I recall asking someone who had recently lost their husband, “So are you cross with them?” There was a moment`s pause and then they said `”Yes”. It was the kind of reply which showed some relief about being able to just tell it like it is…… I mean, such feelings are actually more common that we might think but it`s helpful to acknowledge those moments when the circumstances and the feelings don`t match up. Times when we think we`re not supposed to feel this way, let alone admit it…. but there it is. She was cross.
And I sometimes think we go through a similar experience when it comes to faith. I sometimes hear people preface what they`re going to say with, “I know I shouldn`t say this but…” And they go on to speak of how they`re not sure what God may be doing; and how for them it`s just a succession of bad news and all the prayers in the world seem to make no difference in the world. It was beautifully described by the poet R.S. Thomas when he spoke of `Prayers like gravel flung at the sky’s window, hoping to attract the loved one’s attention`.
The sadness, I think, is in the way we castigate ourselves for this experience. Somehow we seem to have swallowed the idea that the way of faith shouldn`t be like this. This expression of the honest truth, our own `Honest to God` is perhaps the best prayer we`ve ever uttered but it doesn`t somehow feel like it. My own perspective, for what it`s worth is that this is a sort of spiritual anaemia. And it`s brought on by our lack of familiarity with, for instance, the Psalms. I know keep referring you back to them but they contain a huge heritage of prayer and in particular they allow us to give voice to our perplexity.
So for instance, they teach us that it`s alright to say things like:
“Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke.
Make the lightning flash and scatter them; send out your arrows and rout them.
Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters, from the hand of aliens, whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false”. Psalm 144
I mean, this is someone who is really just really letting rip…… But having this right there in the heart of the Scriptures tells you that clearly the Lord can take it. This is as much part of the journey of faith as any amount of well-being and contentment. Now my point is that one of the great gifts of the Advent Season is that we`re invited to get in touch with experiences like these and pray with them. This is a time of year when the great Advent themes of longing, anticipation, waiting in hope are all held in front of us so that we can make connections with the sometimes uncomfortable experiences and questions of life.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Take, for instance the way we sometimes say to people on meeting them; “So, how`s it going?” It`s a question that implies that there`s a narrative here; a story to tell. Now, the response is often “Oh, it`s going fine”, and that`s as far as it goes but alongside the times when we might say, “Yes, it really is fine…. And I`m glad of how work, family or whatever is progressing…. There are times when things aren`t so good and it feels as though it`s all unravelling. Things are not going well or turning out as we expected and we wonder, as we say, “What will become of us?” or “Where will it all end?”.
And if you`re really morose, rather like the TV character Victor Meldrew you might wonder whether it`s all been worth it. Whether in today`s parlance you`re life`s made any difference at all; or whether you`ve anything to show for it all…. Not very cheerful, I know, but I`m deliberately painting quite a dark picture because, as I say, even if you`re not regularly prone to this kind of depression it`s important to remember that there`s nothing wrong with those feelings in themselves. What matters is that we learn to pray with them.
And this, I want to suggest is how we`re helped by John the Baptist, in that reading we heard a few moments ago. (Matthew 11:2-11) He`s languishing in Herod`s jail. He`s spoken out once too often. This time he`s accused Herod of adultery; for taking his brother wife. And in a plea from the heart his message to Jesus is: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” From our perspective- and forgive me for putting it so bluntly- it`s tantamount to saying: “Are you God or not?” I`m in a mess here; what hope is there?
Now what John receives is a bit double-edged. The answer to his prayer contains both affirmation and a gentle rebuke. And I`m suggesting that maybe we should prepare ourselves for the same. The first thing to emphasize of course is that John is in prison. And this isn`t only physically true it`s also true metaphorically because John delivers a passionate plea to Christ which is loaded with assumptions about how he thinks Christ should be acting. In other words, John is imprisoned by the notion that Jesus would simply do the same things he`d been doing but with a bit more success. And you can`t help thinking that succession and picking up the baton is at the heart of Johns fretfulness.
But the sub-text of this exchange of messages is one of the key themes of Advent and which I`ve been putting before you all Autumn- the Big Picture of God`s purposes to re-create the world. You see John`s assumption is that Jesus has come like a new Elijah, the fiery Prophet but Jesus is saying, “No, John; that`s YOU. You are Elijah- the forerunner”. And he says to the disciples: ‘You 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`. And then he adds: `And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ That`s Bible speak for; “Don`t you tell me how to do my job”. And so those disciples will pass on a catalogue of things which describe, not Elijah but the outworking of what the prophet Isaiah promised; part of which we heard in our first reading this morning. Isaiah 35:1-10
Many years ago I served as Chaplain at my local Further Education College. It was a fascinating experience getting to know this vast institution. But I remember one somewhat tidy minded individual asking this Anglican Minister “So where do you fit in then?” He was clearly uncomfortable with someone who dressed strangely and politically I think he was uncertain about someone whose roving brief gave him access in one day to sherry in the Principal`s Office and a hot cup of tea with the Porter at the main gate. But if it was uncomfortable for him I don`t think he had begun to understand how challenging it was for me. Effectively bluffing my way into all manner of places. “Lurking with intent”, I used to call it….and with very little feedback that contact with this fascinating community was really worthwhile.
But it brought home to me how much fitting in and having our part to play matters to us. We want to know how we`re doing and we want to know the end of the story. And such things are understandable but they`re not always compatible with the way of faith.
When we find ourselves in John the Baptist`s predicament; when the future seems uncertain and prayer appears to yield little by way of an answer it`s traditional to reel off the standard scripture passages where God says inscrutably, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways …” and we just have to take it on the chin. But for what it`s worth I`m much more at home with that familiar passage in St. Paul`s letter to the Corinthians where he says, “Now, we see through a glass darkly….” It just seems to me that he helps us face our limitations with the promise that one day things will become clearer. We`ll see what it`s all been about. And later on he says, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain”.
These two passages hold together something of how Christ responded to John`s heartfelt plea- and I believe it`s often his response to our own perplexed cries to the heavens. On the one hand the invitation to acknowledge our limitations; we can`t see or know everything that’s going on. On the other there is encouragement to continue playing our part in the unfolding of God`s purposes. Our `labour is not in vain`.
John Henry Newman put it like this: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about”.