Isaiah 35:1-10 (New International Version, ©2010)
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Matthew 11:2-11 (New International Version, ©2010)
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
I am going to draw from both passages this morning, so I hope you don’t mind if we spend a little extra time breaking down the scripture today. Our first scripture is from the prophet Isaiah. Or maybe it would be more correct to say it is from God through the prophet Isaiah. Either way, Isaiah seems to have been given a vision by God and our passage is Isaiah’s poetic interpretation of the vision from the Lord.
If we were to back up one chapter to Isaiah 34 we would find a pretty gloomy passage. And I will just say this as a brief overview of the chapter: It doesn’t sound pleasant. In the NRSV there is even a reference to goat-demons being present during this time of judgment. I have never personally met a goat demon and I would like to keep it that way. All of this is to say that Isaiah is prophesying that things will be bad for awhile. The Israelites will go to battle and they will fall to the Babylonians. The Babylonians will take Jerusalem from the Israelites and scatter the Israelites far and near, separating family and friends. So if you want to read a cheery and upbeat part of the Bible some time, don’t read Isaiah 34.
But Isaiah changes his tune a bit in chapter 35. In chapter 35 Isaiah begins prophesying about the time when these bad things are going to be replaced by good things. It hasn’t happened yet, but he sees it coming. Isaiah says something like “Things are going to be terrible, but don’t lose hope. They will get better.” Where things were all dried and shriveled up God will bring new life. The weak and feeble will become strong. And not only will there be new life, there will be miraculous healing! The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap like a dear, and the tongues of the mute will shout for joy! Isaiah says that there will be a road that will lead the righteous home. Remember that the Israelites were just beginning the Babylonian Exile when Isaiah was writing these words. But when this day comes, God will lead them back to Zion, or Jerusalem. And gladness and joy will overtake the people. Sorrow and sighing will flee away.
I believe that Isaiah interpreted this vision from God incorrectly because it sounds to me like Isaiah expected the return to the Promised Land to be nothing short of what we would call heaven. No, the Promised Land was full of pain and sorrow before the Exile, and it would be full of pain and sorrow after their return as well. I think Isaiah was given a vision of a different Promised Land. A Promised Land that we are still waiting for.
The Israelites’ return to Jerusalem turned out to be less than what Isaiah was prophesying. When they returned the city was in ruins; they would have to rebuild it. Jerusalem would never be free of the rule of another nation for any significant amount of time. First the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans controlled the territory. The Jews suffered, even after their return, as captives in their own land.
The Romans put Herod in charge as a puppet king with the hope that he could keep the rowdy Jews under control. This is the system into which Jesus and John the Baptist were born. The Promised Land was controlled by the Roman Empire. The Jewish people were forced to pay taxes to Caesar, using money that bore his image, which broke one of the Ten Commandments. The people were at times forced to provide housing for Roman soldiers and even act as their servants, carrying their gear for up to one mile. The world into which Jesus and John the Baptist were born was a far cry from the one that Isaiah had prophesied almost 600 years earlier. I think that Isaiah had the wrong understanding of what God was doing because the Israelites were still suffering in the first century.
Our text from Matthew finds John the Baptist in jail. Last week we read about the beginning of John’s ministry and his simple message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. John was calling the people to stop doing the things that were leading them away from God and to align their entire being with God’s desire for his people. Well John’s message was directed toward the wrong person, Herod Antipas, and rather than repenting, Herod threw John in prison. But John was able to communicate with his disciples somehow and he sends them to Jesus to ask him a simple question. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
I find this to be an interesting question, especially when it comes from John. John is questioning Jesus’ messianic identity. John, the 2nd cousin of Jesus, had his doubts. The Bible tells us that when Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Elizabeth, John’s mother, got close to each other while the babies were still in-utero, that the fetal John does a little jig. Thirty years later when John is baptizing people in the Jordan River, he almost refuses to baptize Jesus because he recognizes who Jesus is and that he is not worthy of baptizing him. When John finally does agree to baptize Jesus there is a voice that calls out from heaven saying “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then the spirit of the Lord descends upon Jesus. John was right there to see it all! And now he is questioning if Jesus is indeed the Messiah because things aren’t going the way that John expected.
So how does Jesus respond to John’s questioning? He gets upset and goes off on a tirade. He starts throwing things through windows, he pushes over a stack of papers, and he loses all control. No, not at all. He says, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” He is saying to John, You know all of those things that Isaiah prophesied about and thought were going to happen hundreds of years ago? They are beginning to happen now.
I can’t say for sure what John was expecting from the Messiah, but he obviously had the wrong expectations. Maybe he was looking for someone to overthrow the Romans. Maybe he was looking for a political leader that would become the next great king of Israel. Maybe he was looking for someone that could break him out of jail. It is hard to say, but because John had the wrong expectation of who Jesus was, he began to doubt. And he almost missed seeing what Jesus was doing because of what he expected Jesus should be doing.
I am just as guilty of this as John the Baptist. I have certain expectations and a list of “shoulds” for God. I look at the list of things that Isaiah prophesied about thousands of years ago and I wait for God to do what he promised. I look at the list of the things that Jesus began to do and I question God, when are you going to finish what you started? When will the blind see, the lame leap, the deaf hear? When will the lion and the lamb lie down together in peace? God, we are waiting. We wait, because there is still suffering.
