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"Doubting John ~ Part 2"

December 11, 2022

John the Baptist’s faith wasn’t perfect — and neither is ours. Faith does not mean simply believing that certain things are true, but most importantly, it means placing our ultimate trust in God. And if doubts about God’s trustworthiness arise, the good news of what God has done in Christ is the best remedy.

John the Baptist boldly proclaimed God’s message with a blazing faith and certainty that God was going to act. His was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,”1 to prepare the way for the Messiah. When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John knew that Jesus was the one.

John demanded that people repent of their sins and return to God — or else. There was no ambiguity about him, no “maybe.” He was sure about what God was doing. His certainty had gotten him thrown into prison — and finally would get him killed — because he denounced the sins of Herod, the ruler of Galilee.

And this week we hear of him sending messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you really the one? Is it really true?” John hasn’t lost his faith or his commitment to God’s cause. But — is the kingdom of God really breaking into the world now? The world doesn’t seem to have changed. Has the Messiah come, or is it another false alarm? In a word, John doubted.

Some Christians have found that impossible to believe. They argue that John had no doubts but sent some of his disciples to Jesus to reinforce their faith. There’s no hint of that in our text though. The messengers may have had their own doubts, but Jesus’ answer isn’t for them. Instead, he begins, “Go and tell John ....”

Sometimes John had no doubts at all. He knew that he had been sent to get people ready for God’s decisive act of salvation. When he was standing on the banks of the Jordan, telling the crowds to repent of their sins or face the fire of God’s judgment, he meant what he said. When Jesus came to him to be baptized, John fully believed that he, Jesus, was the greater one he, John, had proclaimed.

But that was when he was really feeling the Spirit’s power. Then he was certain. Now he sat in prison day after day and night after night, and doubts came to him. “If the things I believe are all true, why am I here? If Jesus really is the Messiah, why is Herod still in charge? Why?” John’s faith now seems kind of shaky.

That may sound familiar. Many of us have had those so-called mountaintop experiences when we’ve been certain of God’s presence and sure that God was at work. But those experiences don’t last, and there are also the times when we lie awake at night wondering if the whole religion thing might not be just a nice story for children. As we’ve grown up and learned about science, history, and the variety of different religions in the world, some of our simple Sunday school beliefs seem inadequate.

Why should we believe promises that God will take care of faithful people when we hear about terrible things happening to good people while some crooks and liars live happily ever after — or, at least, seem to? In a universe that stretches over billions of light years, does it really make sense to think that its creator (if it has a creator!) has a special interest in our little planet?

And what about claims that the church makes for Jesus? It’s not hard to believe that he was a great teacher and died on a cross. But do we have any solid evidence for spectacular miracles like turning water into wine? And was Jesus really raised from the dead? I mean really, so that people could see and hear and touch him, and not just as symbol?

We doubt things that we’ve been taught to believe and that have been important to us. We’re afraid our faith is slipping away. The Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be strengthening us in our faith, and that fact, in turn, produces more doubt. And when we doubt, we feel guilty, because doubt is sinful.

Or is it?

St. Paul wrote that “a person is justified” — is put in the right relationship with God — “by faith,”2 and the church has always taught that faith is essential for Christians. But there hasn’t always been a clear understanding of what faith is.

Faith can mean belief that certain things are true even though they can’t, strictly speaking, be “proven.” It can also mean trust in, and personal commitment to, something or someone. Some Christians emphasize the first aspect so that, for example, faith can mean believing that all the things found in the Bible were real historical events — Adam and Eve were real persons, Jesus performed all the miracles in the gospels and so on. People who raise questions about the literal truth of some biblical account may be labeled “Bible doubters,” people whose faith is defective.

There are some beliefs that Christians have always considered essential. The Easter message that “Jesus who was crucified ... has been raised”3 is central. But if we get into discussions about what “has been raised” means, we find some variety of understandings among Christians. Between a mere belief that Jesus’ influence continues and a crude idea of resuscitation, there are legitimate differences of interpretation.

That’s true for other aspects of Christian faith as well. There is some latitude in how historic Christian teachings can be understood while remaining faithful to their intent. Christian faith is not simply agreement with a set of propositions, and doubt about the truth of a particular Christian doctrine does not necessarily mean loss of faith.

On the other hand, a person can agree with all the orthodox doctrinal statements and still lack genuine faith if he or she doesn’t trust in the true God. The living God is not a set of facts. To say that you have faith in a friend means that you are willing to rely on him or her when the chips are down. There may be important things you don’t know about that person, but that is the person you trust. Faith in God is a similar relationship, but it goes much deeper, because God is to be the ultimate object of our trust. That is what the First Commandment means.

None of us always has full trust in God, which is just to say that we are sinners. Often, it’s a matter of forgetfulness — putting our faith in our own abilities, possessions, or something else and not remembering that these things are ultimately God’s gifts.

But we can also have conscious doubts about God’s trustworthiness, perhaps because of personal disappointments. It sounds as though that was what John was dealing with. God had assured him that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring in the reign of God, and John had thrown his whole life into preparing for Jesus. Now he was in prison while the world went on its wicked way. And the thought occurs, “Can God really be trusted?”

John wasn’t the first one to wonder that. The story of the first sin in the Garden of Eden involves doubt of God’s word, and there are plenty of other examples in the Bible. One doubting psalmist asks himself, “Has [God’s] steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?” But then he thinks, “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.”4 And he reflects on God’s saving works for Israel in the past.

That’s something like the way Jesus responds to John’s question, but he doesn’t point to events of the distant past. Instead, Jesus directs John to what he has just been doing in his ministry — giving sight to the blind, enabling the lame to walk and the deaf to hear and doing other works of restoration and renewal. The point is not just that those are amazing works, but that they are the kinds of works expected of the Messiah. They are the type of thing that our first reading from Isaiah 35 speaks of, and in Christ, God’s promises through the prophets are coming true.

John had to be reminded of what Jesus was doing and what it meant, just as the psalmist had to remind himself of God’s works of old.

John needed to hear some good preaching. That doesn’t mean “being preached to,” which usually means being scolded and lectured about bad behavior. Good preaching focuses on the good news of what God has done and is doing for us.

The heart of that good news is Jesus Christ, and the message of Christ can be “news” to troubled and doubting people even if they’ve heard it a hundred times before. That is where faith comes from and where faith is strengthened and renewed. “Faith comes from what is heard,” St. Paul wrote, “and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”5

[1] Matthew 3:3.

2 Romans 3:28.

3 Matthew 28:5-6.

4 Psalm 77:8, 11.

5 Romans 10:17.

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