What are we to make of the preacher in jail? Baptist preachers have often gone to jail for freedom, for religious liberty, for conscience sakes, for civil rights. From Thomas Helwys in 1611 to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1960, jail and baptist preachers have been connected. John the Baptist is in jail and he has heard some gossip about Jesus and it has cost him his confidence. Confidence can be fragile. A few words, a bit of gossip, one bad review, and people can fall apart. Some people can’t take criticism. Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester can’t throw the ball to first base. He has the “Yips” – a word for lost confidence. How many golfers can’t make a three-foot putt to win a quarter at the local country club? No confidence. Confidence can be a cruel taskmaster. Well, faith is more than confidence.
There’s an entire industry devoted to helping building build confidence – the self-esteem business. The world offers positive thinking; God offers faith. America is addicted to self-esteem, confidence boosting seminars, books, and speakers. It is so widespread that a person asking if Barnes and Noble had Bibles was told by the sales clerk, “Yes, that would be in the self-help section.”
In the face of abuse, destruction, suicide, the deaths of loved one and friends, betrayals, nervous breakdowns, humiliations, and the list goes on and on, you would think that the last thing we would ever do is treat the Bible as a self-help book. It is the grandest book ever assembled (as in not dropped from heaven) and its realism is jarring to say the least. I think we try to avoid the reality that the Bible’s message causes us pain. It is so raw and revealing and there’s hurt involved when we attempt to follow the teachings. But if the Bible didn’t tell us the truth we would be forever lost in the delusions offered by fundamentalists, snake handling evangelists, creationists, literalists, and evangelicals who think nothing counts except getting saved and meeting Jesus one day. Look, the people who dare to follow God often have been to hell and back and how we have managed to turn all that tragedy into sweet little Sunday school stories offends me at a deep level.
I think that the happy, sappy preachers have taken the Bible and distorted it as a guide to everlasting happiness. As Pat Conroy would say, “This is a river without markers or navigational charts.” There is a deep sense of phoniness and insincerity about much that passes for Christianity in this land. The Bible never intends to make us happy only obedient.
Before John was arrested, he was a very confident preacher. In fact, he wasn’t just any preacher; he was the one sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. He preached up a storm, baptized more people than a mega-church pastor, and told everyone within shouting distance that Jesus was the One. His preaching could knock your socks off. John was a confident preacher.
Now John’s in jail and jail can knock out your confidence. He’s down but not out. Confidence ebbs and flows; faith is a constant force. 8
In his depressed state, John’s thinking that the one he thought was the one seems to be less than advertised. John wonders if God is merciful and just. He has the dark, brooding thoughts of those tortured agnostics worrying about a good God causing disasters and calamities. Perhaps John is like the character in a short story: “He have lost his starch, is all. He be getting it back directly.”
I find this odd because we are born with the gifts of confidence and creativity and then something goes haywire. Children have so much confidence and creativity. Sir Ken Robinson says, “When my son was four in England he was in the Nativity play. He got the part of Joseph. He didn’t have to speak, but you know the bit where the three kings come in. They come in bearing gifts, and they bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. We were sitting there and the little kings just went out of sequence. The first boy said, ‘I bring you gold.’ And the second boy said, ‘I bring you myrrh.’ And the third boy said, ‘Frank sent this.’”
I don’t want you to miss that John still has his faith. You see faith doesn’t require sunshine and happy days or sight or evidence or facts or proofs. Faith can thrive in underground jails, fiery furnaces, Egyptian slavery, even on crosses. Faith is not scared of the dark, the devil, or death itself. Faith is not intimidated by all the Herods of history. We are afflicted in every way, but faithful; perplexed, but faithful; 9persecuted, but faithful; struck down, but faithful. John has faith because he is still communicating with Jesus. Just keep the line open between you and Jesus. Don’t let go of that ever. It was John’s faith that sent the list of questions to Jesus. Sometimes the people waving that list of questions in God’s face are the people with the most faith. They are still demanding answers. Maybe John wanted Jesus to be a military general. It seems there are always those who are enamored with generals. No wonder John the Baptist cries out, “Are you the one?” Having and keeping confidence challenges us all.
Of all things, Jesus is not hard on John. I think we are too hard on one another. There’s too much religion that beats up people. We are all subject to the contingencies of life and we are all very, very frail. Plenty of folks suffer a lot more than we ever know and they ought not have to suffer from the blistering condemnation of a bunch of puffed-up, hypocritical religious people who have never endured more than a bad tuna salad at a church fellowship meal. Larry Brown says, “Some people live harder lives than others. Some people have such a harder time than other people do, some people have to pay more in life, I don’t know why.”
All of us are all wounded by life and death, and sometimes the church inflicts those wounds. With one another’s help we can survive and proceed out of calamity. The church should help people survive by having a deep enough empathy to feel our pain and our despair.
What does Jesus say? “Go tell John what you hear and see.” “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.” Go tell John this is the new world that’s coming. John has not been abandoned to beat his head against the rock walls of prison. He is going to lose his head but he will not be separated from the love of God. Go tell John the kingdom is here and is coming and nothing can stop it. It is like a mighty river.
There are times when we find out if we have what it takes to turn our claims of Christian faith into real-life, real-time action. These are times when we face calamity. There’s a story in the Bible that says the king of Israel found his army surrounded by one million Ethiopians. This is exactly how life can feel: surrounded by a million enemies hell-bent on our destruction. A million – that’s Bible math for a big bunch. King Asa cried to the Lord his God, “Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude.” Help us, O Lord our God. The cry for help is a major part of biblical theology. This is Theology 101. The ancient church liturgy: Priest: O God, make haste to save us. People: O God, make haste to help us.
It is written everywhere in our faith history. But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life (Psalm 54:4). I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me (Psalm 118:13). “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid (Hebrews 13:6).
Back in the 1950’s a guitar picking country singer ran for governor of Louisiana. His name was Jimmie Davis. You may not know about him, but you have heard his most famous song, “You Are My Sunshine.” His advertisements always ended with, “Won’t you hep me?” That’s Southern for help. And the people elected him governor. It’s not a bad question to ask. God, won’t you help us? Ask for help!
One of the twentieth century’s great preachers lost his wife. His name was A. J. Gossip, and when he was able to preach again after many months, he said to his congregation, “Some people faced with tragedy, fling away their faith. Fling away to what?” he asked. And then he gave eloquent testimony to how his faith had sustained him. Gossip says, “If the ordinary aches and pains of life, shared by all humans, have pushed aside your religion, made you so sour and peevish and cross towards God – God help you, what will happen when, some calamity bursts in your life, and leaves an emptiness where there had been a home, a tumbled ruin of your ordered ways, a heart so sore you wonder how it holds together?”
Gossip then says, “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.” “Grace,” said Samuel Rutherford, “grows best in winter.” Well, we should have a bumper crop of grace in Peoria between now and Spring.
If you are tempted to think less of John for his doubt and despair, then you need to read the rest of the record: Jesus praises John the Baptist as a brave, courageous preacher – not a reed shivering in the wind, but a rock standing against the storms. He is not a soft, weak, scared preacher who says what people like to hear. “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
Here is the place where we can lift up our hearts and renew our faith. The Church is the place faith goes to regenerate and regain confidence in the face of calamities. And I really believe when you keep coming back here that your confidence and faith to take on the traumas of life will get stronger. Confidence infused with faith is available here and you are welcome to have as much of it as you handle! Let it be said of us, “By faith we obeyed.” “By faith we refuse to be called the children of this culture.” “By faith, we pass through the swelling of the Jordan as if it were dry ground.” “By faith, we bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Amen.