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God in Pain
Teaching Sermons on Suffering
By Barbara Brown Taylor
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1998 Barbara Brown Taylor
All rights reserved.
The Gift of Disillusionment
Matthew 11:2-11 "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" That has to be one of the most haunting questions in all of scripture, especially when you consider who is asking it. It is John speaking through his disciples—John the Baptist, who has devoted his life to preparing the way of the Lord and making his paths straight. John, who was standing waist deep in the River Jordan when he looked up, saw Jesus, and tried to change places with him. "I need to be baptized by you," he said, "and do you come to me?" John, who was there when the heavens opened and the spirit of God descended like a dove, lighting on Jesus as a voice from heaven proclaimed who he was for all to hear. "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" What in the world has happened to John that he should ask such a thing? Has his memory been erased? Has someone brainwashed him? What has made him question the identity of the one person for whom he has waited all his life?
What in the world has happened to John that he should ask such a thing?
Well, he is in jail, for one thing, put there by Herod not for preaching on street corners but for disapproving of Herod's marriage to his brother's wife. It will not be long before Herod's new stepdaughter asks for John's head on a silver platter, but meanwhile nothing has gone the way John thought it would.
The Messiah was supposed to change things. He was supposed to burn up all the human trash and dead wood of the world. He was supposed to come with a sharp ax, with a gleaming pitchfork, and separate the good guys from the bad guys once and for all. He was supposed to clean up the world, so that people like Herod were no longer in power and people like John were no longer in prison, but Jesus has utterly failed to meet John's expectations.
He talks more about peace and love than he does about sin and hell. He spends most of his time with spiritual weaklings and moral misfits, and he does precious little to chop up the rotten wood that John has singled out for fiery destruction. Jesus seems more interested in poking around the dead stumps looking for new growth and in throwing parties for the new shoots when he finds them, and all in all it is more than John can bear.
"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" This is John's Calvary, his moment of wondering what his life has been about and hearing that there has been a terrible mistake. It is his moment of wondering if he has been forsaken, if the one for whom he has waited all this time has turned out to be an imposter—not the Messiah at all, but an idealistic dreamer whom the world will swat down as easily as a gnat.
This is John's Calvary, his moment of wondering what his life has been about and fearing that there has been a terrible mistake.
In his fine and disturbing book, The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis paints a picture of Jesus and John I will never forget. It is sunrise. They are sitting high above the Jordan in the hollow of a rock, where they have been arguing all night long about what to do with the world. John's face is hard and decisive; from time to time his arms go up and down as though he were actually chopping something apart. Jesus' face, by contrast, is tame and hesitant. His eyes are full of compassion.
"Isn't love enough?" he asks John.
"No," John answers angrily. "The tree is rotten. God called me and gave me the ax, which I then placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty. Now you do yours: Take the ax and strike!"
"If I were fire, I would burn," Jesus says. "If I were a woodcutter, I would strike; but I am a heart, and I love."
It is not hard to understand what John was going through. We have all, at some time or another, looked for a Messiah who did not come the way we wanted him to come. You know what I mean. You want the Messiah to come and you want him to come right now. You want a clear, helpful answer to your questions. You want to be relieved of the burden of waking up day after day without knowing what you are supposed to do next. You want to put your hand under your pillow and find the answer there like a quarter from the tooth fairy, but morning after morning all you feel is the sheet.
Or you want a Messiah who will rescue the innocent and punish the guilty. Your prayers focus on the latter. You keep a long list of people who have injured you or those you love and who—according to you—do not deserve to go walking around looking and acting like normal people. You want a Messiah who will see to it that they are exposed for who they are and shunned by decent people. You have gathered a sympathetic jury, but so far you are all waiting in an empty courtroom. The judge has not shown up, and you are beginning to wonder if there is any justice in this world after all.
Or you want a Messiah who will make you be good. You want a Lord who will take over your mind and body so that you cannot mismanage them anymore, a Lord who will heal you in spite of yourself and who will not let you make any more mistakes. You want him to do the same thing for the whole world. One look at the news is enough to convince you that putting human beings in charge of the creation was a good idea that did not work. You will gladly surrender your freedom for a little security, and God knows the earth cannot stand much more in the way of human dominance.
But none of those is the Messiah you get. Instead, you get one who waits while you find your own answers. You get one who gives suspended sentences to the guilty. You get one who lets humankind stew in the consequences of our actions. And one day while you are moldering in your cell you send that Messiah a telegram: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
This is a story of crashing disillusionment—John's, ours, everyone's who looks for a Lord who does not come, or who does not come in the way he was expected—but I am here to tell you that disillusionment is not a bad thing. Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion—about ourselves, about the world, about God—and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.
Disillusioned, we find out that God does not conform to our expectations. We glimpse our own relative size in the universe and see that no human being can say who God should be or how God should act. We review our requirements of God and recognize them as our own fictions, things we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel safe or good or comfortable. Disillusioned, we find out what is not true and we are set free to seek what is—if we dare—to turn away from the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is.
Disillusioned, we find out that God does not conform to our expectations.
Every letdown becomes a lesson and a lure. Did God fail to come when I rubbed the lantern? Then perhaps God is not a genie. Who, then, is God? Did God fail to punish my enemies? Then perhaps God is not a cop. Who, then, is God? Did God fail to make everything run smoothly? Then perhaps God is not a mechanic. Who, then, is God?
Over and over, my disappointments draw me deeper into the mystery of God's being and doing. Every time God declines to meet my expectations, another of my idols is exposed. Another curtain is drawn back so that I can see what I have propped up in God's place. No, that is not God. Who, then, is God? It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or finished. Pushing past curtain after curtain, it becomes clear that the failure is not God's but my own, for having such a poor and stingy imagination.
