What if. . . John Had Never Asked?

by | Dec 17, 2023


Meg Peery McLaughlin
What if. . . John Had Never Asked?
December 17, 2023
Matthew 11: 2-6

This week the staff had our Christmas party.
So let me start with thank you. For on your behalf,
the Personnel Committee catered a beautiful lunch for us (you love your staff well).
Jarrett and I hosted it in our home, and before we ate,
I asked Joey if he’d play a hymn for our blessing.
He picked the hymn we sang as our opener today—for the third Sunday of Advent-
Prepare the way, O Zion, your Christ is coming near.
Let every hill and valley a level way appear.

I don’t know if it’s just a peppy hymn,
or if our piano is so out of tune that Joey was hurrying it along
to put us out of our misery,
but we all finished sort-of breathless.

At which point, Dennis Dallke,
who loves this church so much that he is still doing some part-time facilities work with us, and who grew up a Methodist preacher’s kid, Dennis said,
Well that’s not a Methodist song.

I assured him that when he and his wife Becky join the church next month,
he’ll be Presbyterian and get to sing it every year.

And sing it we do because it reminds us of one of the Christmas story’s most indispensable characters: John the Baptist.

Two weeks ago, Jarrett told us of John’s parents.
Remember Zechariah, the priest who went into the holy place with his threadbare prayer for a child, and came out silent. Well, Zechariah was married to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. When the angel dropped the news on Mary that she too was expecting, and with God’s own son, Mary immediately ran to her trusted cousin. Both pregnant at the same time, they processed the news of God turning the world upside down.

So it is no wonder that John and Jesus grew up close.

The scriptures speak of John the Baptist as the one calling out in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John is the messenger who goes ahead to make the way
for Jesus who is coming right behind.

So, of course we sing John’s song—breathlessly and urgently.

Every year we join John in saying– Prepare the way!
We listen in on John preaching that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
So that we can get ourselves ready for it to break in.
We remember how John pointed straight at Jesus
and said “Behold the Lamb of God.”

And because of all this, I want to warn you that our scripture today may seem odd,
for John the Baptist does not sound like himself.

As approach the text, let us pray:
Speak a word we need to hear, O God.
And settle us now into a place where we can actually hear it.
Hear it, and have it transform us. Amen.

Listen for God’s word for us from Matthew, chapter 11.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing,
he sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus,
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:
5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear,
the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

John’s question haunts me.
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
He sounds exhausted—
please tell me this has not been a complete waste of time.

It’s reminiscent of the parent asking the doctor
“is that the best treatment plan you have, or is it time to seek a second opinion?”
the spouse asking “do our vows still mean what they once did,
or have you already made up your mind that it’s over?”

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

John asks the question from prison.
He used to be wild and free and baptizing people and eating artisanal locusts far off the grid. He used to feel the water and sand of the Jordan pool around his toes .
Now his reality is four walls – dark, dank, lonesome.
But I don’t think it’s a self-pitying question.

Outside his cell,
the world didn’t look to John’s eyes
any more redeemed than it had when he’d first gone to the desert to start his ministry. The prophet Isaiah must have had it wrong.
The crooked paths weren’t any straighter.
The rough places weren’t any smoother.
The mountains and valleys were just as high and low as they’d always been .

If the Messiah had come and made any difference at all, John couldn’t see it.
All he could see was that Herod and Caesar were still on their thrones
doing just as they pleased.

I know we lit the pink candle on the wreath today. The candle of joy.
And it burns bright, as it should.

But what if?
What if alongside the joy there was no room for doubt?
No room for disappointment?
What if John had never asked?

Scholar and teacher of preachers, Anna Carter Florence, says in her new book that John the Baptist believed his haunting question was worthy of respect.
He didn’t bury it, he voiced it.
John stood up and reached out to God, expecting to be addressed in return.
Anna said, sometimes that’s the bravest thing a person of faith can do.

As a parent who brings her children to church,
(okay, as a parent who hires babysitters to bring her children to church)
there are many conversations about what’s allowed.

“No, you cannot chew gum in church,” I’ll say to my kids “but sure,
wear those sneakers with your Sunday dress.
No toys that make noise, for the love,
but yes, that book is a good quiet choice. Go for it.”

John asked:
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
What if we weren’t ever allowed to ask this?
What if we were never given permission to ask something so hard in church?

Many scholars tell us that the significance of this moment in John’s imprisonment is mainly that it foreshadows Jesus’ own, and those scholars have a point.
Like John the Baptist, Jesus will eventually be arrested and executed too.

John prepares a certain path for Jesus to walk.
And, if I understand the text,
John also prepares Jesus for a certain reality–
the time will come when Jesus, too,
will question his life, question his ministry, and question God .

My God, my god why have you forsaken me?
Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?

John, from the depths of a cell,
Jesus, from the height of the cross
hold nothing back from God,
and thus they
prepare the way for us.

The prepare the way for
those of us who, at one time or another, have struggled to see
the peace, hope, joy and love of these advent lights;
for those of who live in something that feels like a prison;
for those of us who have to really squint to see the presence of God.

One of the things I love about scripture is that
when John asks his haunting question, Jesus doesn’t shut him down.
He doesn’t say, How can you of all people ask me that?
There is no shame. No shame.

Jesus simply says,
Go and tell John what you’ve heard and seen.

Go and tell him.
Not go and convert or convince or coerce him.
Just go and tell.
Jesus says, tell him that
the blind receive their sight,
the lame walk
the dead are raised
the poor have good news brought to them.

I wonder, church.
What if . . . we participated in that telling?

What if we simply described where life is punctuated by the holy?
What if we noticed and named where this story of God’s love touches down for us? Around us? In spite of us? Through us?

How in this little corner of Chapel Hill:

How hoards of curious Presbyterians showed up to hear some Sunday school lectures on what is happening in Gaza because the hunger for peace is so strong,

How 300 meal bags were packed and delivered to food insecure families of Chapel Hill Carrboro students

How mental illness and addiction and dementia and grief are not barriers to giving and receiving love in this place

How friends drop off meals into coolers on porches or at the ends of driveways for those transitioning to health, to heaven

What if we went and told where we are noticing the presence of God here?
And in our own lives?

Last week, I got an email from UPC member, Bob Rizzo.
He shared with me an article from NPR about Oxford University’s Word of the Year.
Because I am decidedly uncool, I’d never heard the word.

The word is Rizz.
Which of course made Bob Rizzo very proud. And rightfully so.
The word comes from charisma,
which no one would accuse the Presbyterians of having much of.

The NPR people said rizz is about your energy
and your ability to connect to other humans.

But when you do a deep dive into the etymology of the word charisma,
it’s a spiritual gift, a power divinely conferred—and in latin kharis means grace.

So perhaps we could have a bit of rizz –
not the kind that helps you feel at home in the middle of a party
– but the kind that enables us to go and tell
about the grace we’ve experienced.

Jesus’ response to John’s question
does not remove the darkness.
John still sits in a prison, and Herod is still on the throne.
And Jesus will face the cross.

But when Jesus says go and tell him
That the blind see
the dead are raised
the poor have good things,
he is pointing to the light in the midst of the darkness,
light that no darkness can ever overcome.

So, what if? What if we joined in to say
that the table is open
that the children are welcome
that the love is unconditional
that the light of joy flickers still

and that the grace of God is big and sturdy enough
to hold the biggest, most haunting questions of our hearts.