Brief synopsis of the readings: God, speaking through Isaiah, proclaims that the wilderness and the dry lands will exult as they bring forth flowers. The weary will be strengthened, the blind will see, the deaf will hear and the lame shall leap. In Matthew’s Gospel we find John the Baptist in prison; he asked his visitors to ask if Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus responded that the blind now see, the lame now walk, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor. Jesus then told those gathered about John the Baptist: He was “much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom scripture says: Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way before you. I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.”
Much of our journey of Advent centers on two characters: Isaiah and John the Baptist. Isaiah foretells Jesus and John the Baptist announces that he is here. We are all Christians because we believe what they said and we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, and the Redeemer.
But what happens when we find doubt creeping into our lives? Doubt walks with us every step of our lives. Did I make the right choice in my latest job decision? In my choice of a spouse? In my choice over what to order at a restaurant (let’s face it: we’ve all done this)?
We make decisions all the time and most of us wish we could chose a path and not look back, never wonder if our path was the right one. We read Isaiah with the advantage of hindsight. Isaiah’s readers lived in exile and didn’t know if they would survive. They feared that within a few generations they would be assimilated and nobody could tell the difference between Babylonians and Israelites. They feared the Exodus story would be lost in the history of humanity.
John the Baptist feared the same thing. Last week we saw him as the center of attention, as the guy that even the Pharisees traveled to listen to. But here he’s in prison, not certain that his cousin was the Messiah. Simply put, John had good reason to doubt. Last week (and 8 chapters earlier in Matthew’s Gospel) we saw John as a powerful figure. Placing himself in the wilderness he attracted crowds where he proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. Today he’s in prison with an uncertain future.
The purpose of prison is regret and even those who are unjustly imprisoned feel pressure to rethink their actions. Prisoners almost always feel abandoned and isolated. Anyone who has been blessed to do prison ministry will talk about the desperation the inmates feel.
And so we can understand why John sent word asking if his proclamation was a mistake. What if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah? That made John’s ministry a waste of both time and his life.
And going back to Isaiah’s audience, what if their existence was a mistake? They looked with pride on how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, led them through the desert, gave them the 10 Commandments, and delivered them to the promised land. When they asked for a king God gave them Saul, David and Solomon.
But what about now? They were conquered, their Temple was destroyed, and their leaders were driven into a land that they did not know.
Did God abandon them? Was God defeated by another, greater god? Was God never there at all? And are we doomed to exist apart from all that we knew and believed?
These are hard questions, and questions that we continue to ask even to this day. In the thousands of years between Isaiah and John and ourselves, we’ve never lacked for things that cast doubt on we who believe. Those who express pessimism often appear to be the ones who know the most.
In the face of that, can we be optimists? I’m not sure, but I don’t think that’s our call. We are not called to be optimists, but instead we are called to be hopeful.
Our faith doesn’t call us to look on the bright side so much as it calls us to trust that God will make things well despite evidence to the contrary. Faith often lacks evidence. Isaiah’s community in exile knew that they were conquered by Nebuchanezzar, the King of Babylon. But they had no idea that Nebuchanezzar would himself be conquered by Cyrus, the King of Persia and their exile would end.
John, sitting in prison, also had little evidence that his cousin Jesus was the Messiah. Truth be told, things didn’t get better for John as he was beheaded on orders from Herod. But 2000 years later we revere John and he speaks to much of Advent.
Both teach us an important lesson: if we find our faith through our senses, we imperil our faith. If we rely on what we see, hear, and understand we are subject to believe the worst of what confronts us.
Today we live in a world where many of our leaders choose job security over confronting climate change. But 57 years ago two powerful nations nearly chose nuclear destruction because of a dispute over a small island in the north Atlantic. And 100 years ago a virulent flu strain killed 50 million people (and infected 500 million). I could go on and talk about the Black Death in 1347 but you get the idea.
Our senses tell us that destruction is just around the corner. But our faith tells us that we are always living in Advent, we are always ready for God’s spectacular and infinite love for us. Please understand, that doesn’t mean we need not care about our ability to destroy and it doesn’t mean that God will pull us out of harm’s way.
But Advent does mean that God’s love gives us the power to look beyond exile in Babylon and John’s imprisonment and recognize that we have the ability see our future in faith.