John was in prison because the governor had overlooked that he was not married to his brother’s wife. Out in the wilderness, John had said the governor ought to be ashamed. But rather than repenting, the governor shut off John’s message by putting the messenger in prison. John knew he was on God’s side in condemning sin in high places. He called Jesus the Messiah, the Lamb of God. So why didn’t God do something in his favor? Where was God when John needed him?
John was neither the first nor last to wonder about God. How many of us rely on our Sunday prayers as armor against the “slings and arrows” of outrageous fortune, or as our lifeboat in a sea of troubles? Have you ever thought, “God, why don’t you do something in my favor?
“I have wrestled and cried and prayed. I have tried so hard to do right, to be faithful. God, don’t you see that we are in trouble, and you are our only hope? God, are you listening?” Think what God could do with a single stroke of his power. He could start by giving Syria peace, so that families could return to whatever is left of Alepo and other cities.
Or he could bring peace between the Palestinians and Israelis who would rather fight than live side-by-side. God could help our nation by giving members of Congress and our own North Carolina legislators the willingness to work together.
God could – well, each of us could finish the sentence about what we know God could do. People in Judea needed God’s help. Roman rule was unraveling the fabric of Old Testament life. Every day, more people threw in with the conquerors instead of keeping faith with the prophets.
The old ways were sinking into moral decay. The new ways were out of touch with God. Merchants cheated the public, priests left their prayers, children turned against their parents. Does this list of grievances against God sound familiar? Was the arm of God’s Messiah shortened? When John’s disciples came to him, he urgently requested them: “Find out what is going on with my cousin Jesus. Go ask him” — and here we want to insert what we would be asking – “go ask when he will fulfill my expectations.”
Are you the one who is to come or should we look for somebody else?” For many people, Jesus gave a disappointing answer. Could we be looking for the wrong Messiah? How often do we ask God to be a source of help –and nothing happens? John did not realize how busy Jesus had been. He had cleansed the lepers, brought sight to the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, healed the sick, and raised the dead.
These signs of the kingdom were in line with what the prophet Isaiah had written about the day of the Lord. Yet, there was more to Jesus than being a wonder worker, and here is where we get in trouble if we expect the same thing of God today.
When Isaiah spoke of the blind seeing, the mute speaking, and the lame walking, he was expressing the healing power of God for people who were blind to truth, deaf to the word of God, and crippled by sin. Jesus used the same kind of language in his parables as when the waiting father said, “My son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost and now he’s found.”The prodigal son was neither dead nor lost, but the effect for his waiting father had been precisely that.
So this language of the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, and the deaf hearing — says more about Jesus than whether he could reverse a physical disability, a great deal more. Belief would be easy if Christianity were a religion of smoke and mirrors in which our faith hinges on whether Aunt Hattie recovers her sight or the guns in Syria are finally silent. God could heal every troubled nation and every disturbed individual and thereby inspire faith in billions of people who now have no interest in God. Or would it have that effect?
If the Bible were about God’s power as an end in itself, then we would find many more wonders and miracles. After all, Jesus saw dozens, even hundreds of persons with troubles that he did not cure. He could have taken his entire three-year ministry going from village to village laying hands on the sick.
Do our hearts turn to God only after our heads have examined God’s medical record for each of us? If so, then faith would become cold and calculated. We would say, “Okay God, now I believe in you because you have fulfilled my expectations.” Faith does not grow because God meets our expectations. There were dozens, hundreds of persons who saw the miracles of Jesus, but who did not then believe that Jesus came from God.
The deepest obstacle to trusting Jesus and the Gospel is not lack of miracles. For some, the great obstacle to faith is the human riddle: “Where is God when I need him?” Only Christian faith can offer the solution of that riddle about God. When we confront suffering and starvation, disease and poverty, injustice and violence, hatred, war, and needless death, where is God? The great questions are whether we can trust God to give us power to live in the world as it is, and whether in Jesus we recognize the kingdom of God. Although Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, his power is not the point of the stories about him.
Instead, the Bible tells us that God is with his people even though we have eaten the forbidden fruit time and again.
Let’s not blame God for what went wrong in the Garden of Eden. God’s story and God’s love are revealed to us through Abraham and Moses and Isaiah and Jesus, which is to say that in spite of the snake and sin and the devil and the presence of evil in the world, the Kingdom will come. God will triumph.
We sing not just about the little town of Bethlehem, but to the world and with the world we cry out, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.” Every sin will be forgiven. Every injustice will be relieved. Every handicap will be overcome.
As Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We may consider ourselves seriously wounded, crippled, defeated and dying. But we are a victorious army that will finally win the day. God feeds us the bread of life, the living word Jesus Christ himself. When we obey God, worship God, follow God, pray for his kingdom to come indeed to us, and see each other as the people of God, then we are on the way to putting the power of the Gospel to work in the world.
What went wrong in the garden is overcome in the worship of the church We see ourselves again as God intended, as people of God at his great banquet table.
The role of the church is to help us pull off our masks, to call sin by its name, and with the power of the Gospel to heal what is damaged. Worship gives hope in the face of disaster, inspires belief that the coming of Jesus Christ is for us, and helps us believe we are saved totally by the grace of God. While not a single physical manifestation may come to those most severely crippled by life and its trials, the love of God is such that in the midst of blindness, we see.
With crippled limbs, we walk. Still with leprous skin, we are cleansed; with lips not moving, we speak, and while we are dying, yet we live, all because Jesus who died for us has taken our infirmities and carried our diseases.
By his resurrected presence, we are made whole with a new life under God, freed by the promise that nothing in this life can separate us from God our father.
We are the poor to whom the good news has come.
As Isaiah promised, sorrow and sighing shall flee away, and we shall have joy and gladness.
What more can we ask of God?