I have to admit that I do not know what it means to suffer. I have never gone to bed hungry. I have never had to do without medicine because we were too poor to buy it. I have never slept in the streets. I have never been the victim of an earthquake, tsunami, or tornado. I have never lost anyone in my immediate family at an early age. The closest thing that I have ever experienced when it comes to suffering is that both of my paternal grandparents passed away in their mid 60’s. But I was too young to really understand what was going on.
So I say what I am going to say from a place of non-suffering. But I say what I am going to say as a witness to great suffering. I have seen suffering so great that I couldn’t control my tears. As I hear stories of the great suffering of the people in places like Haiti following the earthquake last January, I feel pain in the deepest parts of my being. I have seen my colleagues in ministry suffer through the early death of children and I shake my head because I would like to think that God provides extra care for those who have dedicated their lives to serving him. And recently, when a young woman in my in-laws’ voluntary service unit in Colorado was struck and killed by a car while riding a bike, I just had cry out to God, “Where were you?!” We know that she was doing what she believed to be service to God. I have one question for God: Why?
My wife works with people with spinal cord injuries. There are people who at one point in their lives were active and mobile, able to run, jump, and change their own clothes. These are people who now are confined to wheelchairs and will be for the rest of their lives. Some are trying to re-learn simple tasks like feeding themselves and combing their hair. Some of these people did something to be there. Some of them have gotten into fights and been injured. Others have become intoxicated and driven their cars at extremely high speeds that resulted in accidents. For these people, I don’t question why they have to suffer through their injuries. I can explain it: It was their choice. They made a bad decision and now they are paying for it. I understand that God does not force anyone to do anything and we have been given free will to do whatever we want. And sometimes our free choice leads to our own pain and suffering. I don’t blame God for that. It isn’t fair to God to blame him for what we have done to ourselves. I often think we try to make God into the scapegoat. It is when bad things happen to good people, to innocent people, that causes me to struggle.
I feel like I have been on a journey of trying to understand suffering. And over the last few years I have figured out a couple things. The first is that as Christians, we aren’t promised a life free of suffering. In fact, we are promised the opposite. Here are a few quick examples from the Bible:
- 1 Peter 4:12-13, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
- Luke 9:23, Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
- Colossians 1:24, Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
- 1 Peter 2:21, To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
- 2 Timothy 1:8, So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.
We aren’t promised a life free of suffering, instead we are called to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus. We are called to follow him, even in his suffering. We don’t serve a God who doesn’t understand the suffering that we are going through, but a God who chose to come here to this earth and suffer for us and with us. Yes, there are times when God does heal, and there are times when God does deliver us from suffering, but we are never promised a life free of suffering. I believe that anyone that says God will keep us from suffering has misunderstood what God is doing, like Isaiah and John the Baptist both seemed to misunderstand what God is doing. No, we are guaranteed suffering.
The second thing that I have learned through my studies of suffering is that we are called to suffer with others. In John’s gospel we find the story of Lazarus of Bethany. Word comes to Jesus that Lazarus is dying and Jesus takes his sweet time in going to heal Lazarus. And when he gets there Lazarus has already been dead and in the tomb for four days. Lazarus’ sisters say to Jesus, If only you had been here, he wouldn’t have died. And Mary cries. Seeing Mary cry, Jesus is deeply moved and he too begins to cry. And to be honest with you, I think that this is interesting because the text tells us that Jesus was already planning on bringing Lazarus back to life. He knew that everything was going to turn out alright in the end. But it was seeing the hurt and the suffering of Mary that caused Jesus to suffer as well. Jesus wept.
We too know that in the end everything will turn out okay. We know that one day the prophesy of Isaiah will be fulfilled and the work that Jesus began will be completed. Our job today is to follow Jesus and mourn with those who mourn.
My advice for everyone here today is to go ahead and ask the difficult questions of why God allows us to suffer. It is okay to question God when it hurts. Even John the Baptist questioned Jesus when what was actually taking place didn’t match up with his expectations. And Jesus doesn’t criticize him for questioning things. He says that there has never been a greater man born of a woman than John. It is okay to search and to ask those difficult questions.
The thing about difficult questions is that they should never be given simple answers. I am not going to give you any simple answers today because I think that simple answers can sometimes do more harm than good. The Bible doesn’t attempt to give any simple answers to why God allows us to suffer, so I don’t think that we should either.
The thing that I don’t want us to do is to stop at asking why and not move toward asking yourself, “What can I do to help others who are suffering?” Maybe God is calling you to go serve in an AIDS hospital in Zambia and care for those that are dying. Or maybe God is calling you to sit with someone else who is suffering and just cry with them like Jesus did with Mary and Martha when Lazarus passed away. We will all suffer in this lifetime. Asking why is okay. Asking, “What can I do about it?” is better.
Isaiah prophesied that one day there would be no more pain and suffering. Jesus came and gave us a taste of what that will look like one day when his kingdom is fully realized. We will suffer this side of heaven, and I don’t pretend to know the reasons why. I don’t think that Isaiah understood why and I don’t think that John the Baptist understood why. But I echo the words of Paul when he writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Remember that in the end, life conquers death; good conquers evil; love conquers hate. This Advent season we celebrate the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy with the birth of a baby boy.