This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo
After an unseasonably mild autumn, it’s finally beginning to feel like winter here in Michigan. The nights are getting longer and the weather is getting colder.
I love that the Church’s celebration of Advent happens to coincide with the onset of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. I take it as an apt metaphor for my spiritual life.
In spite of the commercial holiday hype, I have always been more of an Advent person than a Christmas person. Advent is about waiting in the darkness and the cold for God to show up, and when God finally does show up (at Christmas), it doesn’t look how I expected. Those expecting the “King of kings and Lord of lords” are met with a refugee baby born into poverty in a backwater village of an occupied country. It’s not what anyone expected, yet this is how God chooses to come to us.
I strongly suspect that I am not alone when I describe my spiritual life as “waiting in the darkness and the cold.” Popular conceptions of faith and spirituality focus on feelings of serenity, unshakeable commitment, and an immediate sense of God’s presence through dramatic events like visions and miracles.
But most who have seriously tried to live the life of faith will tell you that it’s not much like that at all. In fact, it’s mostly just a struggle. There’s an awful lot of waiting around involved, and in the internal space created by that waiting comes pouring all the junk of my ego, old habits, and false perceptions of myself. It’s not fun or particularly peaceful.
The benefits and blessings are certainly there for those who persevere, but they are often much more slow and subtle than we would like. So, why on earth would anyone put themselves through the trouble?
Because, to quote the novelist Gertrude Stein, “there’s a there there.” There really is something to it. One might call it “the peace that passeth understanding” or the presence of the Holy Spirit. This presence is often subtle and unexpected. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. Most of the time, I’m not able to accurately identify what God has been working in my life until after the fact. Looking back, I can sometimes put the pieces together and go, “Oh yeah… there’s a there there!”
Spirituality is a process that takes time to grow. I think that’s why Christ compares faith to a mustard seed: it’s not much to look at in the beginning and it doesn’t sprout all at once, but give it time and you will begin to see that it is a living, breathing, growing thing. It requires patience and a willingness to keep an open mind. The good news is that Christ is an experienced farmer who understands the slow, subtle ways of growth and refuses to give up on his struggling crops.
That is the lesson that St. John the Baptist is learning in today’s gospel.
John, as we know from last week, was a revolutionary prophet and a dangerous radical. He was among the first to correctly identify his cousin Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” He understood the purpose of his whole ministry as preparing the way for the Christ.
Unlike the apostles and the crowds, John understood that the Messiah’s liberation of God’s people would be more spiritual than political. But he himself also had a few preconceived notions about what this would look like that turned out to be a little off-base. John believed that the Christ would finally come to “set things straight” in Israel. He would cleanse the people of their sin and get them back on track to having a healthy relationship with God. These notions were confirmed, in his mind, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Here, finally, was the in-breaking of the Messianic age. Now things would really start to change… except they didn’t… at least, not right away.
Jesus turned out to be a more gentle Messiah than the one John was imagining. He led with grace, accepting sinners as they were and trusting that grace to do its slow, subtle work in their lives. He kept company with a rough crowd and seemed to condone their unseemly activities by his relative silence.
To make matters worse, things were not going particularly well for John. After speaking out against the personal life of the local puppet king, John was arrested and thrown into prison. Didn’t Jesus realize how bad things were getting? Wasn’t he going to do something about all this injustice? Wasn’t Jesus supposed to be the one who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire”? So… where was that fire, already?
St. John the Baptist, like so many of us in this long, cold, and dark “Advent of the soul” (as my friend Renee calls it), was struggling with his faith. Let’s take a look at what he does about it:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to [Jesus], “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
And how does Jesus respond to this question? With characteristic gentleness. He doesn’t berate or upbraid John for his lack of faith. In fact, he compliments him. He says to the crowd:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? …A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet… Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”
Jesus praises his friend and cousin. John’s doubt does not reduce Jesus’ opinion of him one iota.
Too many of us feel afraid to engage with faith in the midst of doubt. We have this bizarre notion that doubt is the antithesis of faith, so it couldn’t possibly belong at church or in our conversation with Jesus. But I reject that idea outright.
Doubt is what makes faith possible. Without it, faith is nothing more than a blind acceptance of ideas that don’t ask anything of us. I don’t put much faith in the Law of Gravity because I simply accept it as a fact. It requires no imagination or personal commitment on my part. Faith in Christ, on the other hand, is of an entirely different order. Because I struggle with doubt in this area of my life, I have to dig deep and risk the very essence of my being on this mystery. It’s like doing a trust-fall exercise off the edge of the Grand Canyon. I have to give my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength to it. That’s why it matters to me, more than anything else in this world. None of that would be possible for me without the simultaneous presence of doubt. In the words of Episcopal priest Fr. John Westerhoff, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”
Christ understands this reality, which is why he is then able to be so gentle with John.
And John, for his part, does the perfect thing: he goes to Jesus with his doubts and asks the honest question that is on his mind.
Those of us, like myself, who find faith to be a constant struggle have a good friend in St. John the Baptist. He shows us how to come to Christ with our doubts and incorporate them into our faith and spirituality. Christ, for his part, is not scared of us or our struggles with doubt. Christ has the grace to accept us, not just in spite of our doubts, but with them. That is the good news that Christ has for us in today’s gospel.
And with that good news comes a call to respond:
Christ loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to allow us to stay that way.
After complimenting John (“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”), Jesus invites him and us, by extension, to take the next step of faith:
“yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Now matter how much Christ loves us, and no matter how far we have come in the life of faith, there is always room to grow. There is always a next step to take in faith. That is what Christ is inviting us to do today: Not to be perfect or pretend that we don’t struggle with doubt, but simply to take that one, small, next step toward God.
Jesus has some very specific advice to John for how to do this:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus invites John to open his eyes, ears, heart, and mind to what is happening around him. He asks him to pay attention. John, as we know, had some pretty specific ideas about what he thought the Messiah would be and do. When he didn’t see those things happening, his doubt momentarily got the better of him. The things he thought God should be doing were not getting done.
So Jesus very gently redirected his attention to the things that were getting done. It’s not as though Jesus was simply sitting down and twiddling his thumbs all day. Far from it:
“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.”
God was doing something different from what John thought God would do, but that didn’t mean that God wasn’t doing something. Jesus invites John to take the next step of faith by setting aside his own preconceived notions and keeping an open mind. That’s what faith looks like in the midst of doubt.
Here in this Advent season, I believe Christ is inviting you and me to do the same thing.
It is so easy to stumble into old patterns of doubt and despair when life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We look around at the way things are in our personal lives/families/church/country/world and can’t help but wonder whether something has gone wrong. In the darkest and coldest times, it may even seem like God is absent. We may wonder, like John, whether this Jesus guy might not be everything he’s cracked up to be. We question whether the Christian life is worth all the effort.
In those moments, Christ comes to us with all the love and acceptance he gave to his friend John. He invites us to look around at all the good that is happening, instead obsessing over the things we wish were happening. It might feel like Advent, but the truth is that Christmas is already here: God is with us, meeting us in the cold and dark seasons of the soul, working for the good in our lives and world, and loving us with a love that will not let us go.