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Do remember what airport security was like before 9/11? It was there – but it was lax – not like now. When I was a kid my dad traveled a lot and I was very accustomed to going with my mom to the airport to pick him up. She always wanted to meet him at the gate. That’s unheard of now of course, unless you have a ticket or are meeting a child. Back then it was also “not allowed” officially. I would always point this out to my mother as I really do not like breaking clearly posted rules – and she would look at me at say – Arianne, here’s a life lesson, if you look like you know what you’re doing and are supposed to be doing what you’re doing –people will leave you alone. Embody confidence. Walk through security like you’re supposed to be there!
And – she was right – 9 times out of 10 we met my dad at the gate no problem.
What do you think about that attitude – that life lesson? I will say – it has served me well – and it has also gotten me in over my head – making me think there was something wrong with not knowing.
Last Sunday we heard a very confident John the Baptist proclaiming the Messiah was coming – and the kingdom was near. We heard a prophet charge the people to repent and turn their lives towards the way of God. Last Sunday we heard an unwavering proclamation that Jesus would soon be here!
This Sunday – it’s a 180. Our confident, locust-eating, baptizing messenger of God – is no longer so sure. As he sits in a prison cell – doubt seeps in. Could you blame him? Can you think of a time you were so sure of something – so sure of someone – and then the events of a day – or a week – or decades – have you doing a 180? Statements of rock-solid belief – giving way to hesitation and worry?
Through the bars of his prison John the Baptist tells his followers – you know what, I’m not so sure anymore…go and ask Jesus if he really is the One, the Messiah – or is there someone else we’re preparing for?
Incidentally – this wasn’t the first moment of doubt for our fiery prophet – John. Back at the Jordan River – after his diatribe – Jesus arrives and says – John, you have to baptize me. And John says, no – that’s not what I planned for – that’s not how I think this is supposed to go.
And Jesus says – well God has plans too different from your expectations, so let’s do it this way. John baptizes Jesus – and I imagine it was reluctantly.
You all may remember that when John the Baptist was in utero – and his mother Elizabeth met up with her cousin Mary – who was pregnant with you know who – John lept for joy in his mother’s womb. In there, there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt about who Jesus was. But as an adult the first time John encounters Jesus – face to face - doubt was very much a part of the experience. I’ll bet that John thought when the Messiah got here – everything was going to be put right – the rough places plain, the crooked, straight. That jail cell was probably not something he had expected either.
Here’s what his questioning makes me think about though – I wonder is John the Baptist doubting Jesus – or is he doubting himself? Is he thinking to himself – what was all that locust-eating and living in the desert for – maybe I’m not a prophet?
In a season of preparing for God to break in – we too should name and pay attention to our doubts and our expectations of God in our lives. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt – the opposite of faith is certainty. Doubt is what leads us to question – to dig – to explore. Doubt makes room for saying one of the most important professions of our faith – I don’t know.
Almost every Sunday of the year – we are invited to proclaim the mystery of faith – Christ has died – Christ is risen – Christ will come again – how, where, when? I don’t know. It is a mystery.
It’s one thing though – to say, I don’t know when it comes to the mysteries at the heart of our faith – the inexplicable ways God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. The mystery of ourselves though, the doubts in our own lives – they are harder to sit with and get through. I’ll bet John the Baptist felt very alone in that prison cell.
Here is a quote of someone you know –
“Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain… I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart…So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God, - please forgive me.” - Mother Teresa (http://www.smmsisters.org/who-we-are/sister-stories/86/the-doubts-of-a-saint)
That’s from the journal of Mother Teresa – one of the most revered saints of our time – writing if there be a God. The book Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta – published after her death – contains her prayers and pleadings for some divine intervention into her doubt – a doubt that lasted for half a century - 50 years of her life. As she held the dying – as she ministered to the poor – with those small, powerful and wrinkled and wizened – hands that that for millions pointed to Christ – but inside – feeling the question – where is God?
And yet paradoxically– the reason we know about her internal struggle is because – she never stopped writing and praying. Apparently the mystical experiences of Jesus – the ones that called her to leave her happy religious life – to go and found the Missionaries of Charity – they ceased almost as soon as she had answered the call. The whole time she lived her faith – she was living those words we hear a grieving parent cry out to Jesus – Lord I believe, help my unbelief.
What are the doubts stirring in your heart on this day? What are the expectations you have for Christ in your life?
Notice how Jesus addresses John’s doubts. He doesn’t talk about himself. Instead he points to the ways the rough places are being made plain – the people for whom healing has taken place – there are the signs – they may be signs the size of a mustard seed when placed in the context of the whole world – but God is breaking in.
And then he turns to the crowds who are just as curious and doubtful perhaps as John the Baptist – and he says – what about you? What is it you hope to see? A king dressed in the finest clothes – who will look like what you expect? Do you now doubt the prophet John because he is in prison? He is a great prophet – Jesus says - however the least in the kingdom – the ones you expect the least from – the poor, the helpless, the unworthy – even they are greater than he.
Jesus’ answer is another mystery – and calls us to be people who look for ways of God that don’t meet our expectations. Jesus calls us to be signs – in some ways – to live what we believe, sometimes when we are struggling to believe it.
God comes to us as Emmanuel – God with us. With us no matter what our struggles are. We needn’t ignore our doubts – or feel guilty for having them. As one of Mother Teresa’s fellow sisters said – she was a saint, she wasn’t perfect. She served the poorest of the poor and gave voice to those who had none. Whether she had doubts or not her faith was evident.
Next Sunday at 5pm is our annual Blue Christmas service. Sometimes we need a break from the manufactured cheer of the season – to be real about our questions and doubts. There may be someone in our lives – we need to risk inviting to bring their questions and doubts and pain into a sacred space. There is something healing and life-giving in giving ourselves permission to be where we are – no matter the season. In creating space to ask the question – are you the one we are waiting for?
Today is joy Sunday – pink candle Sunday – and you may wonder – why do we have to remember joy in Advent? Why do we need a pink candle when this a season that is all about joy to the world? Because – God knows – there are stirrings in every single heart present that are not joy-filled.
The thread of joy that runs through all the readings this Sunday is one of expectation – it is the joy that comes from deep longing for the hope of God’s promise. The hope that we are given signs – the size of mustard seeds – but evident, nonetheless. The hope that patience is more than a virtue – it is a strength derived from the heart.
We prayed that God would stir up power in our hearts this morning. We hear Jesus saying to us – what are you hoping to see? Stir up your questions. Stir up your doubts. For only in doing so do we invite God’s bountiful grace and mercy into our lives.