by Terry Hall and Pat Lee
(Based on Matt 11:2-11; James 5:7-12)
Pat has adapted and updated this sermon, written around 1988 by American Terry Hall, and presents it here for your reflection.
Christianity is essentially a faith walk of hope – not a ‘hope-so religion’ or ‘just hoping’ – but a new, stupendous hope born of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and creating a tidal wave of hope and joy to revive a world as tired, troubled and as chaotic as ours. But how does the gospel of Jesus Christ transmit to our lives in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations? The poor, the homeless and those struggling with the cost of living remain with us, with almost no opportunity to climb out of their condition, with little chance of bettering themselves or the world around them.
World and national events that are taking place today make us stop and reflect upon the fleetingness of peace and the real inability of humankind to establish “peace on earth, goodwill toward all”. The good seem to get the ‘wrong end of the stick’, while evil continues to prosper. It is to these and other pertinent issues that the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses itself. It is to the hopeless that Jesus gives hope. It is to us that find ourselves doubting our faith in our faith pilgrimage that this text finds its most pointed application.
There are moments that cause our faith to quiver, circumstances that challenge our foundations to the depths. Some of us may have even questioned our personal faith in time of crisis. Is faith real? Is Jesus Christ really the person portrayed in the Scriptures or is he someone imagined out of our contemporary feelings, belief and literature? More specifically, can my God support me in a time of personal crisis? Our prayer becomes, “Lord, give me hope; give me meaning and direction to my life. Help me to find answers to my complex questions that plague me daily.”
I sensed a frustrated prophet in John the Baptist. In today’s New Testament reading, James was telling us about waiting and not grumbling. Well, John was now in prison. Jesus had attained a healthy level of popularity, a level experienced once by John. John, Jesus’s cousin by the way, appears to be on the way out, his star falling. So, here is our main character – confused about the present and uncertain about the future – searching for the right answer.
John was in a period of transition in his life. He was the one that stood at the end of a long line of Old Testament prophets and was the forerunner of the Messiah foretold by the prophet Malachi. John was a lot like Moses who saw the Promised Land but never entered it. John was on the outside looking in. He had witnessed God breaking into history, in Jesus Christ, and he had faithfully served as a catalyst for the plan of God, but now doubts and questions reigned in his mind. Jesus had failed to conform to popular ideas about the Messiah who was to bring about political, social and economic deliverance. Jesus was assuming a very humble role, while John was expecting him to take a more direct and outward charge of the world about him. No wonder he was confused! The entire system of belief on which he had based his life and work was now being inwardly questioned.
It is amidst this uncertainty and confusion that John found certainty, stability and assurance. And he did this by questioning, through doubting. Yes, doubting.
One person has said that “to believe with certainty, we must begin by doubting”. My gut feeling is that this is true, because only by inquiring, by questioning the correct source, and even doubting, do we grow. So John doubted! Good on him! The truth is, he really wanted to know. He desired not to take a fact at face value, but to investigate the truth and ask the source of knowledge.
John sent his envoys to Jesus to find the right answer. He instructed them to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” His question amounts to a challenge and a call to action. “If you are the Messiah, manifest your overwhelming power.”
What courage, dedication and sincerity! He simply wanted Jesus to do the right thing with his life as he saw it. He wanted to know the truth, not just in his heart, but also in his mind. John affirms that no one should accept simple statements out of the air, just because they are made by someone in authority or with a claim to power or greatness. There must be evidence of some sort to support it or some reason for accepting it. This evidence must be personally confirmed and not just hearsay.
John the Baptist is like Thomas, the disciple who has unfortunately been named Doubting Thomas. Like Thomas, John was perceptive enough to know the difference between truth and desire; humble enough to acknowledge his ignorance and to ask for help; thorough enough to base what he believed on evidence that was personally authenticated; and honest enough to change his mind in the light of new truth.
So Jesus replies, “Tell John this. All that is taking place is actually in accordance with God’s plan, of which you are a part. The blind see; the lame walk; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the good news is preached.”
Jesus does not criticize John’s confusion and uncertainty. He does not reply, “Oh, you of little faith.” He simply replies in the affirmative: “Let the record speak for itself. Continue your examination, John. Search me diligently; do not take what is being said about me on speculation, but truly search for yourself. Gather the facts and then decide.”
Had Jesus replied, “Yes, I am the One,” John would have accepted the statement blindly but would have spent the rest of his life in uncertainty.
This is where John finds new hope in the midst of his uncertainty. He learned that Jesus was more than just a good man who had found his way to God, but it was God himself who had found his way to humankind, the entire human family. It is this Incarnation that we celebrate. It is this Christ that comes into our lives, makes himself known to us, and becomes our Lord. John questioned the right source, and from that answer found new hope for living, giving him joy.
There are many things in our lives which cause us confusion and doubt – things that seem impossible to mend, both spiritually and mentally. We hear grumblings and see rash judgements and are guilty of the same.
It is in the midst of this chaos and confusion that Christ comes to give us hope and joy in the practical management of daily life, during those in-between times when we are confused, doubtful, tempted to compromise, and to lose heart. Martin Luther said that “everything that is done in the world is done by the hopeful”. So if Jesus is our hope in the midst of doubt and confusion, we have nowhere to go but up.