Advent is a Season of Doubt?
Is Advent a season of doubt? Sure it is. Doubt is a key ingredient in almost all the specials leading up to Christmas. It's doubtful Santa will be able to fly because of the fog. It's in doubt whether the Whoville will have Christmas. Donkey doubts Shrek will be able to pull off his first Christmas. So here at least the world's Christmas preseason and our Advent season are on the same page. It's the page of doubt.
You don't think so? What else is John doing in prison but doubting when he sends to Jesus the message, "Are You the One who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Literally, John asks are "You the Coming One?" "Coming One" is an Old Testament title for the Messiah, the Christ. A year before this at Jesus' baptism by John, John had identified Jesus as the Christ. What else can be behind John's forlorn question now but doubt?
Well, church fathers, and I mean big ones like Chrysostom, Augustine, Origen and Ambrose agree with you. They say John didn't doubt. Most say John makes the inquiry for the sake of the disciples he sends, so they will follow Jesus after he dies. Only Tertullian takes the question at face value and says John doubted, but he says this was because the Holy Spirit had been taken from him.
I don't think so. Read the Psalms. "Have You forgotten to be merciful?" "When will You act?" "Don't you care?' Are not these godly men full of the Holy Spirit? Aren't they expressing doubts? Doesn't Moses express doubt when his first attempt to free God's people ends with Pharaoh cracking down on them? He says, "O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me?" Doesn't Gideon express doubts when he asks for not one but two fleeces to test what God had already told him? And is Peter without the Spirit when Jesus rescues him from the water he had sunk into and says, "Why did you doubt?"
No, you can have the Spirit, you can be a Christian, and have doubts. John had them, and I don't blame him. John is in a grimy dungeon because he had faithfully exposed the adultery of King Herod. He had preached certain judgment on all such impenitent sinners, but that hadn't happened. You don't need to imprison me to get me to doubt. The slightest ache, pain, or thing not going my way and doubt flares up. I don't lead an austere life; I don't live in the desert, clothed in itchy camel hair, eating a diet of locusts and honey, but doubt rages in my heart when I see the unfaithful prospering. I see pastors that are reeds shaking in the wind, clothed in fine clothes, sitting in the palaces of kings. I see crowds flock to their churches and handfuls to mine and doubts haunt me.
So I'm comforted in this worldly season of good cheer with doubts. I'm comforted by Longfellow's doubt in his Christmas carol. He writes, "And in despair I bowed my head/"There is no peace on earth," I said, / "For hate is strong and mocks the song/Of peace on earth, good will to men." I'm comforted by the plaintiff tone of Lennon's "So this is Christmas," and I'm even comforted by the 1984 social justice ballad "Do they know it's Christmas Time at All?" But it's a cold comfort, and Jesus' answer to John doesn't seem to help John or me.
John already knew and I do too what Jesus was doing. No one has to report to us that Jesus makes the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and raises the dead. But what does this have to do with John's prison cell and the fact that the Herod he preached judgment to will judge him worthy of beheading? What do these wonderful miracles of Jesus have to do with righting the wrongs in the world that feed my doubts? Proverbs 25:20 says that one who sings songs to a troubled heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day. Jesus telling my doubting heart of His miracles seems like singing songs to a troubled heart; it only leaves me colder.
Okay, time for a salvo from the Law because there I sit right next to John shaking from the cold, damp, chill of my doubts. And you know how sometimes it feels good to wallow in your misery? Sometimes it feels good to nurse your doubts. So Jesus fires the big guns: Though among those born of women none was greater than John, the very least in the Kingdom of Heaven, the very least outside that prison of doubt is greater than John.
Jesus wants to set us free from our self-made prisons of doubt, but Jesus doesn't point to His miracles for the wow-factor or the power factor. He doesn't blow the doors off our prisons of doubts. He highlights the miracles that Isaiah 800 years before had predicted the Messiah would do. These miracles indicate that a totally new reality dawns in Jesus. With Him the kingdom comes. With Him the overthrow of sickness, pain, and even death are certain, but the Lord's greatest miracle is not to overthrow them but to use them. Any one can use health, relief, and life as a miracle, but only God can make sickness, pain, and death a miracle. Jesus doesn't just overcome evil by defeating it but by using it.
