In faith and in doubt…John theBaptist – a saint worth following. Sermon for Patronal Festival, Adel Parish Church.
Matthew 11: 2 – 19
Today, in somewhat strange circumstances, we celebrate our Patronal Festival, and remember our Patron Saint John the Baptist.
I think it’s quite surprising that there’s no epic movie…’The life (and death) of John the Baptist’…after all he’s a larger than life character…his every appearance in the bible a strange and wonderful story.
I’m sure most of you have a picture in your mind’s eye. It may be the baby leaping in his mother’s womb as he somehow recognised the presence of Christ. Or the wild prophet clothed in camel hair, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah…the man who, before anyone else, recognised Jesus for who he was…”look the lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world.”
Or it may be his cruel and rather gruesome end…suffering for speaking truth even to the rulers of the land.
But tonight we heard a different story that’s easily overlooked. And I think it’s a picture that not only speaks into our stories, but also tells us something very profound about the Christian faith. It’s a story of doubt.
John the Baptist didn’t only announce Jesus’ arrival and baptise people. He also pointed out what was wrong in their lives – what needed changing before they’d be ready for God’s kingdom. And he didn’t shrink from criticising even Herod – who had divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife – against Jewish Law. That was never going to end well.
So here we have John – languishing in prison, probably expecting execution would soon follow. Perhaps it’s not surprising that John begins to doubt. He’s fulfilled his role of announcing the Messiah who will bring in a new Kingdom. He had been completely sure that Jesus was that Messiah…but on his own in prison he begins to wonder…if God’s kingdom has come, why is Herod still in charge?
And so he begins to doubt. Was he wrong all along? After all – there’ve been many false prophets. It’s all very well suffering for the truth, but what if he had it all wrong, what if he’d led thousands astray – what if it was all for nothing?
So John, who announced with such certainty that Jesus was the Lamb of God, is driven to ask him – ‘are you the one – or should we look for another?’
On one level this is an encouragement for us. John the Baptist, the one with all the answers, the one who recognised Jesus when no one else did, is suddenly the one with all the questions. We’re shown that doubt is a normal part of a life of faith. We’re reminded that God uses faltering, fallible humans to carry his message.
I wonder though, whether this moment of doubt and questioning points to Christ just as deeply as the earlier certainty. Does it show that when we doubt and question… then we open our lives to a deeper understanding of Christ?
John seems to have responded almost instinctively to Jesus – knowing him to be from God. But although he responded to the person of Jesus, his question from prison suggests he already had a picture of what the Messiah should do and say…and Jesus didn’t quite fit with that.
Perhaps like many others he expected the Messiah to come in power and might, to overthrow false rulers, to impose God’s kingdom…and that wasn’t what he saw.
“Are you the Messiah?” he sends his disciples to ask Jesus – but Jesus doesn’t appear to answer the question at all. Instead he says, “go and tell John what you see and hear…the blind see; the lame walk; lepers are healed; the poor receive good news…”
This isn’t a message to restore John’s former certainty…it’s a message to alter and enlarge his understanding of Jesus and his kingdom. Yes – I am the Messiah you’ve been expecting – but you’ve misunderstood my ways.
For me this suggests doubt isn’t just a time when our faith falters, but a vital part of our growth as Christians.
At some point we come to a feeling that Jesus is ‘the one who is to come’…the idea of Jesus as Lord begins to make sense. But that first picture is just a tiny fraction of who Christ, the Son of God, the eternal word, is. In this life we’ll never see or understand the whole picture, but it’s by doubt and questioning of the picture we have, that we learn more.
Doubt can be scary. We can feel we are lesser Christians when we doubt. But if, rather than giving up on faith, we dare to ask with John, ‘are you the one who is to come?’ We open ourselves to deeper understanding.
I’ve seen this at work during our ‘Pilgrim’ discussion groups, started in a different world, and continuing on Zoom. As we study bible passages together, we share our questions and doubts, the times when life experience contradicts what we thought we knew of God.
Listening to what others think, just voicing our own puzzlement, we refine our picture of Christ, our understanding of his work.
If we’re open to our doubts, we’re ready to discard bits of our picture that don’t fit with our experience or the experiences of others. If we’re ready to look again at what we hear and see – in the bible – in life – we’re able to grow fraction by fraction, into a better understanding of the one we follow.
John the Baptist – man of faith and doubt – definitely a saint worth remembering.