How far will we trust God?
How far will we let God have God’s way over our lives?
We all want a happy ending.
We love stories that have happy endings.
Today’s gospel has an ending that is more bittersweet than happy.
The good news of Christ continues to challenge and STRETCH us.
The good news isn’t necessarily the happy news.
We read today about TWO POWERHOUSES – John the Baptist and we read part of Mary’s Magnificat.
For John, the gospel is set in a prison.
We all see prison as a place of defeat.
John the Baptist starts out in the wilderness and ends up in a prison.
He’s a wild kind of man, reflecting the WILDNESS of God.
The prophetic word has torn and ricocheted through him.
John is uncompromising with his prophetic message.
He takes on King Herod and no surprise – ends up in a pit.
He’s trusting God with his life this far.
Now he asks a soulful question – he asks Jesus if he is the ONE, “or are we to wait for another?”
This is the same Baptist who in chapter 3, proclaims Jesus as someone whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
Now things have taken a turn, and he needs Jesus to bolster his faith.
Tell me, Jesus, are you the ONE?
John the Baptist, is someone who had set the religious establishment quaking, is now asking a meek question.
Remember last week he roared, ‘BROOD OF VIPERS!” and had been so SURE, now asking a question that reflects bafflement.
We sense something has changed.
Perhaps he has lost his bearings.
He is in prison. He’s groping in the dark.
Where once he had been certain, now he’s asking, are you the ONE?
John the Baptist could be any of us.
There are times when it’s easy to have faith, there are times of absolute certainty, and other times when things are so difficult that we ponder where we’ve been and where we’re going.
Did we take the right road?
Things may have taken an unexpected turn.
There may be illness, a death, an accident, an injury.
Family relationships may have gone awry.
There’s just too much conflict.
We wonder – when will things get easier?
We may even end up asking – is Jesus trustworthy?
Can we rely on him?
Was my life supposed to go this way? is this the way things are supposed to go?
For me – for you?
For those who love God?
We have it in mind that shouldn’t God make our lives easier somehow?
We’re friends aren’t we?
St. Theresa of Avila was supposed to have said: “if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”
We know God can be SILENT.
We know God can be HIDDEN.
There are times we may wonder if we’ve been stranded in the wilderness.
We may ask, where is God who we’re trying to follow?
We are left pondering.
In today’s reading, we hear from a second magnificent person.
Where we normally read the psalm, today we hear the Magnificat, Mary’s song of joy.
We hear Mary, a young teenager express herself like a warrior: the rich will be pulled down from their thrones.
The poor filled with good things.
She recognizes God’s promises in God’s request of her.
She’s a powerhouse, too, and calls things the way she sees them, much like John the Baptist.
She wants those who close their eyes to the poor to feel the pinch and scrape of their wrong decisions.
She looks forward to the day when the rich and not the poor will suffer.
Mary’s faith is magnificent.
In other places, we read that Mary ponders things in her heart.
Perhaps like John the Baptist, there are times when she is just baffled.
She may wonder, is this the way things are supposed to go?
She ponders the events unfolding before her eyes, as her son teaches, heals, confronts and spars with the religious authorities.
At the end, after Jesus has declared it is finished, Mary holds her son’s dead body across her lap.
Is this the way it was supposed to go?
There is no doubt that both Mary and John are people of tremendous faith.
God says do this!
And they jump!
Yet there are times when people of the deepest faith, JUST DON’T KNOW.
They look and look and look for a pillar of fire to lead and guide them – but NO pillar of fire for them.
Hence, we get what seems like a foolish question out of John’s mouth: Are you the One, or should we wait for another?
Lucky John gets a kind answer from Jesus: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
At God’s direction, both John the Baptist and Mary have put themselves in harm’s way and found God leading them.
God has led John to the wilderness.
Mary’s wilderness is a pregnancy before marriage that threatens her life.
She could be stoned to death, yet she trusts God’s providence throughout.
They are both PLAYERS in a grand scheme of God’s making to bring the Kingdom to birth.
Do you have a wilderness?
Is God HIDDEN for now?
Eventually, God will show God’s self and there will be a resurrection.
The setbacks will be revealed as TEMPorARY.
Our sorrows will be TEMPORARY too.
We find – God goes before us –
We all see prison as a place of defeat.
Except it can also be a place of resistance.
At Advent Lutheran Church in Manhattan, I knew a young Ethiopian woman, Abby Emanuel.
She is very much a modern woman who works in corporate America in a very responsible job.
She was council president for a while.
She credits her successes to her great-grandfather.
She told me an amazing story about her great-grandfather, Haleka Tewolde Medhin Gebru, who she said is called the Martin Luther of Ethiopia.
No one has heard of this man, yet he has had a decisive place in Ethiopian history.
The story is that he was a priest in the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and when he was a young man, he had a leg injury.
He was determined to not use home remedies on his injury, so instead he went to the Swedish hospital.
WELL! He went in a priest of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and he came out of that Swedish hospital a Lutheran.
The first thing he was going to do concerned education.
He was determined that the education system had to be revamped, and even girls were going to get an education.
This infuriated the religious establishment and he was thrown into prison. (Does this sound like today’s gospel?)
“For this ‘crime,’ and for associating with the Swedish Protestants, he was accused of being a heretic, arrested, tortured, and all his property confiscated on three consecutive times.”
TWICE he was sentenced to death by hanging, and TWICE he narrowly escaped death by miraculous coincidences.
When Haile Selassie became Crown Regent he declared there could be no more executions, which saved the life of Abby’s great-grandfather.
It took another five years before he was released from prison, and he could resume teaching children.
Abby credits her great-grandfather for giving her access to the education she has. Otherwise, she said, she’d be a poor farmer’s wife back in Ethiopia, with no prospects and no future.
Her grandfather suffered greatly for the truth, and for education for children.
He had started the first ‘modern’ school, and he suffered for it.
Yet, despite the prison time and the torture, he lived into his mid-nineties.
The prophetic WORD lived in him.
He was not going to back down.
He was a John the Baptist. He was a MARY.
God’s WORD was PLANTED inside Abby’s great-grandfather, and he took it and RAN with it.
He found the TRUTH to be irresistible.
Education for children! Yes!
He suffered for the truth, for a decent education for children.
So, we learn to TRUST.
We may trust like John the Baptist, baffled and confused, yet we hold on.
We trust like Mary whose yes – starts a new phase of salvation history.
We TRUST like Abby’s great-grandfather, Haleka Tewolde Medhin Gebru, who suffered for sake of the next generation’s education.
We trust because God’s word is irresistible.
We trust because God’s grace transforms us.
We TRUST because it is the truth.
We TRUST because like Peter says to Jesus, “Where should we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Lord, give us the courage of John the Baptist, who trusts you amidst his doubts.
Give us the courage of Mary who is ready to suffer any hardships.
Give us the courage to trust you like Abby’s great-grandfather, Haleka Tewolde Medhin Gebru, who was ready to die for the truth and for educating the young.
We thank you for these strong people of God. Let us learn to trust you like they did.
We pray this in the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.