Doubting John


Doubting John
Detail of John the Baptist from a 12th century mosaic in The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.


Lectionary blog for Dec. 15, 2013
The Third Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10;
James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

By Delmer Chilton

Back in the early ’80s, while I was studying in Columbia, S.C., I was scheduled to preach in the little town of Pomaria, S.C., in the area where the Germans settled in the 1700s. It’s full of Lutheran churches. I couldn’t find the town or the church. Every road had a couple of brick Lutheran churches, but none of them was the one I was looking for. It was less than 15 minutes before the service and I still couldn’t find the church.

My moment of ultimate frustration came when the road I was on dead-ended into another road. There were two signs facing me, pointing in opposite directions, each saying “Pomaria — 5 miles.” There was a farmer in the corner of the field, working on his tractor. I rolled down the window and asked, “Does it matter which way I go to Pomaria?” He looked at me, he looked at the signs, he spat on the ground and looked back at me and said, “Not to me, it don’t.”

One thing you can say about John, it mattered to him which way people went; he was a sign pointing to the Christ. That was his role and he knew it, and he consistently deflected attention away from himself and onto Jesus, pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. In today’s Gospel lesson, we find John in jail and in doubt. He had been preaching Jesus as the Christ, but now he was wondering and questioning.

Even the one whose job it was to direct others to the Christ sometimes had a hard time believing the good news was really true. Perhaps John had expectations that the Christ would be more aggressive, more decisive, more “out there” as a leader, more political and “in your face.” Perhaps, just like everyone else, John thought the Christ, the Messiah, would go “upside” some Roman heads, kick some heretic butt, clean the infidels and backsliders out of Israel’s household of faith.

Or, perhaps John’s doubt was more personal than that; perhaps John thought that his cousin should take his imprisonment, well, personally. Here he was rotting in prison. And there was Jesus, the Lamb of God, walking around free. “Why don’t you get me out of here, Jesus? After all, I’m your cousin, I baptized you, I’ve been singing your praises and leading your cheering section. How can you let me rot in here?”

Whatever the seed of John’s doubts and questioning, they are there and Matthew shows us Jesus answering these doubts and questions by: 1) making reference to Isaiah’s prophecies in our Old Testament reading from chapter 35, and 2) stating in Matthew 11:4-6 that he has fulfilled the promise of the Messiah, and then 3) stating in Matthew 11:10-11, that John’s life and ministry are a fulfillment of Isaiah 35 as well, that John is “the voice crying in the wilderness.”

In short, Jesus sends John a message, “Yes, I am the Messiah, and, yes, you were right to say so.”

The confusion about the meaning of the coming of the Christ is not limited to John and his disciples in the first century; it is very much with us in the “run-up” to Christmas 2013.

A few years ago, I was driving out from Jackson, Miss., to preach and install a new pastor at a small, country church. As I rode down the interstate, I fiddled with the radio, not looking for anything in particular, just station surfing. Suddenly I heard someone who sounded like Anne Murray singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ...” “What!” I thought, “Why, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and they’re playing Christmas music. Argh!” 

Alas, it got worse. The announcer came on, and in a well-modulated yet folksy baritone, said, “Hi. If your house is anything like mine these days, the little ones are getting pretty excited about what’s coming. They get so excited, they forget about how to behave, so I have to remind them that Santa’s coming and if they aren’t good, they won’t get anything. Would you like to put some real teeth in that threat? All you have to do is call this number and for a small donation, Santa Claus will call your home and warn your children personally.” 

“Would you like to put some real teeth in that threat?” “Oh, my word, did he really say that?” I thought. Yes, he really did. Just as the people in Jesus’ day were fascinated by him, but not really sure what to make of him, we modern people are fascinated by the birth of Christ. We’re just real unclear about what it means so we plunge into the traditional trappings of trees and presents and dinners and plays, hoping to find the real Jesus, the real Christmas in there somewhere.

Perhaps we can take our lead from Jesus in the Gospel lesson; after all, he told us where he was active in the world, where we should look to find the Messiah — “... 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” (Matthew 11:5).

In an almost counter-intuitive way, it is likely that we will find the Christ when we stop searching for him for ourselves and start serving those around us who are in need of God’s love, Christ’s love. After we do that and begin to forget ourselves and our search for the Christ, we will look around one day and suddenly realize Christ has come to us — and in us and through us.

Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

You might also want to read:
Wilderness nourishment 
Going the wrong way 
The first disciple’s lessons for us  

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