Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Faithfulness of Doubt: Reflections on Matthew 11.2-11

The Faithfulness of Doubt
Reflections on Matthew 11.2-11

RCL Advent 2A
11 December 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

            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.”

         Even after almost two thousand years of scholarship, he remains one of the more mysterious and controversial New Testament figures.  As the Gospels tell the story, his birth was predicted by an angel in a dream to his father and came as a miracle to his mother.  From the moment of his birth it was clear that he would not follow in the footsteps of his father but a path forged by the Spirit of God moving within him.  His message of the coming of God’s kingdom attracted followers and created enemies among those who had power.  In the end he was arrested, imprisoned and executed.

         In the generations after his death people would have conflicting views about who he was.  Some claimed that he was the Messiah promised by God, while others saw him as a heretic who threatened the perilous status quo that allowed the Jews of Palestine some self-rule.  His followers left a legacy of several religious sects that understand him to be a central figure in God’s redemption of creation.

         The person of whom I am speaking is not Jesus son of Joseph but John son of Zechariah.  Christians understand him to be the forerunner who paved the way for the ministry of Jesus, Elijah reborn who heralded the arrival of the Messiah.  But there are still small religious sects who consider him a far more important figure.  But this is a matter for another time.

         In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew we catch a glimpse of a real human being in the midst of the crisis that will lead to his death.  John has been imprisoned by Herod for pricking the royal ego one time too many.  In his captivity John experiences what every faithful person experiences at least once in her or his lifetime --- doubt.  He sends his disciples and they, in his name, ask the question which people of faith have asked ever since those days in far-off Palestine:  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

         Over the centuries scholars have pondered the meaning of these questions.  Within his cell has John been reviewing what Jesus has done since that day at the River Jordan and discovered that these actions do not fit into John’s view of what the Messiah will do?  Or, as he faces probable death and continued oppression of the poor by the rich, the weak by the powerful, the simple faithful by the religious establishment, does John despair that the kingdom really is at hand?

         Whatever the reason that causes John to send his disciples to Jesus, one thing is certain.  In this moment of what one writer calls ‘the dark night of the soul’, John voices his deepest fear and seeks assurance that the Light has truly come into the world.  And Jesus gives no speech, no deep theological reflection; he simply says to John, ‘See for yourself.  What do you think?’  Matthew’s Gospel does not record how John reacted to the message.  Why?  Because Matthew recognizes that John’s question is the question that all faithful people ask at one or more points in their lives.  It is a question that we must answer for ourselves; no one can answer it for us.

         Some years ago I remember Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, talking about the place of doubt in our spiritual lives.  He said that people often think that the opposite of faith is doubt.  Because of this, we are afraid of doubt and we hide the real questions we have about the meaning of our lives and how God is or is not at work in the world.  Dean Jones quoted one of his teachers who said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.  When one is certain, one no longer needs to ask any questions and risks slipping into some sort of fundamentalism, whether scientific or materialist or religious.

         For the faithful Christian life is punctuated with moments of doubt.  If God is just, why do the innocent suffer?  If God loves the poor, why are there so many of them?  If God created the earth, why do natural disasters lay waste to the lives of many?  If, in Jesus the Messiah and Prince of Peace has come, why do wars still scar the planet?

         Doubt is the necessary partner of faith.  Doubt leads us to look carefully at what we believe and how that belief has shaped how we live in the world.  Doubt leads us to reject simplistic answers and to confront the mystery of being made in the image of God even as we struggle to grow into God’s likeness.  Doubt allows us to stand with others in tragedy and resist the temptation to offer a trite sentiment or a greeting-card jingo in a vain attempt to make the pain go away.  Doubt leads us to search for God in the fabric of the reality of human living, even if we only catch a brief glimpse of God.

         Jesus does not offer John an easy answer to assuage John’s doubt.  ‘Cousin,’ Jesus says, ‘you are alone and suffering.  You are questioning the meaning of your whole ministry.  But even in this darkness, can you not catch glimpses of God’s promise?   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.’  Glimpses of the promise, to be sure, but glimpses nevertheless.

         Friends, do not be afraid to ask questions about the faith we share.  Do not be afraid to voice the doubts that sometime creep over us.  It may be that these doubts are, in fact, signs of spiritual growth, invitations to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s love for us and for all creation to discover what role we are to play.  Do not hide doubt but take John as an example who dared to ask Jesus, ‘Are you who I hope you are?’  After all, in the asking may come the answering so light may scatter the darkness from our paths.

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