Here comes John the Baptist invading our peaceful Advent preparations once again. Last week this unkempt wilderness prophet was drawing crowds eager to repent and change their hearts and lives. John was on fire, shouting like a street corner evangelist about how wicked people were and how God is coming to judge their wickedness. He saw Jesus approach, and with confidence recognizes that Jesus is the one God has sent to be the Messiah. He’s ready to see Jesus take the axe to the unfruitful trees. He’s ready for Jesus to round up the snakes and rid them from the world.
But this week John is in a very different position. While only seven days have passed for us, its been several hard months for John. He had drawn enough attention to himself that powerful people began paying attention. In John’s zeal, he took his megaphone and called out Herod Antipas, the one who ruled the region around the Jordan on behalf of the Roman Empire. Herod had married his brother, Phillip’s, wife. John had a strong and loud opinion about Herod’s immorality, and so he had John arrested and brought to prison in the Marchaerus Fortress, a hilltop fort located east of the Dead Sea in what is present day Jordan.
From the throngs lining up to be baptized to the loneliness of a prison cell, John has had quite a fall. He’s also had plenty of time to think. Doubt has crept in. He saw Jesus come to the Jordan for baptism and thought he would be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, but things are not going as John thought they would. He’s spoken the truth to power and is now imprisoned. The reports he hears about Jesus are interesting. He’s doing some amazing things, but he’s not overthrowing the government. He’s not ridding the religious institutions of corruption. Jesus is talking about the lilies of the field and welcoming the children. All well and good—but while John sits in prison what he was sure about is on shaky footing. He’s moving from security to doubt.
John sends some of his disciples to Jesus with his question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s a good question. It leaves open the possibility that Jesus is the answer, but it gives space for John’s doubt too. And what I love about his doubt is that in it we can gain comfort because we have all faced that same question about Jesus. Is Jesus the real thing? Is it worth putting my trust in him, particularly when my life is not working out the way I thought it would? “There is comfort in the idea that faith as strong as John’s is capable of doubt as strong as ours.”
The promise and hope of Advent are so wonderful. Jesus has come. Jesus is coming. Salvation is at hand. Bask in the glow of the season. Joy to the world! But there are times in our lives—perhaps you’re even in one of those dark valleys right now—when those promises feel distant, when the doubts creep in. Who among us is weak or worried or afraid? It’s a hard place to be in, but we can take comfort that we are not alone. Even John the Baptist experienced the dark night of the soul.
So, John’s disciples come to Jesus with his earnest doubts, and “John who had preceded Jesus must now learn to follow him; the one who prepared the way for Jesus must now receive him.” Jesus responds well to John’s question. In just a few words Jesus seems to paraphrase most of the hope of the book of Isaiah, a book birthed through centuries of questions and suffering of God’s people as they experienced defeat after defeat. Laced into the judgments found throughout Isaiah are words of hope of a brand new day that God is bringing.
Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” John knows what the Messiah is supposed to do, but he would also know that Jesus’ list is missing something significant. The Messiah is also supposed to free people from their imprisonment. I do wonder if John had hoped that Jesus would set him free from his current condition and if he was disappointed that Jesus said nothing about setting him free.
Haven’t we been there? “We sometimes have to accept that what God does for someone else, God might not provide for ourselves.” It’s a hard space to be in for sure. We want healing. Or a better job. Or justice. Or a better relationship with our kids. But no matter how hard we wanted it, no matter how many words spilled from our hearts in prayer, no matter how hard we worked for it, it wasn’t happening. Like John, we’re still in prison with no hope for release. It’s a hard position to be in, but like John, we have to decentralize ourselves from these stories, even as painful as that may be. “It is by lifting our gaze to see all that is true—even if it is not true for us—that we see the whole truth. This is how we do not just form our image or expectations about God based on our own needs, but in what we see of God all around on the long arc towards justice and peace.”
Jesus’ words to John are rooted in the hope of Isaiah, our text from Isaiah 35 is a masterwork in hope. I read one comment on this passage that worried, “Isaiah’s inspired words are like standing in front of a majestic mountain but that anything [he] could do with those words would be like placing people in front of some Thomas Kinkade painting of a majestic mountain. It’s just not the same!”
Still, I’ll do my own sketching of this passage because it’s worth our attention. Isaiah is writing to a people who have experienced tragedy and hurt. It’s a message for the weary and worried and afraid. The entire passage shouts out that there is life springing forth from the harshest, wilderness places—the arid, brown land becoming a “symphony of song and color.” In the most beautiful of images, it points out how God is majestic and awesome and that those who are “in business” with this God are in for the ride of their lives.
But even with all of its majesty and energy, we know that the people listening to this message have been beaten down by circumstances. Like John, they are experiencing doubt that things can get better. To all who will listen—us included!—Isaiah calls out to us like the most positive of trainers. “Energize the limp hands, strengthen the rubbery knees.” C’mon you know you can do this! You have it within you. “Tell fearful souls, ‘Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right.’”
Can’t see for the darkness? “Blind eyes will be opened.”
Have you stopped hearing the symphony of birds and crickets in your wilderness? “Deaf ears will be unstopped.”
Body broken down by age and injury? “Lame men and women will leap like deer.”
Have you lost the song in your heart? “The voiceless break into song.”
Thirsty in a dry land? “Streams of water will burst out in the wilderness, streams flow in the desert.”
Worried that the path is treacherous and just too long? “There will be a highway called the Holy Road.” It’s straight as an arrow. You won’t get lost on your way to the Promised Land.
In this passage, I hear Jesus’ response to John’s worry. The blind see. The deaf hear. There is new life. It’s coming—even if it’s not quite what you expected and even if your present circumstance is worse than you’d wish upon Herod who put you in it in the first place.
In the famous words of Ron Popeil, the man who brought us the Veg-a-matic: “But wait! There’s more!”
The third Sunday of Advent our focus is drawn to joy. I know that feels odd when so much of my focus today has been on John’s plight in prison, but, you see, joy is a condition of spirit that circumstances cannot take away. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit that comes from knowing God’s love and knowing that it makes all the difference in life, come what may.
If we, like John, can live in the present while holding to God’s promises, we’ll begin to see how joy can pervade our lives. The day is coming—this is the promise of God—when joy will characterize how we live. Or in the words of C. S. Lewis, “Joy will be the serious business of heaven.” To quote the imagination of another, “Joy will landscape the entirety of the New Creation. It will be tangible and palpable such that sighing and sorrows will, as the prophet says, have no choice but to flee away. Sadness will get chased out of the New Creation the way mice will flee a room full of cats. Sorrow will dissipate the way a strong wind can blow every cloud out of the sky so as to leave behind nothing but a blue sky so achingly beautiful as to make tears leap to your eyes.”
The journey to joy is worth the effort. Like John, we may encounter doubts along the way. Is Jesus the real thing? Is he really who he says he is? But as Jesus assured John, so he assures us. “I am,” he says. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Following Jesus along the way may have its momentary troubles. It may conjure up some doubt, but rest assured that he is who he says he is. The day is coming when we will live into joy as the serious business of heaven. So, trust Jesus. He is the One sent to be the Savior of the world. He loves you, and he’s come to bring you joy that no one can ever take away from you.