ruling on the constitutionality of such elections. By the time you read these words, not only will there have been a ruling, but further tension or steps toward resolution will likely have taken place.
(Update: The Judicial Council has indicated it will not take up Bishop Oliveto's election until the spring 2017 meeting.)
As I write these words, I am facing uncertainty in my personal life as well. I am awaiting the results of some testing that may or may not affect my health. By the time you read these words, I will not only know the results, but will likely have taken action.
As I write these words, it feels like so many things in my life, things that I take for granted, things that provide me with a sense of grounding and security, are in motion. The future seems uncertain, even precarious. My awareness of my own insecurity, and even impending mortality, is acute. Because there are so many moving parts right now, I am leaning heavily on my friends and on my Lord. I am praying day and night for the world and its leaders, for my denomination, and for myself and my friends and family.
Maybe it is times like these, times of uncertainty and fear, that cause us to reach deeper, to push ourselves into the hard places and the difficult questions, and ask anew, “Why is it that I have chosen to trust Jesus with my entire life?”
John the Baptist is in jail. We know that only a few verses later in chapter 14 of Matthew’s gospel, Herod will order John to be killed and his head delivered to the palace on a platter. It is an absolutely horrific ending to the life of one of the most important characters in the New Testament. While Matthew does not tell us exactly why John is questioning who Jesus is, one can imagine that he must be feeling insecure, at best, as he sits in jail, and terrified, at worst. I can relate. Maybe you can too.
This is a hard time of year for many people. There are folks in our congregations who are facing the holiday season for the first time without their beloved partner, or parent, or child, or closest friend. There are people who are out of work and worried less about how to buy presents than how to pay the rent or the electric bill or put food on the table. There are those who struggle daily against addiction, and there are many who are losing the battle with their sins and demons. It may feel to many people like the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket with the inauguration of whoever is the new president. There may be great insecurity about terrorism, or natural disaster, or deeper economic recession. There may even be some who have completely lost hope and are terrified at what the future may hold not just for them personally, but for this world and their place in it.
What can we say to those whose lives have left them wondering about who Jesus is, or where he is? What can we do to provide verification that his is worthy of our trust and faith and that his good news is for us? How can we offer his gospel to those who are, like John the Baptist, feeling insecure, at best, and terrified, at worst?
Are you really the One, Jesus?
Are you really the One who can save us, or should we look for another?
It is to us, along with the disciples of John the Baptist, that Jesus says, “Go out there and SEE. Go listen for yourselves. Find the good news of Christ’s saving grace that is in the world! Look around and SEE the miracles that abound! The blind can see! The lame can walk! The lepers are healed! The deaf can hear! The good news has been preached to the poor and those who have taken no offense have been blessed!”
My goodness! The sun rises each morning and sets each night, even on the shortest day of the year. The spring will return after this long, cold winter. Even as some are leaving this world for eternal rest, new life is being born into it with each breath. The splendor of the stars in the skies, the breathtaking variety of God’s creation, on earth and in the sea, the glory of mountains and the amazing wonder of each form of life that exists. It is all a wonder. Just look around and SEE!
Look around you, and go and tell your own congregation what you have heard with your own ears and seen with your own eyes. Give your witness! Tell personal stories (get permission if you are talking about someone in your congregation) and public stories. Look and listen for signs of Christ’s saving grace in the world and point to them as evidence of Christ’s saving and renewing grace. Examples of his love and healing are everywhere! All we have to do is hear it with our own ears and see it with our own eyes.
- Who do you know whose sight has been restored, who can finally see again after a time of groping in the shadows of pain and grief and despair?
- Who do you know that has been limping along, barely able to make it, and now is able to walk again?
- Where have you seen disease — be it physical, spiritual, emotional, interpersonal, or systemic — being healed? Where have you seen reconciliation occur? Where have you witnessed hope being restored?
- What have you heard above the clamor of the cheerful holiday music playing continuously in public places that has assured you that there are those who truly do still remember the reason for this season?
- How have you seen the good news of Jesus Christ being made real for the poor in your community this season? How have you and your congregation participated in making Christ’s love and justice real for those in need?
- Have you not been truly blessed by what you have heard and seen this holy Advent season?
Jesus is not some myth or story. The love of God is not just empty hope. The promise of everlasting life is not a pie-in-the-sky dream invented to comfort people afraid of death.
The good news of Christ’s saving love is real. We have heard it with our own ears and seen it with our own eyes! All we have to do is look around, and we see signs that truly, our Lord Jesus IS the Promised One, he IS the Messiah, he IS Emmanuel, Christ with us, now and forever.
Do you hear it? Do you see it? Do you see what I see?