TO MY TRAVEL COMPANIONS:

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John Baptist is an outstanding New Testament figure – a prophet and herald (or fore-runner) of Jesus. He presided over a huge ‘revival’ among the Israeli people, baptizing crowds of them in the River Jordan, as a sign of their repentance. Remarkable, heady days which peaked with a visible manifestation of the Spirit (in the form of a dove) and an audible voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism ! Check out the story in Matthew 3 or Luke 3.

And yet … Matthew 11 records a distasteful moment of uncertainty in the later life of  “The Big Dipper”.

Then, a prisoner of King Herod, John learns of the miraculous ministry of cousin Jesus – news which arouses significant questions in his mind … “Is He really the One I proclaimed Him to be – the Lamb of God, who takes away the world’s sin ?  Can this really be the long-anticipated Messiah of God?” I wonder if he may have reasoned: “If Jesus is the One I claimed him to be, then why does he leave me to languish in this prison ? Could he not do something about my predicament if he really is our Promised Deliverer ?” – perplexing trains of thought which haunted & taunted his mind.

Alexander B. Bruce, a 19th century Scottish theologian, surmises that John’s imprisonment may have lasted “long enough to develop a prison mood”, while Adam Clarke in his commentary suggests: “It is very probable that John now began, through the length of his confinement, to entertain doubts, which perplexed and harassed his mind; and he took the most reasonable way to get rid of them at once, viz. by applying to Christ himself.”

Whatever the case, in many ways I find it strangely re-assuring to find such a prominent biblical figure experiencing what looks suspiciously like a ‘crisis’ of faith.

We might say: “The Big Dipper Dips”. 

As a lesser mortal I am spurred on by reading how great giants of faith negotiated their disconcerting moments, finding strategies to overcome their challenges, and so moving them home-ward. The spiritual journey is certainly not a level path to glory – more like a rough, roller-coaster ride, with myriad ups and downs, twists and turns, thrills and spills (all-too-frequently in my case) and we can learn so much from those who have travelled before us.

Here’s John’s strategy: sending a delegation of his disciples to Jesus, the Baptist pours out his misgiving in earnest inquiry: “Are you really the expected Messiah, or should we be looking for someone else?” Expressing his doubt by turning directly to Christ, as the Baptist did, meant going to the Source for answers. In my own case, sadly I’ve often looked in the wrong places for the resolving of my inner conflicts, although I have in recent years, been inspired by the words of Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Thankfully, I observe that Jesus did not send a thunder-bolt, striking John dead for his doubting, rather gently directed him to ponder His words and His works: “Go and tell John what you hear (my words) and see (my works): the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

We’re not informed of the effect this response had on John Baptist – sometimes the Scriptures are silent, and our speculations can only be subjective. However, for those of us who experience similar moments of painful uncertainty, doubtless we may find here a compelling reason to follow John’s example – i.e. to quickly and directly have recourse to the Author and Perfecter of faith. There we will discover how Jesus, through His Spirit, points us time and again to His Words (‘what you hear’) and His Works (‘what you see’) as credentials of His Messiah-ship, as infallible proof of His Lordship, as firm foundations for faith. Yes, in weighing His words and works carefully and prayerfully, it will be possible to experience fresh faith rising up inside, strengthening us to press on with the remainder of our turbulent journey.

We’ll eventually come to agree with Henri Nouwen when he proposes that, Even hard and painful times can be converted to occasions for learning, shaping influences – forming us into the persons we are and leading us to the Source of healing and salvation” and further resonate with the Psalmist as he sings his melody: “…we went through fire and water, but You brought us to a place of abundance.”

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May God richly bless you

 

 

 

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