My youngest is perhaps the most confident person I have ever met. He is nothing if not convinced of his ability to do just about anything. He lives life self-assured, self-reliant and maybe the slightest bit delusional. Because no matter how often reality proves that he isn’t as capable as he thought, he isn’t willing to let go of the vision he has of himself. As being the best at everything.
A couple of days ago, the advent reading I did mentioned the story of John the Baptist. John reminds me of my son. He was loud and certain, and convinced. (He also wore the skins of dead animals and ate locusts and honey, so John and Pace are quite different in some fundamental ways too.)
John drew the crowds in, grabbing their attention, and his fiery preaching kept it. He stayed on the fringes of the city, the people coming out to him, to hear his message of repentance and staying alert, of taking notice of what was happening around them, and ultimately of a Messiah, who was so close to coming on the scene, the excitement buzzed in the air around them. John was the forerunner. The spokesperson. The opening act.
“Just you wait,” he would tease the crowds. “You think this is impressive, someone else is coming after me, and he is the real deal. The one you’ve been expecting,” his confidence leading others to feel confident too.
But the reading I did for Advent the other day showed a side of John we don’t usually talk about. He had been arrested by Herod, (something having to do with the fact that he was calling Herod out for the less than exemplary marriage model he demonstrated—having his brother killed and then marrying his brother’s wife.) This didn’t go well. No one likes to be told they’re wrong—especially this maniacal king. So John find’s himself in a jail, a man who lived in the desserts and open air, in the expanse of land and un-bordered space, behind bars. Locked inside. A personality large and imposing and commanding, shrunk town and contained, and quieted.
He sends a message through his followers to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one we have been waiting for?”
It’s an interesting question coming from the guy whose only job in life was to announce the Messiah. And now, here is, questioning everything. His voice seems smaller in the cell, having withered along with his confidence.
“Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?”
Having not grown up following a liturgical calendar, when I do some readings now as an adult, I find myself wondering on different days, why this passage? Why this scene? What does this have to do with Christmas?
That’s what I thought when I first read about this hairy man dressed in animal skins, untamed and wild, now doubtful in his chains.
But the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. We approach this time of year with wonder and waiting, with expectation and growing excitement. We know what happens December 25th; we are certain the angels will come and we are certain of what they will say. But not all of the ways we wait and hold space in our life—waiting for the illness to go away, for the relationship to be mended, for the addiction to be overcome—lead to a steady ascent to a big day when everything falls into place. It is hopeful one day and angry the next. It is certain one moment, less convinced the next. It is days where you announce the coming of the Lord and days where you ask the Lord himself if he is in fact the one you once felt so sure was the Messiah.
John is all of us. Confident, hopeful, certain. And then scared, confused, and questioning.
Jesus sends a message back to John through his disciples.
“Tell John what you hear and what you see. The blind receive sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor have good news brought to them.”
It’s interesting, right? Because of all John had done for Jesus, I bet there was a part of John wondering if the message would include something like, “And just wait! I’m gonna get you out of that cell. Herod won’t know what hit him. Then you’ll know for sure. I am the one you’ve been waiting for.”
But the assurance wasn’t for John’s personal circumstances. It was on the larger scale. It was evidence of a turning of the way things had been. In disabilities defining worth. In calamities determining social status. In economic stature holding people back. It was a message to John, but it wasn’t a message about John. And then Jesus ends with this phrase that I always thought so strange.
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
He’s smarter than we think. Jesus knew John was looking for a personal miracle. John was Jesus’ cousin. John had long been preparing the way. John had every right to expect Jesus would come through and reward his diligent work and his faithful service.
But he didn’t. In fact, it isn’t much longer before John is beheaded. And Jesus essentially says to John, “You aren’t getting the miracle you hoped for. It’s going to end for you in a way that isn’t fair and isn’t right and it’s a far less happy ending than the formerly deaf, lame, sick and poor. But will you still believe?”
The darkest times of night are the moments before dawn. When you’ve held on for so long and so tightly you nearly forget what you were hanging on for. That’s the reading of John at advent. Days away from the birth. The sun taking longer to rise, the sun moving faster to set, the space of light between the two shrinking and collapsing in on itself.
The message of John is a message to keep holding on for what we know Jesus can do and sometimes will do—if not for us, than for others, if not right now, than a different place. It’s a message of hope in the darkest part of night, when it hits us, the answer may not come like we want, but do we still believe the message is true? It’s the permission to say to God, “You aren’t behaving like I thought you would, like I hoped you would, maybe even like I expected you would.” And then asking, “Are you really the one?”
What faith to have your miracle denied, but your confidence reinforced. To air your frustrations and your disappointments and your wondering, and to say, “I didn’t get my miracle, but it turns out, I don’t need it as much as I thought I did. I still want it. I’ll still ask for it. I’ll keep waking up and begging and praying and crying out for it. But the advent we wait for and the advent we celebrate, isn’t the miracle of it all turning out the way we want, but the miracle of a God we still believe is good even when it doesn’t.”
I know because Pace talks big, he can fall hard. The shock and surprise at discovering he isn’t always as capable as he thought he was, is heartbreaking every time. I suspect John was the same way. Feeling foolish, embarrassed, maybe even duped, because he had talked such a big game, but now look where he was.
But I think Jesus has a soft spot for people like John, for people like Pace, who believe so deeply, and hope so fervently, that the shock when things don’t go the way they want, is real and the disappointment is deep. But advent is a way to hope for something new, wait for something than can be certain no matter what. A God who flips the script. A God who is better than we imagined even when the circumstances turn out worse than we imagined. A God with us. In the desert and in the cell. In the hoping and in the doubting. In the waiting and the arriving. God is with us.