“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3 (NRSV)
A little doubt can creep into Advent just about now. A little bit of wondering – as we celebrate the Prince of Peace, where exactly is the peace?
Here we are, halfway through our journey to Bethlehem, and we are busy proclaiming promises of hope, peace, and joy. But there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Unless we are not paying attention, we can’t help but notice there is a distinct lack of these gifts all around us. And it could cause us to wonder – do we have the story right?
The nagging doubts and poignant questions of an imprisoned John touch my heart. I imagine the scene – here is John, who has devoted his life to the Messiah, first by waiting for him and then by preparing the way for him. John joyfully shouted to anyone who would listen, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3). John was privileged to stand in the River Jordan with Jesus and overwhelmed by the honor of baptizing him. John witnessed the heavens opening and the dove descending. John heard the voice of God proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
But now the party is over. Jesus went on to his ministry and John finds himself in prison. A first-century jail would be a bleak place in any circumstance, but when a tyrant is the jailor and murder is on his mind, it was particularly grim.
Is it any wonder that John’s last recorded words are formed as a question? Was I right? Did I back the right horse? Did I spend my time, my energy, and all my abilities on the truth?
Here is John’s final, urgent request – Tell me now, before it is too late. Are you – really – “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John needs to know if his time and efforts have been in vain. It is a question that we might ask ourselves as we see endless signs of corruption, violence, discrimination, and loss during a season that celebrates comfort and joy. It is a question that might nag at churches with dwindling congregations and diminishing influence. As we light candles and speak of hope, does doubt ever seep in?
And yet. Jesus reassures John – and us – with his powerful reply; “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).
Yes, God is present. Not always in the way we expect. Not always on the timeline we anticipate. Not always with neat and tidy results. But life-giving, hope-producing, heartwarming change is going on right now. If we look, we will see it.
Maybe we, like John, need someone to point it out for us. And maybe then we can rejoice and say, “Look! God is in our midst!” May that truth give us the courage to carry on.
Faithful God, I believe. Help my unbelief. And help me be a messenger of your hope. Amen.
(This reflection was first published in “Starting with Scripture” by the CT Conference of the United Church of Christ)