December 11, 2022 at St. Agnes and St William Churches in Naples, FL
Isaiah 35, 1-6 & 10 + Psalm 146 + James 5, 7-10 + Matthew 11, 2-11
I cannot count the times people have come to me troubled because they have doubts. It sometimes stirs up guilt which they then bring to the confessional. Over the years, I have begun to believe that doubt is really a very healthy thing that gives some evidence that there is thought, reflection, and some searching going on. That’s a lot better than just sliding along without ever wondering or pushing the limits of faith. Having been given the name, Thomas, as a child, I decided that doubt was just part of life, part of faith, and a reason for hope.
Thomas isn’t the only “doubter” in the Bible. There was Zechariah, right at the beginning of the New Testament story. There was Joseph who didn’t just leap into faith and trust with news that Mary was with child. Perhaps the greatest doubter of all is at the center of today’s Gospel here in the middle of Advent. There he is, sitting in Harrod’s prison. I’ve always imagined that he was sitting there wondering why his cousin from Nazareth didn’t come and get him out. After all, he had been working wonders all over the place for people who were not even family.
John had some rather strong ideas about what the Messiah would be like, and he had preached about it rather forcefully. Then suddenly there he was with a lot of time on his hands, without a lot of hope, and doubts began. His doubts prompted him to send those disciples to Jesus with that haunting question: “Are you the one?” If there was ever any expression of doubt, that’s it. We never really know how the response of Jesus affected John. Matthew gives us no clues about what happened next, and we don’t even know if those messengers John sent heard the praise of John that Jesus expressed.
John’s doubt, like the doubts of so many others spring from the fact that too often our expectation of how God should behave does not match the way God really does behave. Too often the doubt begins when our home-made image of God will not hold up to the reality of God being God who often seems uninterested in our expectations or doing what we want. John wanted an unquenchable fire with wheat and chaff separated. Could we call that, “polarized”? He wanted power and punishment. So, it’s not hard to see why he had doubts about whether he had identified the right person.
In his response Jesus sends the messengers back with a quote from Isaiah: that describes what Jesus is doing for the blind, lame, deaf and the lepers. He tells John that the poor are rejoicing just as the prophet had foretold. Jesus was betting that John would hear this response as an echo Isaiah wanting John to realize that his work fulfilled what Isaiah prophesied about the time when God would appear with vindication for the people.
John probably knew Isaiah 35 by heart. We have no idea how the response affected him. Matthew never tells us that since perhaps it’s not really about John but rather it’s about us who now and then harbor doubts about God’s action. When there is a conflict between our expectations and God’s work in this world, we must look to Jesus as John did. If we want to know where God is, our starting place must be among those who are serving the blind, the lame, the outcast and the poor. We might look in nursing homes and hospitals. We might look at the advocates for a just wage, affordable housing, and compassion for the LGBTQ community. Some of those people cause scandal, but so did John and Jesus. Scandalous and challenging as these things may be, it is where Jesus is still found today healing and uniting, strengthening and encouraging. The section of Isaiah that Jesus quoted for John goes on to say: “Strengthen the hands that are feeble. Say to those whose hearts are frightened: ‘Be Strong, fear not! Here is your God.’”
If John had never had any doubts, he would never have really known how and where God works. He teaches us how to ask questions and where to find the answers. Blessed will we be when we see God at work in them.