John sends a message from prison. Whether he is worried, depressed, or angry we don’t know; but he asks, through his disciples, “Are you the one, or are we still waiting for somebody else?”
John has already told the whole Judean countryside the answer: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Yet now, languishing in prison, he wonders why the sin of the world is still chaining him, weighing him down, oppressing him. Herod is hosting wild parties in his palace and hobnobbing with the Romans; John’s disciples are dwindling as they move on to the next great leader, even as John told them they must, and John is angry, and worried, and depressed that so little seems to have changed. His personal imprisonment is eating away at his personal and impressive faith.
In the book Night, Elie Wiesel describes the welcome offered by the block leader when he arrived in his own prison: “Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever. …And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice: let there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive.”
Jesus answers John’s disciples, “What do you see? Do you see how the prophecies are being fulfilled? Have you read your scriptures, the ones that say, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.’ Then 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. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the deserts.” “Do you understand?” asks Jesus. “Tell John what you see, what you hear, and tell him, blessed is he who takes no offence at me, who will accept these signs for what they are; promises of the salvation that has begun, and is at hand.”
Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. Be strong, do not fear. Help each other; that is the only way to survive. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Encourage those who are of a fearful heart.
A year after the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, I stand here again on another Sunday after another Friday which witnessed the terror of another school shooting, and there is a part of me that is despairing, that wonders why we must still be patient, what it is that we are waiting for, why we are still imprisoned and oppressed by sin.
James advises, “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. Strengthen your hearts.” Jesus says, “Look, I am already here, and blessed is the one who takes no offence at me.”
Another prisoner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote after ten years of confinement, “It is more prudent to be a pessimist. It is an insurance against disappointment, and no one can say ‘I told you so,’ which is how the prudent condemns the optimist. The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy. Of course there is a foolish, cowardly kind of optimism which is rightly condemned. But the optimism which is will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proved wrong a hundred times. It is the health and vitality which a sick man should never impugn.”
After ten years, Bonhoeffer was still hopeful. He knew that while his enemies might imprison him bodily, they could not confine his soul, much less constrain the goodness of God. He might just as well have added, “and blessed is he who takes no offence at me and my optimism.”
In Advent, we look towards the return of the Christ, the coming of the king, the completion of God’s kingdom. We remember the birth of the incarnate God, Emmanuel, God among us, God with us, and we read with great wonder the stories of healing and new life, of lives transformed and of great joy. Yet still we wait.
I don’t know if John was angry, or impatient, or despairing when he sent his disciples to question Jesus. I don’t quite know what Jesus meant when he said, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me” at the end of his description of his signs of power, the signs that the prophetic Day of the Lord had arrived. But I am drawn to the words of those other prisoners: have faith in life, a thousand times faith; and help one another. Optimism for the future should never be despised; it is the health and vitality which a sick man should never impugn.
We approach the Christmas season, we live through another Advent in a world that is still waiting for the peace of God that passes all understanding. We pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” We are told, “Be patient.”
Jesus’ answer to John, to us, is yes; yes, I am the one you are waiting for. Yes, I do bring deeds of great power and good news for the poor, and for the poor of spirit. I am with you. And blessed are you that are with me; who take no offence at my walking with you, but who walk with me, who work with me, in hope and faith that the kingdom of God, the peace which passes all understanding is drawn near, is at hand, is ours for the grasping. See it in the small miracles: a woman set free from captivity; a child given a second family; our own failures forgiven.
Strengthen, then, the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees. Take your neighbours by the hand and lead them to the promised land. Tell them of the promises that God has made, that Jesus has confirmed. Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear. I am with you.” God is with you. Practice optimism; not the cowardly, wishful thinking that Bonhoeffer rightly condemns, but the faith that God does work for good in the world, and that good will prevail; that good already has, in the person of Jesus. Help one another to have faith in life; a thousand times faith.
We need wait for no other. Amen: come, Lord Jesus.