[This message was delivered the third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, at Pearce Memorial Church, using these texts: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11.]
Our Subaru with 87,000 miles needed new brake pads three weeks ago. Our mechanic did the job. Shortly after I drove away, the tire warning light went on. I drive cars a long time, so these warning lights don’t bother me much. I stopped at Costco, where they have free air. (Free air! What other kind is there?) I added a pound or two of pressure to each tire, getting them at the same pressure level. I drove away. The warning light stayed on. The next morning I took it to Van Bortel Subaru, where we bought it. About 20 minutes later the service supervisor came to me in the waiting area and said, “Harry, we have found the problem. Your rear right wheel and tire are from a Mazda. Someone is driving around Rochester with three Mazda wheels and one Subaru wheel. Until you find that wheel, the warning light will stay on.
I went out and looked at it. The Mazda wheel looks just like the Subaru wheel, the same spoke pattern, but the logo in the center cap was different. How didn’t I notice that the day before? I called my mechanic from right there. He said that sounded strange; he would think about it. The week before that, I had Mavis Tires rotate the four tires I had bought from them. I drove directly to Mavis and explained the situation. Maybe a Mazda had been right next to my Subaru. Then my phone rang. It was my mechanic. “Harry, get right over here.” I told Kevin at Mavis that he was off the hook and drove to Sparky’s. I walked in the waiting room, in which maybe four people can stand. There is a short scruffy bench along one short wall. I started to say something, when a man seated there looked at me and asked, “Subaru?” “Mazda?” I replied. “How did you know?” “After I was driving home yesterday, I heard a strange sound from the right rear of my car. I just drove it back here this morning.” “What does your Mazda look like?” “What does your Subaru look like?” Sure enough, they looked very much alike.
I learned to drive in the 1960s, when cars didn’t all look alike and there were no Subarus and Mazdas. We bought Fords or Chevys or VW Beatles and everyone could tell them apart. My mechanic made an honest mistake, a case of mistaken identity. John sends this question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Is this a case of mistaken identity?
John is languishing in a prison cell. In a short time, he will be killed, beheaded. Every so often we deal with circumstances that try and trouble our faith. A few days ago I received an email from a friend about a common friend in desperate need. That prompted my friend to write, “This is one of those stories where I want to say, ‘What are you thinking, Lord?’”
There is a consistent stream through the Bible of God’s people asking God the hard questions, and expressing disappointments and doubts, and not just Thomas.
- The most common question asked in the Psalms, the Bible’s prayer book, is “How long, O Lord?” That occurs about 20 times. No other question comes close.
- Heartbroken Naomi says to Ruth, “… this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.” (Ruth 1:13, “The Message”)
- After a healing, “… the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24)
- We go to the ultimate day in the faith: Easter, the day of Christ’s victory. In every Gospel account, there is doubt and disappointment. I look at Matthew, since I have been reading Matthew this Advent: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)
- And John the Baptist, God’s prophetic voice, the one who points everyone to Jesus, asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Why bring up such things at this time of year, when we are to be most joyful? Because living in hope means we will know disappointment. Because living with high expectations mean we will at times be discouraged. If the way of never being disappointed is to live without hope, I will always choose hope and accept times of disappointment. If the price for never being discouraged is to live without high expectations, I will not pay that price. If we take a close look at most of the people involved in Christmas, we see questions and doubts.
- When the angel told the priest Zechariah that his aged, barren wife was going to bear a son, “Zechariah said to the angel, ‘Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.’”
- “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Matt. 1:19)
- “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’ ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’” (Luke 1:29-34)
Disappointment is not the final word: we have good news. Isaiah tells us that “…the desert and the wilderness will be glad and rejoice and blossom… Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy…. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” In our wilderness times, Immanuel is with us. God is with us in Christ. We are not left alone in the wilderness.
Wilderness is an important biblical theme. The great Old Testament saving event, the Exodus, means a long wilderness journey. Right after Jesus is baptized, where does he go? The Spirit led him into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil. John’s ministry begins in the Judean wilderness and now he is in the wilderness of a miserable prison cell. I can understand him asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
When John’s question, this most piercing question, reaches Jesus, Jesus doesn’t upbraid or chastise him. Rather, he speaks highly of John: “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist….” Jesus can handle our doubts and disappointments just fine. Ask Thomas. Ask John. Ask the psalmist. Ask Naomi. Ask the slow-to-believe disciples.
Augustine, about 1600 years ago, wrote these words that speak to John’s question of Jesus and the great mystery of this season:
“The Maker … was made a man, that the ruler of the stars might suck at the breast; that the Bread might know hunger; the Way, be wearied by the journey; the Truth, be accused by false witnesses; the Judge of the living and the dead, be judged by a mortal judge; the Vine, be crowned with thorns; the Foundation, be hung upon the tree; the Strength, be made weak; the Health, be wounded. To suffer these undeserved things, the He might set free the undeserving….”
John asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus answers, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see…. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
This Advent I have been reading a poem a day from a book entitled “The Incarnation.” The poem of several days ago included these verses:
Is there power in God’s powerlessness,
In the humanity of God, which can penetrate our pride…?
So heaven rejoices in God’s downward mobility
And sings of peace on earth and glad tidings to all people….
And this shall be a sign of God’s humility:
‘You shall find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
(From “The Narrow Way,” by Thomas Ryder Worth)
Oh, great mystery. The paraphrase called “The Message” captures the mystery of God becoming one of us (in John1): “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son…. John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me….” This is the one.