Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Fifteen days in with ten days to go! Our reading of lessons in this season with references to the holy family and to John the Baptist are always useful to orient us to where exactly we are in the church's story.
In popular culture, it is important to know how many shopping days are left before the 25th. Or the even more important number is how many days are left for UPS and FedEx to guarantee delivery before Christmas. If you listen to the radio, they will be playing, "Mary, Did You Know?" today for the 475th time - only 300 more chances to hear that song.
So, whether shaped by liturgical life or popular culture or both, we are in this new season but it is now beginning to show its limited age. by the time we develop the rhythm of Advent, we are right on top of Christmas.
Advent is about beginnings and endings. There is a tension in this time, awaiting the child that we already know is coming. It can feel as if someone is throwing you a surprise party that you already know about, but you are to act surprised.
Today's gospel lesson from St. Matthew shows John the Baptist in a kind of paradoxical light. John the Baptist, you recall, is the Forerunner, the Prophet who has come before Jesus, before the Messiah, to preach and baptize and prepare the Way.
We might call him the original Church Planter. He has no building, no staff, no budget, not even a website. It's just John and a vision that takes him into the wilderness, where he begins to preach. Before you know it, the wilderness has become a kind of sacred city, with people coming out to hear him, to believe in what he is preaching, to be baptized and prepare for the One to come.
One challenge for preachers during the Advent season is, over the course of a lifetime of preaching, we run out of ways to describe John the Baptist before we run out of Sundays where he is prominently featured. He's a wild man! He's a Bible-believing vegetarian! He's a mystic, contrarian, not good with small talk, always making the powers that be uncomfortable.
The other character, besides Jesus, that figures large in this season is Mary, and rightly so. As to preaching, she can also force the preacher to strain at finding new ways to speak of her. Just how many times can we tell you all she is the pondering kind, a teen-age contemplative, quiet and receptive to the Spirit?
If not careful, Mary and John the Baptist become caricatures, not characters in Holy Scripture. John is all extrovert, all talking without taking a breath. Mary is all introvert, all I'd rather stay in my room and read and wait for Jesus.
So, it's helpful to remember that we believe Mary and John the Baptist were people, not just placeholders for you and me in our faith story. If they were people, then they were more complicated than we often show them to be.
Mary, you recall, ran to the house of her family member, Elizabeth, and belted out a song. That's outgoing behavior. And taking a trip to Bethlehem, late in a pregnancy, uncertain what she and Joseph will find there, does not suggest a passive and go-along personality. A contemplative, yes, but she was a courageous contemplative. She was a contemplative, but one definitely oriented towards the world.
So, I mentioned earlier that we see John today in a paradoxical light. For, in this lesson, John is not in motion, but rather in prison. He is not attracting people to his side, but rather sending people to Jesus, to ask a question. He is not the fundamentalist prophet of certain doom and judgment but aware now that he is having his doubts Jesus.
Three weeks into Advent, new church year just beginning, and John the Baptist is having doubts. Not only might John be wondering is Jesus the one to come, but we might be wondering just how good a forerunner and prophet we have in John. John finally has some time to think while cooling his heels in a prison cell and doubt shows up.
John's doubt comes, I believe, because as St. Matthew's Gospel states, John has been hearing reports about Jesus. And the reports are not exactly what John expected in the Messiah. Instead of judgment and harsh words, John is hearing of something else.
The something else is what Jesus is actually doing. When the disciples of John come to Jesus and ask if he is indeed the One that John was speaking of, Jesus tells them to look and see and listen and report their findings to John.
What they see is that Jesus has come into the world as a healer. What they see around Jesus are the blind and lame and sick and deaf and dying. For these, Jesus has come into the world. John was called to run ahead of Jesus, to prepare a way, to make room for the Messiah. So, it makes sense that John would be quite concerned that his work not be in vain.
In other gospel accounts of John the Baptist, we hear him speak of decreasing, so that Jesus might increase. In other words, at some point, John understands that as his work ends, the work of Jesus is only beginning. For this to take place, John must surrender the definition of who Jesus is.
From Isaiah, we hear that the prophet is invited to say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear." John the prophet, sitting in a prison cell, is now the one with the fearful heart, the uncertain heart, the doubting heart.
So, consider John today, not simply as the forerunner of Jesus, as the one who went before him to tell us the Christ was coming into the world. Consider also that John might be the forerunner for you and me and the ways in which we believe and the ways in which we doubt.
For you and I have had mountaintop experiences, moments in our faith when the story of Jesus and his call to us was one we joyfully embraced, with hope and love and delight. But like John, you and I have also found ourselves sitting with doubt, if not in an actual prison cell, then some other way trapped and uncertain of where to go next. And in those moments, when we consider what we are hearing about Jesus, we wonder if he is indeed the One we have been waiting for.
Thomas Merton, the Kentucky monk and writer, who died 51 years ago in the month of December, wrote numerous books on prayer and faith, on literature, with poetry and letters and essays and his own biography serving as important markers for many other seekers who would follow his path. Many people today have faith because Merton wrote faithfully.
But of all the things he wrote, I would suggest the most enduring writing is a prayer he wrote while sitting in a toolshed in Nelson County, Kentucky. It is referred to as Merton's prayer. He wrote this prayer in the Mid 1950s, when he was already considered a spiritual giant by many. The prayer is this.
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
The season of Advent reminds us that the church year is just begun, and the calendar so far is fresh and new. However, the faith you and I bring to this season might be feeling its age, uncertain of how to go forward, with hearts that doubt and fear.
John shared his uncertainty with Jesus. Are you indeed the One? His question did not receive a rebuke from the Christ, rather a reminder to look around and see where Jesus is found. He is found with those in need of a Shepherd, a guide, a healer.
Merton's prayer is powerful because it is honest, expressing that certainty is not the true measure of faith. Our faith begins, rather, by expressing that we do not know where we are going. However, wherever we are going, we want God to be there, on the journey and at the end, and especially now, as we begin again.
I invite you to begin again, with your heart in whatever condition you find it. Fearful or full, hopeful or hurt, we follow in a long tradition of hearts that attached themselves to Jesus. Mary's heart pondered what was to come and broke at the cross. John's heart was fearful in prison. Merton's heart was doubtful and uncertain.
Your heart is as significant as theirs. Our hearts, together, make up the very people for which Jesus entered this world.
You are why he came. Do not doubt that.