Posture: Responding to Questioning
For Advent, we are following an unorthodox path through some very traditional advent texts. As we read these scriptures each week, we are exploring the way we posture ourselves on account of what we are experiencing. In other words: how do we think differently or feel differently or otherwise change when we experience anticipation, challenge, questioning, fulfillment, and promise? And what does that mean for us as disciples of Jesus Christ?
This week, we attend to questioning. Specifically, I want to focus on the questions that arise within ourselves–our self-doubt, if you will.
In our text, John sends some folks Jesus’ way. He wants information–and he wants it discreetly. John, our text says, is questioning whether Jesus is in fact the messiah.
Now I cannot overemphasize how unsettling this is.
John is a relative of Jesus, and John’s own birth was filed with angelic appearances and divine promises. Their fates were intertwined before they each took their first breath.
When Jesus appears at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, he is immediately recognized as the one who “will wash you in fire and with the Holy Spirit” and who will thresh us within and without, gathering our wheat and burning up our chaff (Mt 3:11-12).
When Jesus indicates an eagerness to be baptized, John suggests it should be the other way around (Mt 3:14).
And as Jesus is baptized by John, God’s own voice echoes from the heavens for all to hear: “You are my son, whom I live; with you I am well pleased.”
So after all of this, John is really going to question whether or not Jesus is the messiah, the Christ? It’s staggering to think about.
But the fact is, there will be times in each of our lives where we come to doubt the things we are most certain about.
And there’s another piece too: As human beings, we tend to question ourselves when those we love question us.
When I was graduating from High School, I very nearly joined the marines. I had begun to feel God calling me to be a pastor, and like Jonah, I was running in the opposite direction. I couldn’t see that yet, of course, but others could. When men I loved like parents and grandparents (veterans themselves!) staged a sort of intervention, urging me to go to college first, it got me thinking. It got me questioning. And ultimately those questions led me to the truth of who God was calling me to be.
Jesus, remember, is a fully human being. He is God–and fully that, too–but he is immersed in a fully and completely human life, body, and existence. And I can’t help but wonder if John’s doubts about Jesus’ identity might have been a bit contagious. Was this, I wonder, one of those places where Jesus struggles with who he is?
Maybe we can’t answer that question with any certainty in this text, but there are other stories where the questioning and discerning of Jesus’ own self is more clear.
The first of those comes right after that baptism experience. As you may remember, Jesus is whisked off to the wilderness by the Spirit. In the wildernesses of our lives and world, resources are few and pain is magnified–yet these can be times of great spiritual growth and divine clarity.
Such is the case for Jesus. He is tempted three times, each one representative of a different future.
He is tempted to turn stones into bread–to use his miraculous power to satisfy his own interests. But if he can feed himself with stones, he could do the same thing for everyone else too. This temptation is to be a new Moses to Israel, leading them and feeding them (as with manna) once again.
But no, Jesus decides; this is not the kind of messiah he will be.
Jesus is also tempted to perform some amazing stunt. Is that the kind of messiah he should be? A sort of wonder-working, miracle man whose amazing performances would bring Jesus fame and fortune?
No, this too is not who Jesus will be.
The third identity Jesus wrestles with is being the most powerful ruler…[“Top Gear” style] of the world. As king of…well… everyone, just think what Jesus could accomplish!
But once again: no, that is not who Jesus will be.
Jesus will wield his power for another purpose, performing miracles cautiously, and resisting any attempts at political gain. Whatever kind of messiah he will be, will be revealed, but now Jesus has faced these questions, and has so resolved to live out something different.
A second story that reveals Jesus’ internal questioning and discernment may be found in Mark 7. It’s found in Matthew 15 as well, but the story is central to Mark’s telling of Jesus’ life and ministry. Up to this point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus has centered his ministry on Jews and only Jews. He’s teaching Jews, performing miracles among Jews, and healing Jews.
But in Mark 7, things are getting too hot for Jesus, and he slips out of country to fly under the radar for a while. But even outside the Roman province of Judea, word gets around. And a Gentile woman–not even a Semite!–comes around trying to get Jesus to heal her daughter.
