In many action movies there is a classic scene that is so often repeated that it has become probably a cinematic cliché. Normally, somewhere towards the end of the movie, the good guys finally catch up with the bad guys. The bad guys are, of course, holed-up is a large rusty abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town. They are either working out the final details of their diabolical plan or they are deciding what to do with the captives that they have taken--but no longer need, or sometimes they are doing both simultaneously. But even as they scheme away, they are unaware that currently the good guys have made their appearance just outside.
The good guys first, of course, make sure that this is the hideout, that this is the place they are looking for. And once they've confirmed that this is the place, then the plan comes into play. In a gathering of Good Guys on a movie script, there can be any number of characters: there can be the reluctant good guy, there's the funny good guy, there can be the serious good guy; and these characters may or may not be found in every film, but in each and every action movie you will always have to have the cool good guy. He is the one who always knows just what do. This is the character that Bruce Willis plays in the "Die Hard" movies, and it is the role Eddie Murphy plays in the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies.
Now, the good guys hide behind a stack of pallets outside of the bad guys hideout; someone will ask, "What's the plan?" The cool good guy will say something like this. "I'll go around back. You come in from the front. But don't make a move until I give you the sign." Then someone has to ask the next question, "What will the sign be?" And the cool good guy always answers, "Oh, you'll know." Then he disappears around the side of the building.
Eventually, as the group waits, something blows up or our hero drives through the side of building in a borrowed cement truck at which point everyone knows...THAT was the awaited sign, and they all go into action.
I think these scenes are so popular in movies because there is a clarity to them that is comforting. We don't know, as the person watching the movie, what the sign for action will be; but we all know that we will recognize it with undeniable clarity when it finally happens.
Unfortunately, life is almost never so clear. We await signs that will give us affirmation or clarity as to what we should do with our lives. As a matter of fact, in the life of every believer there is a moment, and normally not just a single moment but sometimes reoccurring moments. It is a moment of question. We have been living our lives as faithfully as we can. We aren't perfect, but we strive to be faithful, and we are on the lookout for God at work in our lives. We want a sign...a nice, clear, obvious sign of God's approval--something that is unmistakable to let us know we're on the right path. But instead of winning the lottery or some sort of tangible blessing that we have been seeking, suddenly the wheels come off the bus. We are stunned to discover that we are laid off from our job or our child gets cancer, our house burns down or any number of other calamities; and our life is suddenly filled with looming darkness and uncertainty.
My daughter Catie, who is in high school, has a one word question she uses frequently. The one word question is, "Really?" It is normally said when life or a friend suddenly foists upon her some turn of events that seem woefully unfair given all the hardship that she's already had to bear. She uses it when she's already has had a lousy day and then she goes to lunch only to have a friend steal her dessert. "Really?" She uses on me when she has had a long day of school followed by cross country practice and then play practice and she walks in the front door, and I ask her, "Catie, would you be willing to empty the dish washer and take out the trash?" "Really?"
The question is intended to ask, in the midst of all I have going on, is that really what you want to do or ask. Is that really your intended plan?
John the Baptist has one such moment in our gospel reading today. John has known that God has a plan in motion. John had a role--he understood it clearly--his role was to prepare the world for the plan. He was to preach and baptize and prepare the world for someone who is coming...someone who will bring about the reign of God...someone who will transform the world to be what God intends the world to be. So John worked hard. No one worked harder. No doubt his preaching and baptizing were maintained at an almost frenzied pace. Then suddenly John is arrested. He is sitting in prison unable to continue the very ministry for which he genuinely believed he was created.
He's lost, he's alone. He's confused and he's frustrated. He looked for the big unmistakable sign that the coming good guy would bring, but he hasn't seen one. Instead, he sees Jesus. Jesus is teaching and preaching, but the world is not transforming in the way that John had expected.
So he asked the question. Now we can be sure that John asked the question in prayer of God multiple times from prison, but we also have it written down in the Gospel of Matthew that he had his disciples ask Jesus, "Really?" Is this really the plan? Is this it? Are YOU the one? Really?
Okay, not exactly in those words, but that was the question. Are YOU the one I have been looking for? It this it?
Jesus' answer is an interesting one. John no doubt thought the sign would be much clearer when it finally came. But Jesus, in his answer, points not to world transforming occurrences but instead to very small events. Oh, some of them may be considered miraculous but always on an individual level. Jesus does not respond by saying what is happening at the level of nations or governments or populations or lands. He says look closely and see what is happening in the lives of people. I am at work on a very intimate level. Someone who was blind can now see. Someone else who was lame can now walk. Yet another person who was deaf can now hear. Someone who's had the good news brought to them and now feels hope.
Later on in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say, "Move," to a mountain and it will move. Though this is a powerful and well-known piece of scripture, I think we often misinterpret it. I think the mistake is believing God's faithfulness is normally found in the moving of mountains, but it's not. God's faithfulness is almost always seen in something that the world sees as inconsequential, like a mustard seed.
We prepare ourselves this season of Advent for the arrival of the ultimate seed, the birth of a child in a manger in the middle of nowhere.
When life is dark, when we are lost, when we turn to God and ask, "Really?"--in those moments, be alert. Be aware. Look around. You are not alone. Mountains are not moving, but God IS there, in your life planting mustard seeds.
Please join me in prayer. Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might, come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help us and deliver us through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory now and forever. Amen.