I think that none of us are surprised when John the Baptist sends his disciples to see Jesus to ask, “are you the one or should we seek another?” Because we ask similar questions: Should we keep looking, is our discipleship, our understanding, our faith, our expectation in the right place, or should we seek another parish family, or another mental, physical or spiritual discipline, a better diet, maybe more interesting friends, a regular meditation practice, a new way of being in the world with God? Should we just keep looking?
And it seems like we should, because if you listen to the prophet Isaiah, bigger things are supposed to be happening!
The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy... A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
And that it doesn’t not look like the life we are living, our lives often aren’t as spectacular, as full of vision, as Isaiah’s vision.
So we are like John the Baptist who, waiting in jail for the death he knows is coming soon, sends to see if Jesus is the true Messiah, if he can put his hope there and finally rest in peace. And John the Baptist has reason to rest; he has come from a pretty noisy past, has lived with high hopes. Remember his works in last week’s gospel:
One...is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, gathering his wheat into the granary; and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
And then he sees Jesus. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. I don’t what he thinks, but it makes me wonder, If John is the opening act, what kind of main act will follow, what happens next? Well, if you read Matthew’s account, it seems less spectacular than expected. First Jesus turns down the chances to do three major, even cosmic, miracles when he’s tempted in the desert. Then for the next six chapters of Matthews’ Gospel you start see a different style, to hear a different rhythm and tone than John’s overture might lead you to believe: Jesus teaches, heals, feeds, gathers a community of the poor in spirit, the mournful, meek and merciful; the pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted. To be accurate, there aren’t a lot of people who look like earth-shakers: to be fair, they look a lot like us.
And Jesus tells these people to live righteously, fulfill the law, be perfect; to pray and fast in secret: but not to worry about what to wear or eat; in fact, not to worry about the future at all. Instead to strive for the kingdom of heaven, and ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” That’s the kingdom of heaven!
But it’s not there yet. John sees that and so do we. It’s not here yet either. Because we know that some of our blind are not receiving their sight, our lame still limp, our modern day equivalent of lepers have a spotty recovery rate at best;
many of the deaf don’t hear well enough, the poor haven’t heard that much good news recently, and there is increasing number of the dead who seem to be waiting to be raised.
So when Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” We might not be offended or offensive, but just slightly puzzled, wondering where we go from here.
It’s a big question, and I offer three small and tentative practices that might make it easier to see that we could conceivably be in just the right place.
First, exercise to cultivate optimism. Several months ago I mentioned that I try to say thank you to God twenty times every day. So, following along this path, practice finding places where life goes well, changes for the good. Make a point, a discipline, of looking for them and nothing them, if not just in yourself, than in other people’s lives.
A good friend of mine and I talk on the web occasionally and she despairs of ever finding love. “It will never change” she says, “But you change!” I keep saying. You’re different than you ever used to be: better, older, more alive. You are someone who has never been before. Let the world find you anew, let your world be open to new possibilities, new life. And she can’t see it yet, but I can; so I hold that hope for her.
Hold hope for one another; that’s one way to keep faith with one another, do not grumble but be hopeful and patience and hold each other in honor like miracles that are waiting to happen.
We all know it’s easier to give than to receive; and it’s also easier to hope for others than for yourself. But I will guarantee that you will be surprised with what can happen within your own life. Hope and pray for others and let others hold you in that same way. Because hope and prayer open you to a surprising future.
Then second; know you are in it for the long run. Someone once said that we can only understand life backwards but we have to live it forward. So know that the future will be different from the past, and understand now that you’ll never know quite how it will be then. Be open to seeing life in new ways, hearing good news in a way you did’t expect, allowing room or surprise, for lives that were halt and lame to begin to dance into new ways of being. It takes awhile, often longer that you know, to see life that openly, but out just may happen, for the big truth is that we’re built for eternity.
A wise friend of mine once said, “Don’t leave before the miracle happens!” So, as we used to say in the 60s, “Keep on keeping on!” We may very well die a bit on the way, in fact we likely will: maybe the death of old hopes, often the death of youthful dreams, sometimes the death of those we love, and our own deaths too; but know this: we’ll get through it, by God’s grace and the light of Christ, the miracle will come.
So follow Jesus through the church year and right into the middle of the human condition: into this cauldron called the church; this half-baked but warming up company of people who are trying to live into and out of the love of God. That’s number three. Just love Jesus and his friends the best you can and let him love you while you walk with Him through the middle of life to somewhere beyond death.
Right into the middle of the whole mystery, into that corner where the only thing left is to give over is what you thought you earned or knew or wanted and the only thing to take is the present God offers you as a gift. Take that and get through whatever Good Friday the long week has to offer, trusting that you’ll wake up on the other side of Easter.
But know that here is where it begins, in these timid moments, in witnessing and honoring this small hope that begins right now; in knowing God loves us now and will not leave us alone. That can be just enough for the time being. Frederick Buechner put it this way:
“Our experiences of a real but limited deliverance today orient us to a confident expectation of a full redemption in the future. Christians are people who have been delivered just enough to know that there’s more where that came from, and whose experience of that little deliverance that has already happened inside themselves and whose faith in the deliverance still to happen is what sees them through the night."
And I would add, take us the that new dawn.
So, practice optimism, witness to hope for one another, and know that you are on the long run on a very Holy Way with Jesus, that can only start right here; but to know that before you are through you will see the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised, and the all poor rejoicing to hear this Gospel. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at the Good News of Jesus Christ.