The Jesus who is able to do what is medically impossible is well able to deliver John from prison, but He doesn't. The kingdom coming for John would eventually mean death by beheading. Likewise the Jesus who with but a word raises the dead and makes the crippled whole could with a Word remove all my doubts one by one by great works of power. But He doesn't. The new reality Jesus ushers into this fallen world uses the very evils that lead to my doubting for my good. We sing this in hymns, but I don't think we listen. Jesus has brought a kingdom to earth where bane is blessing, pain is pleasure, where to die is to live, and where losing is winning.
How can these things be? Jesus brings back to earth the paradise that Adam and Eve were kicked out of and Noah's flood wiped off the face of earth. He brings it back by who He is and by what He does. He is True God and True Man. He is God the Son in flesh and blood. We had made such a mess of God's wonderful world. Our sinfulness turned work into drudgery, brought thistles and thorns from the ground, and sin, sorrow and doubt to the throne. Adam fled from God once he fell because he doubted God wanted anything to do with him now that he was a sinner and had made such a mess of everything. But God still wanted to be our God so much so that He took on flesh and blood through the virgin's womb to restore the relationship.
As in Eden, in Jesus once more God walks with man, and as He walks He's busy restoring the relationship. Sinful man can't meet God half way, so God comes all the way down and builds a bridge from the Holy God to sinful man. That bridge is made beam by beam, rivet by rivet, span by span by the perfect life of Jesus. Doubt not that God wants a relationship with you, sinner. He sent His only Beloved Son down to build that bridge. But who can cross such a bridge? Only someone who is holy in God's sight. And that ain't me. I'm riddled with doubts, sins, and death itself.
Jesus, the perfect Man, could cross the bridge back to God, but He wanted to bring us with Him, so He paid our toll. The toll for a sinner to cross is nothing less than paying off what you owe for your sins. You have nothing to pay that with, but Jesus does. He offered His perfect life on the altar of the cross. He paid the toll for you to cross with His holy sweat, blood, and tears. These became a garment, a covering, so that when you cross, God the Father sees God the Son coming home and all of heaven welcomes you.
Note well gospel preaching like this is the crowning point of the new reality that Jesus has brought to earth. In the report Jesus sends to doubting John and doubters everywhere the last thing in the list is that "good news is preached to the poor." Or as the NASB translates, "and the poor have the Gospel preached to them." The crowning point of the new creation is not the miracles Jesus did only for some but the Gospel He preached to anyone who considered themselves so poor they were unable to pay the toll to get back into God's kingdom.
Entrance into God's kingdom isn't by means of health, wealth, success, or prestige. I could be healed of physical blindness and still not see God's grace in Christ. I could be healed of lameness and still not be able to walk across the bridge to God's kingdom. I could be healed of deafness and still not hear the Gospel message. I could even be raised from the dead only to die a second death forever outside the kingdom. Yet, my doubts are usually fueled by God not doing for me physically or materially what I think He should or by Him giving physical or material blessing to someone I think He shouldn't.
It's time to come out of our prison of doubt. Walk with me into the kingdom Jesus won for us. Let not this or that physical, material, or emotional hardship, trauma, or tragedy lead you to doubt the reality of the kingdom Jesus has bought for you and brought to you. The miracles He does on earth were not to make you doubt when you don't see or get one. Those miracles weren't signs pointing you to this life. They were pointing you to the new reality Jesus ushered into this world.
The land where there is no blindness, no deafness, no lameness, and no dying is not here. It's across the bridge that Jesus built by His holy life and His innocent suffering and death. And all the physical health and material wealth in the world won't get you across that bridge. Indeed you can be physically blind, deaf, and dying, you can be materially destitute and a failure but still be able to cross into the new reality, the kingdom Jesus brings at Christmas. Why? Because Jesus has paid the toll for you to cross, and He gives you the fare. He puts it over you in Baptism, into your ears by Absolution, and into your body through Communion.
The Bible tells us John died in prison; it doesn't tell us whether he died trying to keep warm with a cold blanket of doubt. In this season where the world makes the resolving of a doubt some sort of salvation, let us who have the salvation that Jesus brings use it to unlock our prison of doubt. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20101212); Matthew 11: 2-11