“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3
I stopped by a garden center this week to pick up a couple of decorative items for the season. As I walked from the parking lot to the entrance, I could hear the beginning of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” playing through their sound system: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on your troubles will be out of sight…”
I got to the door just as the second verse started: Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay…” A man was exiting as I was entering, and so I paused to let him pass, just as the song got to the line “From now on your troubles will be miles away.” He was singing that line softly to himself, and as he did, he paused outside the door. A shadow passed across his face. His shoulders fell, and he made a little sound – hmm – a sound of resignation.
I said, quietly: “If only that were true, right?” He nodded, gave me a sad smile, and he walked away without saying anything more.
I don’t know that man’s story, but I do know this. His troubles, whatever they are, are not miles away. They’re very close by. And that particular song was reminding him of the difference between what he was hoping and what he was living.
Our friend John the Baptist is back this week. It’s hard to keep track of this guy, and it doesn’t help that our assigned readings keep jumping around in time. Last week we found ourselves earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. John was out there in the desert, pacing and preaching. He was urging folks to repent. He was baptizing hordes of people. He was calling the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He was getting people ready for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – preparing the way for the messiah.
Today we fast forward, and we find John in a much different kind of wilderness, both physically and spiritually. Today we find him in prison. He’s gotten tangled up in some royal politics. John had been bold enough to tell King Herod that it wasn’t right for Herod to steal his brother’s wife. Herod was a petty and vindictive man, so he received that criticism about as well as you would expect. Eventually, you may recall, Herod will have John beheaded.
What a change. From the wide-open desert to a prison cell. Here there are no crowds to inspire. There’s no fresh air to breathe, no river in which to baptize. There is only isolation and a loss of identity. In this moment John knows the difference between what he had hoped and what he is living.
I hear a heartbreaking uncertainty in the message John sends to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Out in the desert he had been so sure. He had pointed to Jesus as one more powerful than himself. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals,” John had said. But now he doesn’t sound so confident. Are you really the messiah, Jesus? Are you the one? How can I be sure?
This turn from confidence to uncertainty is even more moving when we remember how intertwined the lives of John and Jesus have always been. We learn in the Gospel of Luke that John was a bit of a miracle baby. His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were older and had been unable to conceive a child. Even before Mary gets her visit from an angel, Zechariah, who is a priest, encounters his own messenger. An angel shows up one day in the sanctuary to tell him that he and Elizabeth will be parents after all. The angel says that this child will have a holy purpose: He will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will help people turn toward God, to turn from disobedience to wisdom. He will prepare the people for the Lord.
Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary gets her own surprising news, and that’s the first place Mary goes. She runs to Elizabeth, where she is welcomed with open arms. The baby that Elizabeth is carrying – baby John – leaps for joy when Mary shows up. John and Jesus are connected even before they are born.
And of course John baptizes Jesus in the river Jordan. He doesn’t feel worthy of doing so, but it was the role given to him, and he does not run away from it. John had been given the job of preparing the way for Jesus. He embraced that role with purpose and with power.
So we really can’t blame him for feeling so disillusioned. He’s simply done what he was given to do. And now he’s not sure what to believe.
Maybe you’re at the point in this season when you are feeling that difference between what you’re hoping and what you’re living. Maybe your expectations for how wonderful you would feel at this time of year aren’t quite being met. Maybe you’re longing for something more, and try as hard as you can, you can’t seem to shop, bake, wrap, or decorate your way there. Maybe, like me, you are tired of all the gun violence and angry that yet again it has taken more lives, this time very close to us in Jersey City. Or maybe things are generally going well, but you wonder what else is out there waiting for you. Maybe you’re doing the things you’ve been given to do, day after day, at work and at home, but you’re having trouble seeing what it all means.
The writer Ross Gay talks about it in stark terms: “It astonishes me sometimes…how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow.”[i] He lists some examples that have touched people in his own life: “Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back.” He says it again: “Everyone, regardless…of everything.” He goes on to describe that sorrow as a great wilderness. It makes me think of the imagery in today’s Isaiah reading – the burning sand and the thirsty ground longing for nourishment.
Your longing may come from a different place. Financial pressures. Family squabbles. Worry about your kids. Pure exhaustion. And that difference between what you were hoping and what you are living might lead you to some doubts and some questions, especially at this time of year when everyone and everything keeps insisting that your troubles should be miles away.
Notice how Jesus responds to John. Jesus points to tangible experiences: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” Jesus doesn’t launch into a sermon or a long theological discussion. He simply points to what he is doing – healing people, sharing the good news with those who need to hear it most, bringing life to places of death.
Jesus is urging us in the midst of our longing and our sorrow to look for places where beauty and holy wonder are sneaking in. Sometimes we have to look closely or we might miss it. But it’s there. Those moments of human connection. Those ways that we give and receive love.
God works in and through our sorrows and our hopes to bring about the transformation that we also hear about in Isaiah: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
This transformation often happens in countless small ways – one drop at a time, if you will. It happens when you have bought and wrapped gifts for the families we have supported through our Giving Tree. It happens when you have donated toiletries and other needed items to the Hoboken Shelter. It happens when you serve in so many different ways that make our worship welcoming and beautiful. It happens when we pray for each other and care for each other.
Try one small thing this week. Think of one person who could use some water in the wilderness. Share some hope with that person. It doesn’t have to be something dramatic or big. Send a text. Give them some cookies with a post-it note. Drive them to the doctor. Call them.
Ross Gay also passes along some wisdom from one of his students, who planned to become a teacher and described how she wanted her classroom to be. This student, Bethany, thought about each person as carrying with them a kind of wilderness. And she asked this question: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?”[ii]
What if we joined our wildernesses together? What if we make sure that no one is alone in their sorrow? What if we point each other toward the moments where we experience the holy breaking into our lives? That’s how the water begins to flow in the desert. That’s how our thirst will be quenched. It won’t be because there is no sorrow or no uncertainty. It will be because God has created us to be in community with each other and to offer healing and hope in tangible ways.
Look around this wilderness that we share. Our troubles are not miles away. They are right here. But so is our God, who says do not be afraid; you shall have joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