Jesus flatly refuses. Jesus states clearly that his ministry is to Jews. And Jesus uses a derogatory slur, known from other sources to be one used by Jews of Jesus’ day to refer to “people like her.”
The woman, however, will not be deterred. She comes back at Jesus, showing her wit and determination. And for some reason, Jesus softens to her, and concedes to healing her daughter.
Now this might just look like a one-time thing–a weird story where Jesus doesn’t look or act or sound much like the Jesus we love and know. But I told you this is a centerpiece for Mark’s gospel, and it is. It is a turning point. After this, Jesus engages more and more with non-Jews. After this, Jesus starts talking about how God will act through him for all people. After this, Jesus grows into the Christ that looks much more familiar.
This confrontation–this time by a stranger and outsider–leads Jesus to question and reflect on the scope of his work. Through those questions, his ministry priorities shift and expand to include even you, and even me.
The third story of questioning is that of Gethsemane, recorded in Matthew 26. Jesus, if you will remember, is about to be arrested. He knows his time is up. He knows he’s headed toward death. And Jesus doesn’t like it.
Three times, the bible records Jesus asking God for there to be another way–any other way.
Three times, Jesus asks to be let loose of the destiny he foresees.
Three times, he prays with such an intensity that Luke says “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk 22:44). We always pray the hardest when we are the most desperate for our fate to change.
Three times, Jesus questions whether he has to go through with this, but his questioning only strengthens his resolve: “Not my will, but yours be done” (Mt 26:39).
Questioning–as you may have heard me say before–can never erode truth. Truth is truth and questioning and doubt can only prove it true.
If it is true that (barring abnormal interference), gravity will pull a dropped book to the ground [drop book], then gravity does not cease to operate simply because someone refuses to believe in it. No matter how genuinely you do not believe in gravity, the book will still fall.
Such it is with all truth. And Jesus–remember!–is “the way, the TRUTH, and the life” (Jn 14:6). If Jesus is the truth, then all truth comes from God, no matter what it’s source looks like here on earth.
Here’s the thing: Some of you may be uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus ever questioned anything about himself or his ministry. But these are some pretty clear places where Jesus asks God if he can do something else, or where what Jesus does in the future is changed by the encounters he has. If we’re going to take the bible at what it says, we’ve got to accept that–even as we wrestle with it.
The fact is we live in a world that is inclined to disbelieve. It is a world that will question us over and over, a world that will not be satisfied even by proof. If we pretend our faith is not open to questions–and worse, if we pretend to never question it ourselves–we will reveal our hypocrisy and irrelevance.
The fact is: even as we are called by God to step out in extraordinary ways, we may be filled with questions and doubt. That’s ok, I believe. Actually, that’s as it should be.
So what then do we do?
We live into our calling, being honest that it does not fit us. When we put on the mantle of Jesus, it’s a bit like being a kid and putting on your father’s suit jacket. It’s huge and ungainly and it makes us look so small and puny. It seems impossible that we could ever fit into it. There was a day that came when I (mostly) fit into my dad’s suit coat. And there will be a day when I will fit into the mantle of Jesus, too.
For now though, we can trust the truth of Jesus to stand up to our questions.
The truth of who Jesus would be could certainly stand up to John’s questions, even if it felt shaky at the time. When John sends folks to question whether Jesus really is the messiah, I have to wonder if it got to him. Maybe it shook Jesus’ own confidence in his ministry to have someone so close express such doubt.
But I also think Jesus realizes that he cannot really answer the questions in himself and from John. So instead of a straight yes-or-no, Jesus tells them to “go back and tell John the things you have heard and the things you have seen” (Mt 11:4).
Maybe the only real way to combat our inner questions is to live with both eyes open.
What have we seen? What have we heard?
When doubts meet evidence, we find certainty, at least for a time. When we see “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers cured, the deaf hear, the dead raised, and the good news preached to the poor,” we can understand a little more about the narrow path of discipleship and God’s mission. And when we participate in it, maybe others can come to understand about it all a little more too.
With God’s help, maybe we can live out that greatest teaching of all: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”