“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
That’s what Jesus said about John and it’s significant that Jesus would say that at the particular point in time when he did because John was going through a rough patch in life.
As we know from last week’s reading, John was a fiery preacher who lived in the wilderness outside Jerusalem. In keeping with the tradition of the old-timey prophets, John ranted and raved against corruption and hypocrisy in the culture around him. He had harsh words for the people in power at the time; they didn’t much like what he had to say. He called them “You brood of vipers!” And he said vaguely threatening things like, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Needless to say, the powers that be were somewhat less than impressed. John’s message was a little too radical for their taste, so they started looking for any excuse they could think of to throw him in jail.
It wasn’t long before John gave them one. It was one thing for him to criticize tax collectors, soldiers, and the members of the religious establishment, but John went too far and called out the king himself. King Herod Antipas had been embroiled in something of a scandal involving his brother’s wife. Most of the elite members of society wisely kept their mouths shut over Herod’s indiscretion. After all, they owed their positions of authority to his good graces. A word against him and they would likely find themselves without a job… or worse. But John didn’t play their game. He stood on the outskirts of society and offered some much-needed moral perspective. He took this scandal as a sign that the society around him was rotten to the core and God would soon execute a fiery judgment. He said to the people, “I [cleanse] you with water… but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… He will [cleanse] you with… fire.” Well, as they say: You can’t fight city hall. Herod Antipas had heard enough of John’s antics, so he had him arrested and thrown in prison, where he would spend the rest of his life.
So, that’s where John was at the opening of today’s gospel reading: rotting in a jail cell for no good reason other than ticking off the wrong person. This was not how John thought his ministry would end. He was looking forward to that day when the fire of divine judgment would clean house once and for all, but it looked for the moment like the bad guys were winning. And Jesus, the very one who John thought would change the world, was being far more gentle than circumstances warranted. Where was the FIRE? Where was the WRATH? Why would the Messiah, the Anointed Liberator of the people, allow his most ardent supporter to rot in prison unjustly at the behest of a corrupt regime? It didn’t make sense.
That’s why John sent two of his students to ask Jesus a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In effect, he’s asking Jesus, “Was I wrong about you? I mean, this whole ‘change the world’ thing isn’t exactly going according to plan. Are you or are you not the one we’ve been waiting for?”
Jesus gives John’s students a response but, as usual, Jesus never answers a question directly. All he says is, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” And then he describes his ministry of healing (I could preach a whole other sermon on Jesus’ response to John’s question but we’d be here all day, so I’ll just leave that one for another time).
After John’s representatives leave with their not-quite-answer, Jesus turns and looks at his own crowd of students and listeners. I imagine that the look on their faces was somewhere between horrified and indignant. It must have seemed to them like John the Baptist had lost his faith. He was publicly questioning Jesus, the very person he had previously endorsed as the anointed leader of Israel.
I imagine that must have felt like a very awkward moment for Jesus. His followers were staring at him, wondering what he was going to say next. Jesus could have said a lot of things. He could have said, “You know what? Forget about that John guy, we don’t need him.” He could have denounced John as a heretic or a traitor to the cause. He could have used John as an example, saying, “You better watch out! You better not doubt me or lose faith like John did. Don’t ask questions or I’ll kick you out too! Loyalty is what counts!” He could have said that, but he didn’t. That’s not how Jesus rolls.
Instead, he talks John up to them. He asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus is saying in effect, “Hey now, don’t be too hard on John. He’s no pushover. He’s not buckling under the pressure. He knows how to stand his ground. He’s a prophet… more than a prophet: he’s the greatest person who’s ever lived!” These are powerful words of praise coming from Jesus and they signify something even more profound: that Jesus doesn’t think any less of John on account of his doubts.
That’s what I really want to talk about with you this morning: Doubt. More specifically, I want to talk about the place for doubt in the life of faith.
Most people assume that doubt is the polar opposite of faith. They take those two words (doubt and faith) to be mutually exclusive: to whatever extent one has doubts, one does not (cannot) have faith.
I want to tell you this morning that I disagree. I don’t think doubt is the enemy of faith; I think doubt is a necessary part of faith. Without doubt, there would be no need for faith. Our hearts and imaginations would never have to stretch beyond what they already know to be true. We would never have to make that leap into the unknown where anything is possible. We would never have to trust. We would never grow. We could never develop an inner capacity for hope in the face of adversity. All of these things are components of a vital and living faith. Without the ever-present reality of doubt, none of them would be possible.
So it is that I’ve heard many different mentors and authors tell me, again and again, that the opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.
Real faith is a faith that embraces doubt. Real faith is a faith that dares to ask questions, even the hard questions. Real faith is a faith that is humble. Real faith is a faith that is not too proud to admit that it is scared.
Certainty, on the other hand, is about as far from real faith as one can get. Certainty is born of the comfort that comes from thinking that one already knows all the answers. Certainty, in the religious realm, is an act of wilful ignorance. It comes when people shut down their critical faculties upon entering a house of worship. Certainty is what gives some people the strength to burn crosses on their neighbors’ lawns. Certainty is what convinces some parents to disown their gay children “for their own good.” Certainty is what drives fanatics to shoot doctors and fly airplanes into buildings “for the glory of God.”
Susan B. Anthony, the great women’s equality activist, once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
There are some who believe that all religion necessarily leads to these kinds of destructive acts. Others believe that only certain religions are capable of such atrocities. Personally, I believe that the adherents of any religion are capable of these acts, but no religion necessarily leads to them. It’s all in how we hold the beliefs we have. I once heard another teacher say, “The answer to bad theology is not no theology, but better theology.” If we can be humble in our beliefs, if we can embrace doubt (when it arises) as a necessary part of faith, then I think our religious traditions can bring out the very best in us.
Doubt can arise from all sorts of circumstances. Sometimes it comes from periods of intense or prolonged suffering. Sometimes doubt comes from disappointment over unmet expectations. Sometimes doubt comes from positive experiences, like traveling the world, meeting different kinds of people, and having your assumptions challenged through education.
Any of these things can produce doubt (and that’s a good thing). Doubt is healthy. Doubt is a necessary part of faith.
Jesus did not think any less of John the Baptist because of his doubts. I think the same thing can be true for us as well. In fact, as people of faith in the 21st century, I think doubt is more necessary than ever. Our ever-expanding encounters with the findings of science, with different cultures, different religions, and different kinds of people makes it all the more necessary for us to cultivate the virtue of humility in ourselves.
So, if you’re hearing this today and you’re a person who struggles with doubt, openly or secretly, I hope you feel comforted by John’s story. I don’t want you to think any less of yourself as a person of faith. Doubt is the soil in which humility can grow. The faith that embraces doubt is an honest faith that is open to the mystery of life, the universe, and everything. You are the kind of person who is able to keep an open heart and an open mind to what might be possible. This world needs more people like that; it needs more people like you.
So, I want to encourage you this morning to hold onto your doubt as a necessary part of your faith. When you come to church, don’t check your brains at the door. In the words of the eminent 20th century preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, I want you to “believe, doubt, and then doubt your doubts.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge likewise said, “Never be afraid to doubt if only you have the disposition to believe and doubt in order that you may end in believing the truth.”
See where that path might take you and remember always that I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Be blessed and be a blessing.