As the holidays progress, faithful people often aren’t really sure of what they’re supposed to be feeling. It’s only natural. What is real about Jesus? About a couple of unlikely parents, a manger, some shepherds and angels, followed by a life filled with a bunch of teachings? And how does that really relate to a modern, complex, often difficult life?
Many people struggle this time of year because of circumstances (illness, loss, economic difficulty) or depression, sometimes a sense of failure or an inability to live up to the expectations of others or of self. Set those troubles against a culture of seasonal perfection, and the ingredients have been assembled for a recipe of doubt and disillusion, with sides of hopelessness and a low spirit.
If it makes you feel better, John the Baptist seems to have similar doubts and questions.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘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.’ [from Matthew 11]
Our friend John was in prison for political reasons. As far as personal situations go, it’s hard to feel much lower than that. He’s the one who baptized Jesus at the beginning, but now we’ve skipped a year or two to this new pseudo-encounter. Maybe John is wondering if all that baptizing, wearing odd clothing, eating weird food, and preaching in the wilderness meant anything at all. It certainly hasn’t made John’s own life any better off.
So what’s the point? Has the whole trajectory of John’s adult life been for nothing? Has his strong faith brought him nothing? Has his work for the kingdom of God yielded nothing? Has this Jesus thing meant nothing?
He sends some of his followers to Jesus. Hey, Jesus, remember me? Maybe you don’t, but I’m your cousin who baptized you, and now I’m in prison. Maybe I thought you were somebody you’re not. Maybe I should see if there’s something, someone else out there who’ll bring God closer and make this a better world. Because so far, I’m not feeling it.
I like to think Jesus speaks softly when he talks to John’s friends. Go back and tell my cousin that things move in fits and starts, but there are always signs of hope. The signs that John’s work was not in vain are these: there are new signs of the kingdom—healings and justice for the poor. While he’s in prison, the effects of his labors continue. Even if he feels hopeless, there is hope among the people he touched.
Sometimes when we aren’t seeing the results we’d hoped for, sometimes when our lives aren’t the way we need and want them to be, we need to look a little differently at kingdom signs. If you felt a personal blow this year, look at those people and events that have brought you hope and peace. If you felt a political blow, look at the long arc of history to the people who’ve worked for justice and have seen success as well as setback. If you’re simply down because of the season, seek out stories of hope and find ways to center yourself in peace.
Hopelessness is, honestly, sometimes justified. But Jesus calls us to look differently in order to see what we’ve been missing.
So, doubt away. God doesn’t mind. Just don’t give up. Despite appearances, the kingdom is always on the move.
© 2016 Melissa Bane Sevier