"Go and tell John what you hear and see." That is what Jesus says to the disciples who deliver John's telegram. "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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
It is curious, isn't it, that he never says "I"? He never testifies to himself at all. He simply sends John's disciples back to him to tell their teacher what they have seen and heard— not a lot of wood being chopped, not a lot of fires being set—but broken people being made whole, sick people being healed, dead people being revived, and poor people being given hope.
And blessed are those who take no offense at me. Blessed are those who do not let the Messiah they are expecting blind them to the Messiah who is standing right in front of them. Blessed are those who keep a list of what God is doing and not only what God is not. Blessed are those who are not afraid to revise the hope that is in them, pushing through their disillusionment into a place of new and clearer vision.
Is he the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? You decide. Look around you, and see. Amen.CHAPTER 2
A Cure for Despair
Matthew 3:1-12 John the Baptist has always seemed to me like the Doberman pinscher of the gospel. In the lectionary, he always appears right before Christmas, when no one's defenses are up. Here we are trying to get to the stable in Bethlehem. We are not hurrying. We have set a respectable pace, and with just weeks to go it really is in sight—that starlit barn where everything is about to happen. It is right up ahead there, with people already gathering around it, and for those of us who love it, it is all we can see.
We aren't thinking about the few dark blocks that still separate us from it when all of a sudden—GRRROW-ROW-ROW!!!—this big old dog with a spiky collar has got us by the ankle. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Before he is through, our heads are pounding with vipers, wrath, axes, and unquenchable fire, when all we really wanted was a chance to sing "O Holy Night."
And yet there is no getting around him. Every single Gospel writer introduces Jesus by talking about John, which means that in some way or another the Doberman is God's idea. John is the watchdog who makes sure no one wanders into holy precincts unaware. He is the guard dog, who tests all those who think they want in. Anyone who cannot handle him cannot handle the one who comes after him. As different as they will turn out to be, John's judgment precedes Jesus' grace. They go together, like night and day, because those who know nothing of judgment need nothing of grace.
John is the watchdog who makes sure no one wanders into holy precincts unaware.
John's business was repentance. It was what his baptism was all about. It was not about becoming a Christian, because John was not a Christian. He had followers of his own, disciples who would become critics of the disciples of Jesus. So it is important not to confuse John's baptism with the one we know about. When John waded into the water with people, he was cleaning them up for their audience with God, which he believed would take place very soon. He begged them to change their lives in preparation for that event, and he was not below scaring them half to death if that was what it took—anything to wake them up and make them see that they were sleepwalking through their lives, most of them, confusing their own ways with God's ways and accumulating sin like an empty house accumulates dust.
He offered to hose them down, if they were willing. If they could come out of their comas long enough to see what was wrong and say so out loud, then he would wash it away for them, forever. Or God would. The same God who could make children of Abraham out of river rocks could make children of God out of them right there, if they were willing. All they had to do was consent, repent, return to the Lord, and they could start their lives all over again before they even dried off.
The past would lose its power over them. What they had done, what they had said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives. They would no longer hear those nagging voices in their heads that told them how bad they were, how ruined, and in the silence that followed they would be free to begin again, listening to God's voice this time, telling them how blessed they were, how beloved.
As scary as John was, it was a pretty great offer. No wonder people walked days to get to him. No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them. We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.
The way most of us were taught it, repentance means owning up to how rotten you are. It means saying out loud, if only in the auditorium of your own soul, that you are a selfish, sinful, deeply defective human being who grieves the heart of God and that you are very, very sorry about it. It means dumping all your pride on the ground and stamping on it, since pride—as in ego, arrogance, vainglory—is the root of so much evil.
Only what if it isn't? What if pride isn't the problem at all, but its very opposite? What if the main thing most of us need to repent of is not our arrogance but our utter despair—that things will never change for us, that we will never change, that no matter what we say or do we are stuck forever in the mess we have made of our lives, or the mess someone else has made of them, but in any case that there is no hope for us, no beginning again, no chance of new life? Now that is a problem.
What if the main thing most of u$ need to repent of i$ not our arrogance but our utter despair?
I cannot tell you how many people I know who are all but dead with despair. It doesn't happen just one way; it happens all kinds of ways. A little girl is abused by her grandfather and forty years later, although he is long dead and gone, his hands are still on her. She has not married. She will not let anyone get close. She is still keeping her forty-year-old promise never to let anyone hurt her like that again.
Or a family man loses his job and stays home with the kids while his wife goes to work. Their agreement is that they will change places again as soon as he finds something to do, only there are not all that many things he knows how to do. For a while he meets his goal of one interview per week, but after three months of rejections his energy just drains out of him until one afternoon his wife comes home and finds him sitting in front of the television set with an empty six-pack of Bud Dry at his feet.
Or a moody teenager doesn't know what is wrong with him, but he can't find anyone to talk to about it. His father is never home, his mother turns every talk into a sermon, and he doesn't want anyone to see him coming out of the counselor's office at school, so he starts hanging out with some people who are even moodier than he is and that makes him feel better. When he is arrested for shoplifting a CD at the K-Mart, no one seems all that surprised. When his mother picks him up at the police station, she tells him he has been nothing but trouble since the day he was born and something inside of him that was still fluid up to that point hardens on the spot. All that remains to be seen is just how much trouble he can be. He will try not to let her down.
For most people, despair is a much more serious problem than pride will ever be. It is so serious that we have a baptismal vow aimed right at it. Q: "Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" A: "I will, with God's help." It is a John the Baptist vow, and it is not about keeping an eye on our rottenness. It is about keeping an eye on our despair and never letting it get the best of us.
Excerpted from God in Pain by Barbara Brown Taylor. Copyright © 1998 Barbara Brown Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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