A blood-red sun has peered down through growing gloom, smoke-filled skies and building (rainless!) clouds through this week. Driving along Victoria Road on Tuesday provided an apocalyptic vision. Dense smoke-filled skies closed in and filled eyes, nose and lungs. It was a ready and constant reminder of the catastrophe that has unfolded across our state and beyond.
A colleague who has been working as a chaplain within the fire-ravaged communities shared stories of pure desolation and despair – drought upon fire leaving nothing in its wake. Lives lost and the living helpless before the ravaged land and enormous task before them. It is deeply and overwhelmingly difficult!
‘Across the ditch,’ our Kiwi neighbours have experienced the next in a long line of tragedies and suffering as the White Island volcano erupted and wreaked its own havoc upon innocent and curious visitors. A sad and grieving ship set sail without passengers whose lives were lost or who were hospitalised. Fun and excitement, anticipation turned desperate pain and chaotic tragedy. Christmas is coming!
This Sunday, of all weeks, is traditionally called Gaudete, which means ‘Joy!’ It is a week of respite in the season of Advent that leads us into Christmas, a time of preparing and hearing the messages of the darkness in a world yearning for light, hope and joy. Our Churches read from stories of historical struggle, nations under a variety of oppressive regimes, wrestling and yearning for life and freedom – Babylonians, Romans…
Into this unveiling of the complex paradox and mystery of life, we read from Matthew 11:2-11, which tells of John the Baptist, our strange and elusive, firebrand of last week, now imprisoned. The powers of the world have caught up with him and his honest, confronting words (‘speaking truth to power’ as they say) have brought him undone. He told the local king he was essentially immoral for rejecting his wife and taking his brother’s wife for his own. John bides his time in prison, having paved the way for ‘the One who comes after me.’ In his prison cell he wonders what has happened? Things don’t seem to have turned out as expected!
After his bold and brassy proclamation of the path of God into the world, he wastes away in prison. Is John the only one who has done good, given himself to the highest ideals and found himself punished for the experience? Certainly not and John’s life appears to have a somewhat familiar backward trajectory. Whilst many testimonies take us from darkness to light, unknowing to knowing, uncertainty to faith, John wonders aloud if he has thrown his hat into the wrong ring. Is the one he baptised and believed in, the one he put his hope in, actually the right one? John expresses the doubts that fill his mind and being. Have I done the right thing? Have I believed the right one? The bold certainty that filled his open-air preaching and radical words, his sense of authority last week, seems to have deserted him this week. Is this the right one?
John sent his followers to Jesus to ask that very question: Are you the one or is there another? This is a question filled with doubt, uncertainty, confusion and probably self-doubt. John has gone from certainty and bold confidence to doubt, confusion and questions within his prison cell. His clear and certain message, his opening the path of Jesus, did not result in the transformed world he possibly imagined. Jesus and he were the same and different. Jesus did not look like John, sound like John and ultimately what he did and how he did it appeared different – was he really the one John expected, John yearned for; the one promised from God?
Often when we are confronted by such questions or confusion and doubt, such a despairing life, we do not attribute faith, hope or joy. Joy may well be the last thing we associate with John, rotting in a prison cell and wondering whether his life has achieved anything of worth. We gain a glimpse, in John, of the desperate and despairing communities in the aftermath of ravaging bushfires. There are people whose lives lie in ashes, asking themselves and the world, ‘Why?’ Asking, ‘Where is God? Why did God allow this?’ In such god-forsaken spaces, people cry and lose hope, they ask questions, often hard and intense, confronting questions that challenge and discomfort us. When John confronted Jesus through his disciples, Jesus received his angry or desperate despair gently and with understanding. Such doubt becomes the crucible into deeper awareness of the complexity, paradox and harshness of life. Sometimes the endings are not ‘happy’ but in the darkness emerges a gentle light that despite all evidence before it, gives a glimmer of something approaching hope and even joy – in the midst of struggle..
In this story, Jesus offers his own story about lame walking, deaf hearing, dead finding new life, the poor receiving good news and invites John’s followers to share their stories and where they have encountered God in the lightness and darkness, the ordinary and profound of human life. It doesn’t change the reality of John’s own experience and consequent death at the hands of a brutal, angry, fearful king. It holds John’s own unique life in the struggle, paradox and mystery that is God and within the complexity of human story and history. John will die and there is no rhyme or reason, no reasonable, rational explanation for the injustice. In this individual life injustice and evil have won – except, John is remembered! His story is not a limited one that has no meaning. His words are proclaimed year after year, and we are confronted by his stunning, radical challenge.
John is also held within a deeper, richer continuum of life beyond life. In the life of God, we have a deeper, richer, fuller existence that transcends the materiality that consumes our being in this current reality of physical presence. The story of Jesus points us to the Eternal Christ who is revealed within and through Jesus of Nazareth whose life fills the pages of our Bibles and comes to us in simplicity and mystery in Christmas. The Eternal Christ always was and will be and is revealed within the life of all things (Colossians 1 and 3) and especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus’ response to John is to allow the vulnerable, painful questions, the confusion and despair to be expressed and embraced into the larger story of grace, compassion and justice that unfolds in mysterious ways as God’s Reign breaks into human life. It doesn’t answer the specific questions we have around justice for all. It doesn’t resolve our anger or despair in the experience of our own pain and grief. It simply says that as chaos seeks to take hold in our world grace intrudes and love’s face is glimpsed, and its warmth felt. As it radiates out and draws people in, something in the world changes and there are moments of hope and joy. Jesus’ story draws us into the eternal story where the mysterious life beyond life in the Divine heart welcomes all. That vision can change us now as we embrace pain.