The lectionary readings start with Isaiah 35:1-10, then Matthew 11:2-11 and James 5:7-10.
What a change from last week's lectionary reading (Matthew 3:1-12) where John the Baptist arrives on the scene wearing clothes made of camel hair, full of confidence in the new Messiah being the saviour of the Jewish nation. Today, we see him locked in a jail, which we believe is called the Fortress of Machaerus that was built on top of a hill. full of doubts: is Jesus really the Messiah? John sends his disciples to check.
It is okay to doubt. I was taken by my copy of Christian Writer, which had a quote from the American writer, novelist and Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner, who said, "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid." I believe someone counted 365 times the words "Do not be afraid" are written in the Bible, one for every day of the year, so clearly, that is a Biblical message for us to take heed.
On the same day, by chance, I was reading a magazine from Barnabas Aid and its editorial contained this: "We must remember that God is in control, that He who holds us in the palm of His hand will keep us by His power (1 Peter 1:5). He has inscribed our names on the palms of His hands to ensure that we are ever held in remembrance (Isaiah 49:16). Therefore, at the start of His 2020, let us remember that we are enfolded by God's mighty hands."
So, we have to hold in tension that we can doubt but that also ultimately we are loved and part of God's almighty plan. Thomas the apostle famously doubted, John the Baptist doubts.
When I am speaking to people about Christianity, two doubts often come up in conversation. Doubt 1: why does God allow suffering? To which I respond, do not blame God, why do WE allow suffering to happen? Doubt 2: do prayers work? My answer, prayer does work, sometimes not in the way we think and sometimes not in the timing that we want, and sometimes it might seem our prayers are not answered but that is because it is not in our best interest. From my experience of praying a lot, I would say our prayers are often answered. I do not know how it works, but then I do not know how gravity works. I accept the forces of gravity, therefore, I accept the spiritual forces of prayer. It is okay to doubt.
Jesus, annoyingly, does not say "Yes I am the one", yet rather "look and see." As we are told in the Isaiah passage, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will rise etc. but we have seen in Matthew's Gospel the raising of Jarius' daughter (9:22), the lame are walking (9:6), and the blind see and mute people shout for joy (9:27). So, Jesus is saying, look I am fulfilling Isaiah's prophesy. So, we have to look and see where Jesus is working in our world today; can we see glimmers of hope that help us confirm Jesus is very much alive?
Going back to my Barnabas Aid magazine, I see how they are helping so many Christians who live in persecution and it is heartening and humbling to see such faith in societies where it is dangerous to be Christians receiving hope.
We certainly need hope because, on the same day that I read Christian Writer and the Barnabas Aid magazine, I bought The Big Issue. It is a marvellous magazine to help the homeless, which has a strapline "Giving the homeless a hand up not a handout." Each official vendor receives a percentage of the profit, so they are business people. The magazine is of high quality but reminds us how many people are in debt. Salient figures are, "a third of Brits in poverty will borrow £200 to cover the cost of Christmas." "Collectively, the 3 million people in problem debt and the 10 million people on the brink will be pushed £3.5 billion deeper into debt this Christmas." It advises "186,183 three day emergency fund parcels were given out last Christmas by the Trussell Trust" and the expectation is the same this year, perhaps more. There have been "2.6 million people on Universal Credit as of October 2019." (The Big Issue, Issue 1388, page 23)
So, we have reasons to doubt but also reasons to hope. Coming up to Christmas, we remember the candles surrounding the Advent wreath of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. God uses the unexpected to fulfil his plans because, quite frankly, it seems ludicrous that the saviour of the world was born to impoverished parents in an occupied country and yet, God plans to establish God's eternal kingdom by reconciling us, who live in a broken world, to have a relationship with a God who created the universe. So, I have my doubts and yet I know that Jesus Christ was real and I have, as we all have, a part in God's plan to ensure there is hope for all God's children in a world of over 7 billion people, we can make a difference and ensure we start making changes that benefit others. We can stop the suffering and my prayer is that God gives me the situations where I can make a difference.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon