A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on Advent 3 [Rejoice Sunday]m11 December 2022: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Faith in Disappointment
On this third Sunday of Advent, with the Advent wreath’s pink candle burning, this “Rose” Sunday, I want to turn to the issue of keeping faith in the midst of disappointment. More to the point, I want to address how a mature faith comes to incorporate doubt. Or as the late Frederick Buechner put it, “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”
But first I want to identify a reference point about the nature of faith so that you and I can place our own personal experiences of faith and doubt into a larger, more descriptive place. I want to use the perceptions of a contemporary Christian thinker and writer whose name is Brian McLaren. McLaren is someone who has soberly observed the vast changes in the church and its place in the world, changes that folks like us and faith communities like St. Philip’s have been living in and struggling with.
McLaren has been associated with what is called the “emergent church” – a contemporary movement of Christian people who seek to transform what is dying in the life of faith by rediscovering the faith of Jesus, as opposed merely to having faith in Jesus. In other words, how do we who claim Jesus reconnect with the core of what Jesus revealed? That, according to the likes of McLaren, is what needs to “emerge” in our faith, in these times.
In one sense, there is nothing terribly new about this “emergent” movement. Reform undertakings have always been a needed part of the church’s life because the people of God have always struggled to “keep our eyes on the prize” when it comes to who or what we worship and follow. Yet, the word “emergent” is a most telling descriptor. On the one hand, it speaks of something emerging: that is, something appearing; something developing; something evolving; something occurring in our midst. Yet, on the other hand, “emergent” also echoes an urgency: that there is an “e-mergency” at hand; a stressful necessity to be addressed; an insistence that requires release, birthing.
To the extent that the “emergent church” identifies the church’s need to come to grips with God’s Christ and all that Jesus’ Incarnation entails, I am also an “emergent” participant, albeit an incomplete one. Nonetheless, this emergent issue is the primary reason I am here with you. In every place I have been, my sense of purpose has been (in the words of the Letter to the Ephesians ), “to equip the saints [that’s You!] for the work of ministry [that is, to be and do the things that reflect Christ] and [together]to build up the Body of Christ”. In this context, St. Philip’s and I are a good example of the “emergent church”.
Yes, our life together contains a matter of urgency – some would go as far as to say that we on the verge of an “emergency”. In any event, we know that we can’t continue viewing ourselves and our mission and ministry, strictly in casual terms of what is familiar. (What’s the definition of “insanity”? Doing the same things over and over and expecting different results?). No, St. Philip’s and places like us are being squeezed by spiritual and operational changes that no longer fit well with casual expectations.
And yet, St. Philip’s is also “emergent” in the sense that those of us who have chosen (for many reasons) to “row this boat” have discovered the transforming truth of the God-life in our midst. “Wherever two or three gather in my Name, I am in the midst of them.” Consequently, this emerging quality of our life together makes our parish motto a glowing promise, rather than a convenient marketing slogan: “Be careful. If you come here, you will grow.” The challenge of growing faith, developing faiths, maturing faith is that in the face of promised new life, “trust” (which is what “faith” is) – trust is required when certitude is often demanded—certainly preferred.
The prayer of the late monastic, Thomas Merton, speaks to this “holy uncertainty”, this shaky trust. Merton writes:
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.
Faith. Fear. Doubt.
John the Baptist, firebrand for God’s Messiah’s imminent advent, the fearless truth-teller and faithful prophet of God’s emergent life, now sits in Herod’s jail, brooding, wondering, fretting. Imprisoned in his cell, John the Baptist, the “forerunner”, the daring identifier of Jesus as God’s Christ, considers the wrenching possibility that he was wrong, that his faith was misplaced. With his stomach clenched and on the verge of sickness, John now cannot avoid his doubts – his doubts about Jesus; his doubts about his faith-- faith in Jesus as “the One”.
