Maybe you've had high expectations about something---a relationship, a new job, a promise someone made to you---and over time, you find that those hopes are not being realized. When this happens in a nation, apathy increases. When this happens in a group, the morale decreases. When this happens in personal experience, despair settles in.
We have all been there, along the way. There is a gap, between the ideal and the real, and it is deep and wide. I remember, years ago, the girls were small; maybe one of them was sick, I can't remember, Pam told me to go out and get a Christmas tree. It was late in the evening; I went to a nearby grocery store and selected what looked, to me, like a suitable Christmas tree. I took it home, we set it up, and...it did not look so good. There was a gap, between the tree I had imagined, at the store, and the one that now stood in our den. All of a sudden it did not meet our expectations!
John the Baptist arrived on the scene with great expectations. He had been called to prepare us for the way for the Lord, but the highway had become a hard road to travel. John is now no longer in the wilderness. He is in Herod's prison (for more about Herod, see http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/jesus-and-leadership).
In this way John is not so different from us. We profess our faith, we make sacrifices, we serve other people, it seems to be a pretty clear direction, toward the future that is God's plan and purpose, and at times we find ourselves trapped in some prison, in some dead end, and it calls everything we believe into question.
And so the irony: the one who announces that the Messiah would set the captive free is now in Herod's prison. John hears stories about Jesus, what he is doing, what he is saying, and so he sends word, by his students who visit with him in prison. "When you find Jesus, ask him this question", a question that arises from legitimate doubt: Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?"
Into The Wild
John's struggle had a particular focus: He had imagined that the ministry of Jesus would be one of fire and brimstone. He would root out the bad, his wrath and vengeance would purify the evil, the severe judgment would be the sign of the coming Messiah. But what happens in Matthew, after he is baptized by John? He is tested, in the wilderness; he gives the beatitudes, teaches the Lord's Prayer, preaches the sermon on the mount, he heals the sick, he calms the storm, he sends out disciples, he begins to talk about a cross. Instead of shouting at the non-religious, he eats meals with them. Instead of excluding the unclean, he touches them. What is going on? We're talking about a small geographical area here, and news travels fast. Had John missed the point? He wonders, and yes, he doubts. " Are you the one who is to come, or should we to wait for someone else ?"
Perhaps John is having second thoughts. You may remember the movie "Into The Wild" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Into_the_Wild_(film). It is the true story of a young man, Christopher, who graduates with honors from Emory University and then disappears, out west, eventually ending up in Alaska. Well, along the way he comes into the lives of a number of people, one of them being an older gentleman, Ronald Franz. Christopher lived with Ronald for a while, and learned that Ronald had served in the military for most of his life, stationed mostly in Okinawa and Shanghai, and that on New Year's Eve, 1957, while he was overseas, his wife and only child were killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident. His initial response was to drink. Months later, Ronald began the journey that would lead him to become a devout Christian, but in most respects he had carved out a life for himself that allowed few people to come in.
He took an interest in Christopher, taught him the skill of leatherworking, and even absorbed some of Christopher's advice for the older man to change his life, to get out of the house, to hit the road. As Christopher left for Alaska, Ronald asked if he could adopt him, as a grandson. "We can talk about it when I come back", Christopher said, putting him off. Christopher would live in the wilderness for 100 days, and then due to a couple of crucial and unavoidable errors, he died, his remains found months later. When word got back to Ronald, the effect was devastating. Ronald commented to Jon Krakauer, the author of Into The Wild:
"When Alex left for Alaska, I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die...When I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something terrible happen to a boy like Alex. Then I bought a bottle of whiskey. And then I went out into the desert and drank it. I wasn't used to drinking, so it made mereal sick. Hoped it'd kill me, but it didn't. Just made me real, real sick". (page 60)).
What do we do with the gap between our expectations and reality? In a way, Ronald was asking the identical question that John was asking: " Are you the one who is to come, or should we to wait for someone else?"
What Do We Do With Our Doubts?
Interestingly, it is a question that can be boiled down an even simpler set of questions. Is my faith real? Is Jesus real? Does life have a purpose? And, along with these questions:
How do we deal with our doubts? How do we get answers to our questions?
