The Third Sunday
Readings for the Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-8, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 11:2-10
What does the Bible say about our doubts? John the Baptist doubted. He wondered if Jesus was the promised Messiah to come or if he should wait for another. It’s hard for us to hear of John’s doubt. The one whom Jesus said was the greatest born of woman and walked in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah as the prophetic voice in the wilderness doubted. If such a great prophet could doubt what does that say of us?
Before this John answered the complaints of the doubters. He faced the worst forms of doubt in the opposition of the religious leaders who came out to the wilderness to question him. Their doubt was the kind that leads to unbelief. Though they claimed they looked for the arrival of the Messiah they doubted when their hope became reality. John’s preaching unearthed something deep inside of them. They preferred the praise of men instead of God. They did not want this man of lowly birth to have dominion over them whom John proclaimed to be the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world. As St. John the evangelist recorded, “Men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.”
This first kind of doubt—the doubt of unbelief—is the first doubt the Scriptures warn about. John did and so we should listen. Many who waited for the Messiah were found in unbelief when what they hoped for became reality. So, we must stay awake lest we are found asleep when our greatest hope—the second Advent of Christ—becomes reality. John preached of the One whose sandals he was not worthy to untie for the messiah is the Almighty Son of God. John preached that Jesus is the One who when he was faced with unbelief could make children of Abraham from the stones. Likewise he warned that Messiah’s axe was ready to swing at the root of the faithless and fruitless people. His winnowing fork was in hand ready to thresh the chaff from the wheat. The chaff would be burned and the wheat kept forever.
Then Jesus came, humble and meek. He came to John to be baptized. He came to receive a baptism of repentance though he needed no repentance. The spotless lamb, the sinless Son of God, came to be treated as a sinner and submit to a cleansing he didn’t need. John was shocked. This seemed backwards, should not Jesus baptize him instead? Jesus answered simply, “Let it be so. For it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.”
You can understand then John’s doubts later on. He had been taken out of the game. Sitting in Herod’s prison he knew death likely awaited him. Meanwhile he wondered where is the axe? Where is the winnowing fork? Where was the strong man who would conquer God’s enemies? This Messiah was very different from what he expected. Jesus is preaching good news of the kingdom to the poor. He’s dining with the marginalized, the fringes, and sinners. He heals the sick, raises the paralyzed from their mats, cleanses lepers, gives sight, restores hearing, forgives sins and even raises the dead. His forerunner John though is rotting away in a Herod’s prison. So John doubts. This is the second kind of doubt. This is not the doubt of unbelief, but the struggle of someone who wants to be committed, but has questions.
So John sends his question to Jesus. “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another? It’s a tough question from a hardened wilderness wanderer who looked for one thing—the arrival of the kingdom of God.
We should hear these words of John and at first tremble for ourselves. You have not been tested like John nor treated so severely for your hope in the kingdom of God. Perhaps you’ve been made fun of or have been marginalized by a few, but you haven’t been imprisoned for your faith. Maybe you’ve been inconvenienced, but for the moment it is unlikely anyone is going to cut off your head off and put it on a platter.
John was great and John doubted. John doubted when Jesus did not meet his expectations. Unmet expectations are often the source of our doubts. When someone does not live up to our expectations, whether fair or unfair, we become disappointed and we begin to doubt them. We’ll do that with God too when he and his word do not live up to our expectations. When he doesn’t grant us favors on demand or reward our believing, when he lets us have cancer or allows trauma and tragedy to enter our lives, when our sacrifices for our faith in him seem to go unrecognized. There are also the doubts that come from listening to his word. There are tough things in the Scripture. Even the disciples doubted when the word of Jesus’ resurrection came to them. Thomas refused and slipped into the doubt of unbelief until he saw his Lord and God for himself.
It is helpful though to read about John’s doubts and the others as well. They had their own misunderstandings, foolish questions, and wrong judgments. Sometimes since our hindsight is 20/20 we think they were a little dull, dimwitted even. Yet when the gospels record all of this it is meant to show us they were ordinary people with ordinary doubts and questions just like us.
John shows us the remedy of our doubts. He goes back to Jesus and asks him who he is. He listens to God and allows God to speak for himself. Jesus answers with the signs of God’s kingdom. The signs of the age to come are not of power and might, death and destruction, but healing and new creation. The blind see, the deaf hear, the unclean are cleansed, the dead rise, and the poor have the good news preached to them. John’s circumstances made it look like the Kingdom of God was losing, but faith in the risen Christ now reveals that John is the victor in Christ. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus. The Son of God comes in the flesh, and the fullness of time has arrived, the Messiah is here. His light shines into the darkness and though often it seems to be shut up in a prison cell the darkness has not overcome it. Herod seems to rule the day, but there’s a lion running loose in Herod’s kingdom, the Lion of Judah who has come to devour sin and death by his own dying and rising. As he did this work of saving us he left little markers and reminders that he indeed was the promised One. Water becomes wine at a wedding. A lame man walks, a blind man sees, a dead son rises, a harlot’s sins are forgiven. These are the signs that answer John’s doubts and they’ll answer your doubts too.
Jesus doesn’t leave John in the darkness of doubt, but sends his word into the darkness to bring light. “Go tell John…” he tells the disciples and even now he sends his Word into your darkness. Are you the coming one? The questions still comes from us who live in this valley of the shadow of death. God is not necessarily working on our timetable and our agenda, but to your doubting minds and heavy hearts Jesus speaks the signs to you too. “Whoever is baptized and believes will be saved.” “Take, eat, this is my body…this my blood…given and shed for you.” “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.” His death and resurrection applied to you in your own personal prison. There’s no need to be scandalized by his seeming weakness. His strength is made perfect in weakness. That is the way of the cross. Don’t doubt because he is slow as men count time. He comes quickly for to the Lord a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day. Don’t fear because his hidden ways seem so different from what the world expected and even John expected; his ways are not your ways, and his thoughts are not your thoughts.
We are saints and sinners and so we wrestle with faith and doubt. Doubt comes along with waiting. You probably have had the experience when someone was late for a meeting you wondered if they would come at all. Jesus is not late, our struggle is with living in the present while waiting for the future. Jesus heals you now with his death and resurrection, but you still await your death and your resurrection. You have all the promises of God now, but you see them now only as in a glass darkly, a foggy mirror of what is to come at His return. When you doubt listen to the Word. Take in the signs of his Kingdom. Sin-deafened he is preaching his forgiveness so you can hear. The dead are raised in Baptism. The eyes of unbelief are opened. The poor and hungry are fed with the riches of heaven in the forgiveness of their sins. In the Jesus’ name, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by [him].” amen.