June 6, 2020

Homily for Advent III: In a Prison Cell of Doubt

John in prison

St. John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples, Giovanni di Paolo

In a Prison Cell of Doubt
A sermon for the third Sunday in Advent, 2013

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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 offence at me.’

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

– Matthew 11:2-11

* * *

Jesus gives great praise to John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. He commends him as a strong man of truth, a prophet of God, a specially chosen messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist,” Jesus says. We should be impressed by John. We should honor him and look up to him.

Having said that, please notice that Jesus proclaimed these words of commendation at one of the lowest moments in John’s life. In this very same text — where Jesus praises John up one side and down the other — we discover that John was struggling with doubt. He was in prison at the time, where I’m sure it was a challenge to stay positive and not get discouraged. He was so out of sorts and and his mind in such turmoil that he sent messengers to ask Jesus if he was really the One, the coming Messiah, the King God had promised.

This great servant of God found himself locked in a prison cell of doubt.

Imagine that.

Who had devoted his life to preparing Israel for the coming of her Messiah? John.

Who had introduced Jesus to the public? John.

Who had said Jesus was so great that he wasn’t worthy even to tie his sandal? John.

Who had baptized him? Who heard the voice from heaven affirming Jesus as God’s Son? Who had seen the Holy Spirit descending upon him as a dove? John.

Who had pointed to Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold! the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”? John.

Out of that same mouth, now we hear, “Are you the One? Or should we look for another?

We can’t be sure why John was struggling with doubts at that moment. Certainly being in prison couldn’t have helped. But, as Jesus says here, this was no weakling. This was no reed in the wind, easily swayed or broken. Yet he found himself racked with doubts. I wonder why.

Perhaps it was because he had not seen Jesus do what he expected him to do. Perhaps John had anticipated more action, more results, more victories, more success. Maybe he expected more visible, public proofs that Jesus was king and that the kingdom of God was taking over —

If Jesus were truly a king wouldn’t he have raised an army by now?

Wouldn’t he have challenged the ruling powers more by now?

Wouldn’t there be more of a revolutionary spirit in the air?

Wouldn’t reformation be sweeping through Jewish society?

Wouldn’t the Romans be at least starting to shake in their boots at the rising power of God’s people?

It is possible that John was making the mistake that Israel made when she chose her first king.

The people of Israel chose Saul, a man who was strong, attractive, and charismatic; a man they thought would get things done. Saul would surely fight and defeat their enemies! Saul would certainly bring victory and glory and prosperity to their nation. They wanted results. They wanted them now. And they believed Saul would be the king to get them for them.

They didn’t realize, however, that God had a different king in mind for his people: David. Though David showed early promise, he was nowhere near the physical specimen Saul was. He was the runt of his family’s litter, he spent time tending sheep, he was a poet who played music. After Samuel anointed him, David spent more time running for his life, hiding in caves, and figuring out ways of surviving among his enemies than he did leading Israel in glorious victories. He ended up coming to the throne out of obscurity and suffering.

Now, in the days of Jesus, perhaps John was looking for a new Saul. But God sent a Son of David. John looked for action and power and visible results. Instead, he saw a homeless teacher traveling around Israel, hanging out with sinners, having dinner with them in their houses, teaching and feeding them on hillsides. And it wasn’t adding up.

I wonder: can you relate to John? Have you found yourself locked in that prison cell of doubt?

Which leads me to ask: What do you and I expect when we look for God to work in our lives and in our world?

Maybe, like John, we find ourselves disappointed with God and the lack of progress we see. However, maybe like John as well, we’re looking for God in the wrong places and expecting the wrong things.

Perhaps God is to be found more in the small and obscure places, among the common folks and not the elite, in the hidden halls of hospitals and nursing homes, with the children in the city schools, in the homeless shelters and soup kitchen lines, and in the run-down houses of the neighborhoods most people try to avoid.

Maybe, in fact, God doesn’t give a hoot about the kinds of results or victories or outcomes that we are looking for so eagerly.

You might just find him lying in a manger. Bringing a little girl back to life in an upstairs room. Hanging on a cross.

In fact, it just might be that God is present and working in the prison cell of doubt and fear that you occupy today. And though you feel yourself to be least in the kingdom of heaven, or maybe even not worthy of being part of God’s kingdom, Jesus right at this very moment — your lowest moment — is commending you as one greater than John the Baptist.

Wouldn’t that be something? Imagine that.

Comments

  1. I love this observation, Chaplain MIKE:

    “Perhaps God is to be found more in the small and obscure places,
    among the common folks and not the elite,
    in the hidden halls of hospitals and nursing homes,
    with the children in the city schools,
    in the homeless shelters and soup kitchen lines,
    and in the run-down houses of the neighborhoods most people try to avoid.”

    ‘the Lord hears the cry of the poor . . . blessed be the Lord’
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FYWUv9dTyQ

  2. “In fact, it just might be that God is present and working in the prison cell of doubt and fear that you occupy today.”

    Well, that’s just it.

    Maybe John the Baptist, like me, didn’t expect or want God present and working in the prison cell, but outside the prison cell, breaking it open, really setting the prisoners free, tearing the damn prison down and razing it to the ground, here, right now, without further ado.

    Maybe that’s what the people in the hospitals and nursing homes and the homeless shelters and soup kitchens expect and want. Maybe that’s what I want.

    Lord, give us the eyes of faith to see you in the one who was crucified.

  3. This week I saw on CNN a movie about Michael Morton. He is known for having been falsely convicted of his wife’s murder, and spending 25 years in prison. At one point in his cell he uncharacteristically called out to God, because as he says, “I’ve got nothing here”. You all have to watch it, Toward the end he says God exists, God is infinitely more wise than me, and God loves me. What’s the problem?

  4. Brianthedad says

    What a blessing to read this morning! Thanks much for your continuing ministry in this and in your day-to-day life.

  5. Trust… and have no expectations (for the way we think things ought to be).

    “Lord I believe. Help me in my unbelief.”

  6. I think you wrote an outstanding post with brilliant insight. Applicable for today. Gods ways are Higher than our ways. We are called according to His purpose and as Paul would say flee from those who teach Godliness as a means to Gain. In anyway other than this is what the Word says seek God on it. He always leaves himself a choice !

  7. When Jesus responded to the imprisoned John the Baptist by quoting Isaiah 61:1, he conspicuously left off the part about proclaiming liberty to the captives, and freedom to prisoners.

  8. Wonderful, Mike. Thank you.

  9. Scott Fisher says

    Insightful and inspiring reflection on this Gospel account. Encouraged my heart today. Thanks!