Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?
Last week we heard about John the Baptist, stepping outside Society into the wilderness, to prepare the way of the Lord in the best prophetic tradition. This week we remain with John, but the Gospel presents us with a very different figure. He has opened his mouth in strident denunciation once too often, and now he’s in prison. The herald on the royal road has lost the initiative and is now confined in a gloomy dungeon. Not surprisingly, he is also a prey to doubts and fears, of the sort that tend to assail most of us when illness, unemployment or some other enforced inactivity allow us too much time alone. So…it’s not hard to empathise with John now, in a way that I couldn’t last week, when he was on top form, making us all feel thoroughly uncomfortable.
Self-doubt looms large.
He’s been so sure of his message, utterly convinced that God’s Messiah is imminent…and now, - what’s gone wrong?
Has he completely misinterpreted everything?
Did God really want him to be a prophet at all?
Oh…poor John. His is the experience, I would guess, of everyone who has ever answered a call to ministry, or discipleship.
He thought he knew where he was going but now something has come up to challenge his expectations and cast doubt on the whole thing. The truths that seemed so obvious in the full sunlight of Jordan’s bank shift and threaten to dissolve in the darkness of captivity.
We’ve all been there.
“Are you the one to come, or must we look for another?”
But what has changed in the externals, to give rise to John’s questioning? From our perspective, Jesus seems to be doing all the right things…. teaching…healing….restoring life where it seemed impossible. John, though, had a different template for his Messiah, and it’s one we’ve heard described in our Old Testament reading.
“Here is your God. He is coming with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you”
Poor John. He doubtless felt that he could do with a bit of saving himself at this point….he’d preached so eloquently about the axe coming to the root of the tree and now the axe was perilously close to his own neck, yet his cousin didn’t seem to be doing much to help. Small wonder that he was anxious. His enemies were not being struck down with God’s vengeance…He had rebuked sinners in God’s name, but now God was not doing anything to rescue him from their hands. It just didn’t make sense. He must have got it wrong.
In the same way, so many people find that they aren’t able to sustain a belief in God when God seems to ignore their needs, and their distress. They pray for a miracle, but a child dies. God seems indifferent or powerless, and they prefer to look for another, more malleable alternative, a Messiah to match their expectations.
They take offence, just as Jesus seems to expect them to, and move swiftly on, saying with Teresa of Avilla
“If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, then I’m not surprised you have so few”.
However, Jesus does not go into defensive mode, nor does he criticise John for voicing his uncertainties. Equally, he does not mobilise his disciples to rescue John from prison. Instead, he goes on without fuss or drama, simply delivering the Kingdom. He offers John the reassurance that his deeds fit in with one strand of the messianic prophecies,
“Go and tell him what you hear and see”.
There is no theological debate about the nature of the Messiah, but a radical demonstration instead – phrased in the familiar words of Isaiah
“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news preached to them”
I do hope this evidence convinced John, and allowed him to sign up with confidence for a new kind of Kingdom, in which cruelty is replaced with mercy, cynicism with confidence, fear with love.
He had chosen to go into the wilderness, to answer his calling as preacher and prophet...but it's the inner wilderness of anxious doubt and near despair that needs transformation – for John, and for us.
That desert experience of doubt is an almost universal one, but the God who brings sight to the blind and raises the dead brings restoration and refreshment even to our wilderness in his own good time. The river which “breaks forth” in the desert has run underground, unnoticed for a long time before it emerges into full view – and that's the way, too, with Kingdom signs, Kingdom action.
We won't always notice anything happening – nor will we feel that God is at work...and perhaps there will be no signs at all until, suddenly, new life bursts forth unlooked for.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…and rejoice with joy and singing”
Advent is the time of great expectations – of travelling hopefully – looking always ahead to see the signs of God's Kingdom breaking in. Despite the darkness of school shootings and sudden bombs...of lengthening queues at the Food Bank and frightening statistics of child poverty...we will not be disappointed.
There is no need to look for another.
Our deserts shall blossom, so let us return with singing, and rejoice that we are the ransomed of the Lord – the Christ who is even now at work transforming the world that he loves so much.