The problem, of course, is that in the Baptist’s eyes what Jesus was doing essentially opened the spiritual floodgates of the God-life to any and all who would receive him and his message as a liberating gift of new life. The problem was that in John’s eyes Jesus went about demonstrating the impact of his message the wrong way. There were standards, after all. Rules. Required beliefs. In John’s case, folks came from all over the region to be baptized and to confess their sins in order to “reboot” of their lives. At great personal expense, John had called a “spade a spade”, offending those who considered themselves as being on God’s side. What Jesus seemed to be doing was not requiring anything from the lost, other than an appreciation for the shocking and welcomed invitation to come home.
It was not what John expected to happen. It was not what John thought and believed with all his heart that the Messiah would do. How could he be so wrong? How could he have let Jesus mislead him so? “Why, God?!”
So, from the depths of disappointment, John the Baptist initiated what appears to be a last-dash effort to gain some clarity. From jail and the imminence of his own execution, John sent a few of his disciples to Jesus with a most pointed message: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response is telling. Without a hint defensiveness or any effort to explain his tactics in revealing God’s saving strategy, Jesus rather resolutely answers: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.
In his analysis of faith’s life and challenge, Brian McLaren poses four movements in the experience of a growing, maturing faith. The faith experience, he says, starts with simplicity, with what we often refer to as a “child’s faith”, the open and receptive type of trust that Jesus praises when the “little children” and their inconvenient desire to be with him challenged his own disciples. This uncomplicated, open, and receptive faith, this “Christmas morning”-gift-awareness-faith, is often referred to as a “child-like” faith. Indeed it is; yet a “child-like” orientation with its vulnerability is not the same as a “childish” perspective. The difference is self-evident.
So, in McLaren’s scheme, the simplicity of faith inevitably crashes with the undeniable “complexity” of life and its demand on faith. As a simple orientation inevitably confronts life’s depths and when neither simple answers nor holding out for what you want from life work, the reality of life’s complexity demands more from faith than before. This leads one into a third phase or stage of faith experience, one where we move from simplicity to complexity to what McLaren labels as “perplexity.”
I think that perplexity is where we find John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. John had a burning and simple faith that allowed God’s will to emerge. And when the complexity of the resistance to John’s clear and burning words surfaced – especially when John believed that Jesus had gone awry, “perplexity” set in with a bewildering vengeance. It was not merely a matter of “are you the one?” but “how can you be the one?” We all know what it is like to lose faith in the face of life’s perplexity, life’s uncontrollability. Sitting in Herod’s jail, that’s where John the Baptist, the “forerunner”, found himself. It happens to the best of us, but it seems that only the few move beyond and through such disappointment into something larger and transforming.
Ironically enough, it was Jesus’ answer to John’s provocative question that released John from perplexity’s frightful imprisonment and fearful doubting. Jesus’ answer to John moved him to a larger space and a broader vista to know what life is like with God. In McLaren’s view, perplexity (seen as paradox and not contradiction) is a movement into “harmony” – that is, an experience of disparate oppositions surprisingly coming together into a new, life-giving reality. Faith as harmonizing contradictions is the experience of when the darkness of perplexity and threat of being wrong move a person to realize that with God, fear and death are not what they appear to be: Not an end but an opportunity to have life with Creator of heaven and earth: Emmanuel -- God with us.
I will conclude with this one, last item about growing faith, evolving faith, maturing faith. It lies with questions. How is it possible for us to stay with our experiences of death and the heartache such losses produce? How?
How do we harmonize this experience of disappointing endings with the promised reality of new life? How?
What kind of faith not only allows us to fight the fearful urge to run away from death’s dreadfulness but also trusts that the very thing we fear so much, the very thing that produces so much perplexity and confusion in us is strangely the exact experience that leads to new life? What kind of faith can bring us to see and hear how the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the dead rise? ?What kind of faith?
What kind of faith can keep us steadfastly present to the overwhelming and lead us home? What kind of faith?
And what about the doubt? Is doubt our excuse; or is it God’s platform for us to have new life?
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Amen.