Some of our doubt arises from expectations that of our own creation: The righteous are rewarded, right? Good people don't suffer, right? Faithful people prosper, right? Well, Jesus told a story about the rain falling on the just and the unjust. Some of our doubts arise when expectations that we have from the culture conflict with realities that emerge in our lives. I realize that a simple act like preaching is something that happens when the words of faith fall into the soil that is a mixture of faith and doubt. Most of us, if we are honest, live with some mixture of faith and doubt within us. "I believe", the father of the epileptic child said to Jesus, "help my unbelief" (Mark 9). And if we bring all of who we are to God---our faith, our doubt, our belief, our unbelief---to worship, there is honor in that. There is always doubt in the church, and there is surely doubt beyond the church as well. The world looks at the church and asks, "Is this real? Are you for real?" The world looks at the church and asks, "Are you who you claim to be?" Well, the question gets to Jesus, and he responds:
Go and tell John what you hear and see.
He is talking about the buzz. Today, this would be sent over the internet, or by email. The buzz---what do you hear and see? It is not so much a philosophical question, it is practical, it is empirical, it is tangible. What do you hear and see? Someone has said, "We were all born in Missouri, we are all saying, "show me".
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.
How do we know that Jesus is for real? "Look around you", Jesus says. Six actions are briefly described. "Lives are being transformed. Look around".
People continue to ask the question, about Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we to wait for someone else?" He is, we are told, the reason for the season, but who is he, really? It is the most basic, the most important question.
Who is Jesus?
The answer to that question lies in his deeds, his actions, his mission in the world, his church, our church, our mission, our actions.
Jesus failed to conform to the expectations of John, but he is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, and so we are left with the gap, between the ideal and the real, between our plans and the paths that take us into places we do not wish to go. Jesus' words are of no great comfort to John. He says, finally,
Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
The Jesus who had spoken the beatitudes (in Matthew 5) now is the beatitude. The offense is a scandal. We are often scandalized for the wrong things. There are scandals in the church, usually over sex or money or power. The scandal of Jesus is that he comes in mercy, in grace, not as a fire and brimstone preacher, but as healer and life-giver. And, of course, the greatest scandal is that he comes as Savior and Lord. The best explanation of this is found in C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, and it is worth our hearing (and hearing again). We live in a world of multiple religious options. As Christians we should show deep respect for persons of any faith or no faith. We should go further and say that we can learn from persons of any faith or no faith. Every person on this earth is created in the image of God.
In a world of multiple religious options, there is a tendency to treat the different faiths as if they are ingredients on a salad bar: the broccoli, the carrots, the onions, the peppers, the tomatoes. We all have our tastes, our preferences, and how we put it together is up to us. Who is Jesus in all of this? It is often said that Jesus (even among people of other faiths or no faith), is a great moral teacher. Who could not be moved by the Sermon on the Mount, or his parables? And so, some will say, "I am prepared to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not his claim to be God".
C.S. Lewis insists that this is the one differentiation we cannot make. Jesus told us that our sins were forgiven. He called us to take up the cross and follow him, he commanded us to give our lives for him. Lewis wrote:
"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic...or else he would be the devil. You must make your choice. Either this man was, or is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit on him and call him a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to". Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
I find the discussion about saying "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays" to be interesting, but finally a way of sidestepping the really important questions. For those who profess Christ, the question is whether we will see the signs of his presence in the world and be a part of his coming kingdom. For those who profess Christ, the question is whether our faith is authentic enough, whether our actions are similar enough to those of Jesus to allow others to see him in us (and, I will admit, that is a scary thought).
For those outside the church, he comes not as fire and brimstone preacher or humanistic teacher, but as God-with-us, "a stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the gentiles", but to those who are being called, "Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God"; an offense, because his foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and his weakness is stronger than human strength, a scandal, for all of us, offensive, in that we, good virtuous people, would need a Savior; offensive, in that we, strong and self-sufficient people, would need a Lord.
" Blessed are you", he says, "if you do not take offense at me".
Sources: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild.