Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Shades of Doubt

Reflections on the Readings

Third Sunday of Advent - December 12, 2010, Year A

By Dennis S. Hankins

Readings For This Sunday

Shades of Doubt

Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

We are not told exactly why John is asking this question. The fame of Christ has reached John in solitary confinement. The stories of the miracles done by Jesus are told to him perhaps by a sympathetic jailor. Through the thick walls he can hear the prisoners talking about Jesus. All alone, John muses on these wonderful works of Jesus while he contemplates his own life and his impending death.

Perhaps late at night, alone in his dark cell, shades of doubt haunt him. Not outright unbelief, mind you. For a man who has slept out under the midnight sky for several years, he asks the most important question in the world: “Are you the One?” It’s the last recorded words we have of this man who is on death row.

The most exalted understanding we have of Christ comes from John the Baptist. John himself gave testimony that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is John who says, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” There are no doubts here.

John’s own conception and birth is the stuff of miracles. Zechariah was an old man and his wife, Elizabeth, was barren. There was not a chance that they could have a child. But while praying and burning incense in the Temple, Gabriel comes from God to give Zechariah the good news. He tells this faithful man that he and his wife will have a son. “Unbelievable,” says Zechariah. So Gabriel struck Zechariah with nine months of speechlessness. Not until Zechariah writes on a tablet at his son’s birth, “His name is John,” does his speech return. I’m sure that John was taught from his youth to trust God and to never doubt him.

Even when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, John leaps in his mother’s womb. It is in this meeting we hear Elizabeth, full of the Holy Spirit, declare to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” I would bet the bank that Elizabeth told young John about this day. It would not surprise me in the least that she and her husband often rehearsed all of these spiritual moments with their son, John. He was taught, no doubt, from day one to have faith in all of God’s ways.

But you know, sometimes it's a little harder to believe. Shades of doubt creep across the eyes of our heart and “poof,” it all seems a little remote. God seems distant. We cease praying instead of praying without ceasing. What once brought joy now brings questions. It's in these moments we ask, "Are you really the way, the truth, and the life?"

The reading from James today reminds us of the patience and perseverance of the farmer. He waits for the precious fruit of his labor. After the rain and sunshine, and more rain, and then some more sunshine, the seed will sprout and the harvest will come. I remember when I was about fifteen, planting my first garden. Mrs. Murray was on my paper route and she was past the age of life to be out in the hot sun taking care of a garden. She offered to get the garden ready if I wanted to try my hand at it. I could go out my back door and hang a right at the alley and be at Mrs. Murray’s house in about two minutes.

The biggest thing I remember about this experience is that I was not patient. I did not have any experience at planting a garden and it showed. To make sure the seed was still under the veil of dirt covering it, I remember scraping away some dirt to see how things were doing. Some of the most patient and faith filled people I’ve ever met have been farmers. My gardening has gotten better with age. But even now, shades of doubt can creep in.

Sometimes, and it will happen, we encounter shades of doubt like John the Baptist. We will ask in those times like he did, “Tell me one more time who you are.” As John’s disciples leave with the message Jesus gave them for John, Jesus commends his friend, John. He tells the people that he is a man firm in his convictions and faith. He’s not a reed shaken by the wind. Nor did he seek comfort in fine clothes and comfortable surroundings. He lived and ate in the desert. By day he preached about the mighty one to come and how everyone should get ready to meet him. And by night he mused on the Almighty in his heart and refreshed himself in God’s love.

But once in a while we all drop our head and wonder out loud, “Is it worth it? Is Jesus for real?” With John, let’s hear again the gracious report, a report long ago foretold by Isaiah, “The lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the gospel proclaimed to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

And then Jesus says of John, “Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” And of you and me, Jesus says, “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

About John, and about you and me, Jesus has no doubts.


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