John the Baptizer was imprisoned for criticizing Herod. I have no idea what prison was like in those days but it was sure to have been pretty miserable. In his prison cell John must have been wondering about his ministry and about the man he had welcomed as Messiah. He had talked of one who would baptize with fire, whose winnowing fork was in his hand to separate the grain from the chaff, and yet Jesus didn’t seem to be winnowing, let alone bringing down fire. Perhaps he had made a mistake -- perhaps Jesus wasn’t the one who was to come. John was full of doubt.
Many of us are deeply discouraged when we look at the world and see the tremendous need and the apparent lack of political will to really make a difference. It is easy for us to doubt God’s active involvement in creation. We ask whether the church or even Christianity itself has any relevance today. Perhaps it is a religion of the past which no longer speaks to the needs of today.
Recently we discovered that Mother Teresa lived with doubt and an arid spiritual life for many years. She wrote to her spiritual director, ‘…there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work’.’ Her calling to work amongst the very poor came in a series of intense encounters with Jesus but then once she started the work, it seemed as though God abandoned her and she lived in fear of abandoning God.
Some writers are suggesting that if a modern day saint can experience such deep and long lasting doubt, it may be proof that God does not exist, or that if God does exist, she is not very interested in us.
It seems that people in the first century were having similar doubts. The letter of James tells them to be patient until the Lord’s coming just like a farmer waits for a crop to come up. This is very different from Paul’s letter. Paul thought that the second coming was going to be tomorrow or next month or at the latest, next year. Obviously by the time James was writing Christ had not come again and people were beginning to wonder if they had been fooled.
When our lived experience challenges our theology we have a choice; to abandon our faith or to re-examine our theology. James tells us to be patient, but the word he uses does not describe a resigned patience but a gallant spirit that can turn the tides of doubt and sorrow and emerge with even greater faith. This kind of faith is one which expands and changes; one which says I know that God is faithful so what does this new situation tell me about God that I didn’t understand before?
John expected the Messiah to be a forceful and powerful political presence. He didn’t expect a preacher and healer. What do you expect God to do or to be? If God doesn’t keep everything running smoothly, maybe God is not a mechanic. If God doesn’t punish the bad guys, maybe God is not a cop. If God didn’t show up for Mother Teresa, maybe God is not the perfect date. What exactly is the divine job description?
When Jesus replies to John’s doubts he describes what he is doing in a way that ties it into John’s framework – the scriptural prophecies. When our doubts make us question, our tradition is rich enough that we too can reconsider what we’ve always believed and find new understandings of who and what God is. This is not remaking God in the world’s image, rather re-finding those aspects of God which speak to our need and the need of those around us.
We need a God who brings transformation, a God who responds to suffering, a God who is active in empowering those who redress wrongs, a God who is present. The birth of Christ -- God taking on bones, muscle and skin – speaks to us of God with us, God in the here and now. But we don’t live in first century Palestine. We don’t get to spend time with Jesus in the flesh. We don’t see the same miracles where ‘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.’
These things are happening today but they are happening through the agency of ordinary people. People have cataract surgery and see again, others have knee or hip replacements and can walk, modern medicines bring relief from leprosy and other skin conditions, hearing aids bring hearing; CPR can resuscitate those whose hearts have stopped and life support systems keep them going while their bodies heal. And with our help, organizations like Heifer and Episcopal Relief and Development bring good news to poor people.
Does this human activity mean that God is not active? Does it mean that God is not present? Does it mean that God is not necessary?
Did Mother Teresa’s inner darkness mean that God was not with her? Could she have done all that she did, and become a beacon for compassionate and selfless service if God was not with her?
Could St. Benedicts have continued to be a liberal and inclusive spiritual community through all the challenges of our life together if God was not with us?
God is with us. God is a vital part of our lives individually and as a people. Doubt is also an active player in our lives. It is doubt that keeps us moving onwards, seeking new understandings, new encounters with God. It is questioning that leads to new life, when we are willing to take the questions seriously, when we are willing to follow them where they lead. Mother Teresa’s faith kept her going, following the last thing she knew God had said to her. Our faith keeps us going, even when God turns out not to be the person we thought we knew.
We can help one another cultivate that robust faith that James calls patience. A robust faith which takes fear, pain and sorrow in its stride, not ignoring them but doing what can be done and leaving the rest in God’s hands. This is the call of Advent. We rejoice in our knowledge that the Messiah is coming. We long for God’s presence to break through into our world in an entirely new way, and we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in you and in me. And we exercise and develop the muscle of our faith so that when doubts come, when God behaves differently from we expect, when things we have relied on fall away, we can keep going on until the darkness is replaced by light and God’s presence once again breaks through.