Year A; Advent 3; 12.15.2019
Have you ever sat in a high school or college class and had a burning question for the history teacher or the biology professor, but were too self-conscious and afraid to ask it? You might have doubted the validity of the question and told yourself you didn’t want to look foolish asking it.
Then, out of the blue, the smartest kid in the class asked the VERY SAME question – OUT LOUD. Instantly, you realized that it was a good question after all. I love teachers who announce at the beginning of class that “there is no such thing as a bad question.”
John the Baptist was the “smartest kid in the class” of the believers. He was in prison and wanted to know if Jesus was the one. He was the prophet and forerunner of Jesus, announcing to one and all to prepare the way for the anointed one from God.
We can’t blame him for asking a clarifying question. After all, he was called to be the forerunner of the Son of God and was calling all kinds of powerful authorities to account for their sinful lives. The “smartest kid in the class,” John the Baptist was asking the question that others dared not ask,
“Hey, Jesus! Are you the One? Or is there someone else we should be waiting for?”
John was doing his God-given job shouting truth to power, it got him thrown in prison and eventually beheaded. In the dank, dark prison of Herod’s palace, John calls out to Jesus in desperate and sad hope asking if Jesus is the ONE. My heart aches with John as he so plaintively calls out with a tidbit of hope, “Are you the one or are my hopes for the arrival of God’s savior going to be dashed?”
This is a question common to most all believers. In our creeds we say, “I believe in God, the Creator of heaven and earth: I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son.” But very many times the creed becomes a question. “Do I Believe in God? Do I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son?” Like John’s question, “Are you the one?” We really do want to believe…but there is so much pain, so much suffering, we wonder, “Can we believe?”
My spiritual director in seminary told me of a friend of hers, a deeply religious friend who at one point decided she didn’t believe in many parts of the Nicene Creed. She loved to come to church. She loved many things of the liturgy. But didn’t feel honest saying the creed without believing in it. So, my spiritual director suggested to her that while she was standing silently during the Creed with the rest of the congregation, that she let those around her say the words and do the believing on her behalf. She was much relieved to know and feel the belief from others.
I grew up learning about religion from my very religious Presbyterian maternal grandmother we lovingly called Mammy. I still have some of the prayers she gave me in her own handwriting. As a kid, I enjoyed being involved in my church and in my youth group in high school. Our little, unassuming youth group put on a play for the church with characters of a villain, hero, damsel in distress and can-can dancers. We planned, raised money and took a bus trip all the way across Kansas into the Rocky Mountains for a youth group ski trip!
But then I left home and went to college. It was freshman biology 101 that caused me to begin to doubt the core stories of the bible. I remember coming home from my first semester and proudly announcing to my mother, “I am an agnostic.” I told her that I now had enough scientific evidence from my biology 101 class that I no longer believed the bible story of Adam and Eve and the bible story of creation. I told Mom that I now believed in “the Big Bang Theory.”
My mother, who was never at a loss for words and who never held back her opinion, went silent. I continued to be proudly agnostic until I struggled emotionally after my father died. That was followed by a series of professional disappointments and marriage to John which did not have an easy start.
But it was making a habit of going to church together that helped me make a turn toward God. And it was at a Lenten retreat with the women of St. Joseph’s Church, Durham, North Carolina that I found myself in the Sisters of the Transfiguration convent garden asking, “Are you real, Jesus? If you are, will you show me who you are?”
And then gently, the image came to me – and I’m not one for visions or anything – but this was pretty clear. The image was of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, late at night, crying, scared, abandoned by his best friends. He knew he was already betrayed. He knew he would be arrested and put to death. I heard him say, “I DO NOT WANT THIS.” I saw how scared he was.
That day in the convent garden, the answer to my question, “Are you real, Jesus? Will you show me who you are?” was a God who was with me, REALLY with me in the flesh, a God who suffers with me. It occurred to me that God deeply wants to be alongside each one of us and that “alongside” presence is Jesus.
I believe “God is with us in the flesh” exactly what the word Emmanuel means, “God with us.”
Yesterday, the families and community of Sandy Hook, Connecticut marked the seventh year after the mass shooting in a service of remembrance of the 26 children and adults that were killed December 14, 2012, eleven days before Christmas. The stories of the trauma that day are wrenching. But one story written a few days ago by a mother of one of the survivors caught my attention. Her son is now 14-years-old and runs track at school. They now live in Maine. Her son survived because the shooter turned left into a classroom instead of right which was her son’s classroom. Even though her son survived the shooting, she writes of how her life has been changed permanently; her emotions once under control, now she says, “they are always at bay.”
She describes her tears as joy and gratitude, “…tinged with sorrow and mourning.” She writes, “Happiness comes with a painful edge as the mother of a survivor. I hurt for the other mothers. And yet, I am embarrassed, too. Will I be shunned for my big emotions? Do I even deserve to have them? Part of me feels like I need a permanent disclaimer tattooed on my arm: ‘Sorry I’m crying, my son survived a mass shooting.’ …No one tells you that when your child survives mass shooting, you never return to the person you were before. But I’m telling you now…Nothing can be the same again.”
There are so many things in our lives that we DO NOT WANT, NOR DO WE ASK FOR. John was imprisoned for telling truth to power, Jesus suffered in the garden. Innocent children died in an unfathomable evil act. The permanent sorrow and mourning of those who lost children and those whose children survived.
Atheists are born of less tragedy. And yet, in the season of Advent, we anticipate the coming of God to earth as one of us. We sing “O Come. O Come, Emmanuel” in Advent because our only hope is in Emmanuel, “God with us….God right alongside us….God crying, praying, suffering in every sense WITH us.”
So, today we ask you Jesus, are you the one?
How shall we prepare for his answer when it is YES?