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I fully adore the juxtaposition our readings today create:
The imprisoned John the Baptist, a scraggly, beaten man who is having a bit of a crisis of faith, desperately queries the universe the question on everyone’s minds, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or shall we look for?” This picture sits next to the one of a of a young Jewish girl, whose response to an absurd and epic visitation by an angel is calm and trusting. She responds with one of the greatest human songs in history, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices. Be it unto me according to your Word.”
Paired together they are doubt and promise; old and new; death and life. The combination is so very raw.
John’s very life began with a bang, having been prophesied into existence by an angel. John leapt with joy in his mother’s womb the first time he heard Mary’s voice. He grew up a prophet, preaching repentance and preparing the way for Jesus. Eventually, he even baptized Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace! John’s life is full to the brim with promise. He is a man who is not afraid to speak his mind and seems to trust in the provision of God.
What a story his life is. And yet, here, we find John squatting in a prison cell, awaiting to be beheaded.
This isn’t how the story should go.
We journey from darkness into light, from despair to joy, from death to life, from doubt to certainty.
John’s story is backwards. Has it all been for naught?
Are you the one we’ve been waiting for? Are you the one I thought you were? Are you the one I sacrificed everything for? Are you?
So, just suspend that for a moment, as we look at Mary’s life.
Mary’s life began modestly, unassumingly. No big bang for her. Her life is like that of any girl other girl in ancient Israel. She follows in her the footsteps of generations of women before her: she knows her place, she fetches the water, she tends the children. She is dutiful. Until the day the angel appears and everything changes. The gravity of her stunning response of, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” was likely unknown to her at the time.
Mary’s story has us dreaming wild dreams and patting our
bellies with anticipation.
She must’ve looked to her growing belly on many-a occasion and asked with wonder and hope, “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for? Are you?”
She would birth the Savior of the universe, she would watch him as he grew into himself and beam with pride at his conviction and compassion, her insides would slowly collapse with agony when he was taken from her and nailed to the cross, and she would fall to her knees on Easter morning in thanksgiving and praise. Oh, Mary, in her life she wept tears of love, worry, pride, grief, and longing… as only mothers can.
John and Mary’s lives confound us. Rattle us. Shake up our
faith. Make us ask, “Are you the one?”
What do we make of their lives this Advent season?
John gets his head chopped off. Sure, the blind saw, the deaf heard, and the poor received good news, but those joyful stories were not John’s. They never became his story. The justice and peace and promise he preached about all his life were never his to taste.
And, yes, Mary lives into Easter morning, but she did witness her son’s execution. However, the cross didn’t have the last word. The happily-ever-after ending was hers. The stone was rolled away, the babe (because he would always be her babe) was returned to her arms, the sun rose bright again in the sky.
Withstanding Easter morning, it’s hard to say which one of these had an easier life. Neither are really ‘okay’ stories.
And maybe that’s why we need these two to come and tend to us when we are about to meet Jesus again. Because many of our stories aren’t tied up beautifully with a neat little bow. Because we’re just trying to make it through December. Because prison bars don’t always give way, doubts don’t always resolve themselves, justice doesn’t always arrive in time, questions don’t always receive the answers we hunger for.
I desperately want Jesus to go to John and say, “Yes, of course, I am the one. It’s all going to work out just fine in the end,” instead of sending his disciples back with their vague, unhelpful answer of, “Let me tell you about this guy I know…”. I desperately want Jesus to offer him some assurance, some hope, some ‘something.’
After all, it’s almost Christmas. Ok. For John it’s not. I get it, but… couldn’t Jesus offer some proof?
And yet, there is no closure for John. And well, Mary has no idea what’s in store for her after she says yes. These aren’t clean, polite, neat stories. And, I think the gift we get in leaving them messy is the revelation that our ‘not okay’ lives are ‘okay.’
Maybe Jesus, in his divine forbearance and ability to
circumvent time, knew that we humans would clamor for answer and reasoning and
evidence… and so, he didn’t’ answer John.
Maybe Jesus already knew that sometimes there just isn’t an answer.
And maybe Jesus knew that HIS answer didn’t really matter.
Maybe it’s OUR answer that matters.
Maybe Jesus’ silence, Jesus’ acquiescence, Jesus’
submission to the world is his unstated answer:
Am I the one who is to come?
Am I enough?
Will you let me soothe your heart?
Will you let me rattle your life?
Will you tell my story through your broken and beautiful life?
The stories we see and hear, the stories we live, invite us to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world. To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice. To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.
To sing with Mary and rage with John.
To feel deeply, because God does.
Because, no matter how desperate the moment, we are
promised, time is on the side of hope.
Whether it is waiting out a prison sentence or ticking off the nine months of pregnancy.
Is He the one who we have been waiting for?
If you listen closely, I can almost hear Jesus whisper in
love, “You decide…
But, yes.” Amen.