Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

When Faith Falters

3rd Sunday of Advent


Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Isaiah 35:1-10;  Matthew 11:2-11


Last Sunday, we saw John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry. Full of vim and vinegar, out in the wilderness, calling people to change their ways, denouncing religious leaders as snakes, preparing the way for the imminent coming of the Messiah.  Today, we read of a more subdued John.  He is in prison and we know that he will die there.

John is facing the end of his life, in prison.  He is there because he did the moral thing.  He spoke truth to power, criticizing Herod Antipas who had divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife.  Antipas was afraid of John’s popularity and arrested him to shut him up.  Matthew says that when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee, establishing a base in Capernaum which is north of Judea.  John is imprisoned at Herod’s fortress Machaerus, which was on the east side of the Dead Sea.  John may well have thought that Jesus was fleeing, putting as much distance between himself and John as possible. 

Shut up in the dark and damp of an underground prison, John is undoubtedly scared.  Being afraid of the tyrant Herod Antipas is the smart thing to do.

But his fear is not as evident in this text as something else that he is feeling. How would we name that?   Is it abandonment – because Jesus did not to come help him?  Is it betrayal – that Jesus had not spoken out against Herod in the first place which had led John to do it himself?  Is it deep disappointment or doubt – because Jesus has not lived up to John’s expectations? 

Jesus has a way of doing that, not living up to expectations I mean.  About 200 years before Jesus, there was a revolt led by a man named Judas Maccabeus against the Greeks.  That victory is what is celebrated in the Jewish feast of Hanukkah.  When John appeared in the wilderness, many Jewish people were expecting a military savior like Judas Maccabeus.  Jesus did not meet those expectations. 

John was expecting a spiritual leader, a mighty prophet who would shake up the religious establishment and help the people return to true worship and faith.  Maybe John had bought into the myth of redemptive violence.  Maybe he thought that Jesus would lead a revolt, arming the common people against their oppressors in a justified Holy War.  Or maybe he thought that Jesus would be such a charismatic leader that he would get the religious movers and the shakers to straighten up and fly right, and together they would bring about a non-violent revolution. 

The stories that come to him now about Jesus doesn’t sound like any of that.  There is nothing about axes being laid to unfruitful trees, nothing about winnowing forks, and certainly no fire being called down from heaven.   Instead, Jesus seems to be spending his time with the lame, the poor, the diseased, the dead – not exactly the power-brokers who can get things done. 

In prison, expecting to die at any time, John wonders if he was wrong about Jesus, wrong to proclaim him as the Messiah.  His faith falters.

So he sends his disciples to Jesus with a simple question “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”  “Jesus, give it to me straight:  Was I wrong about you?  Are you the Messiah or not?”

Please note, if you ever feel that Jesus has abandoned you, let you down, not lived up to your expectations, remember this – you have that in common with John the Baptist. 

John sends that question and Jesus sends back an interesting answer.  “Tell John,” he says, “that that the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear.”  Perhaps this is a coded message which John would understand, but his captors would not.  This is almost a direct quote from Isaiah 35 which John would know by heart. 

Maybe Jesus wants him to remember the rest of it. “Remember, John, as you sit there, in that cell—cold, hungry, thirsty, waiting for your inevitable execution—remember the promise that came to our people at the darkest, most frightening moment in their lives, the worst moment in our history, when a cruel and powerful enemy was about to attack and kill and defeat and imprison and exile. Remember, They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. . . .”[1] 

The passage which Jesus quotes also says,

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear!"

There seem to be a number of people with shaking hands and weak knees just now.  If we are among them, if our faith is faltering, we also need to hear these words “Be strong, do not fear!”

It is interesting that Jesus did not respond with a decisive “Yes, I am absolutely the Messiah.”  John has to decide for himself.  There’s an irony here.  John spent much of his time urging people to change their thoughts and behaviors, in order to prepare for Messiah.  But now, John is the one whose ideas have to change if he is to accept the Messiah.   

Jesus says, “Tell John what you see. . .” and then he adds “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”   Or maybe even “blessed are those who don’t get offended when I turn out to be someone very different than they expected.”

Presbyterian preacher and scholar Tom Long says that this verse “warns that the presence and activity of Christ is always surprising, precedent setting, agenda shattering, and thus potentially offensive.  Anyone who expects the work of God or the work of Christ’s church to be safe and free of controversy simply misunderstands the nature of Christ’s mission in the world.  It will never be neat, tidy and pretty, and there will always be controversy swirling around it.”[2] 

“Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”  It is a blessing statement, a beatitude.  Jesus gave a list of beatitudes in chapter 5.  It ends like this, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Blessed are you, John.   You were arrested for doing the right thing?  Yours is the kingdom of heaven.  You find yourself in prison?  So did the prophets.  You are in good company.  You did exactly what God called you to do.  Blessed are you if you can handle the surprise, the shattering of your agenda, the re-working of your categories to embrace the Kingdom of God which is coming near.

“God bless you.”  We say that to unsuspecting strangers when they sneeze.  “Have a blessed day.” I often hear that on answering machines or voice mails.  What does “God bless you” actually mean? Much of the time it is a general wish for the good life – health, wealth, comfort, the respect of others.

But that almost never seems to be the blessing of God. This is the time of year when we remember Mary, to whom the angel said, “Hail favored one.”  Favored one.  Blessed one.  This is the time of year when we think about Elizabeth, whose prayers for a child were finally answered.  Mary’s blessing was to conceive out of wedlock.  Elizabeth’s was to bear a child after menopause.  They raised good men, righteous men, and both for them were executed for doing the right thing.  This is the Biblical notion of blessing.

It should come as no surprise that sometimes we don’t want to be favored, don’t want to be chosen.  We cling to our well-ordered lives and carefully laid plans and say “No thank you” to the sort of blessing God offers.

Maybe Jesus is saying, “John, the good news is ‘you’re blessed.’  But the bad news is ‘you’re blessed.’ 

That kind of blessing is the cost of real discipleship.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man [or woman], he bids them come and die.” 

This happy text is what the lectionary serves up for Joy Sunday, two weeks before Christmas.  What are we to do with it?  I guess we have to do what John had to do – decide for ourselves, probably not for the first time, if Jesus is the one we follow or if we should look for another.

And as we do that, I offer two final thoughts on the nature of joy.  The words of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw which come back to me time and time again, “This is the true joy in life – being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”

And the words of the Rev. Frederick  Buechner,  The grace of God means something like:  Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you.”[3]

Beautiful and terrible things will happen. 

But, strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

Don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid. 

Don’t be afraid.

I am with you. 



[1] These lines are from “Fear Not” a sermon by the Rev. John Buchanan, preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on December 16, 2001


[2]  Thomas G. Long, Matthew:  The Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 125-26. 

[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (New York:  Harper & Row, 1973).