This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached yesterday, the Third Sunday of Advent. The gospel text was Matthew 11:2-11. I also began a two-month period of leading the congregation in talking and praying about “pastoral care.” You may see this theme appear in many upcoming sermons.
When you’re in school, sometimes you just don’t understand what the teacher is talking about. Maybe you daydreamed for a minute, or maybe the teacher didn’t explain it well, or maybe it’s just confusing. But so often you don’t want to ask, because either the teacher or your classmates might think you’re stupid. But every now and then, something amazing happens. The brightest kid in the class raises her hand, and asks the same question that’s on your mind. Oh, it’s like the heavens opened up and the angels sang. Not only did someone else ask your question, but it was the whiz kid. And so it’s okay that you were confused. Oh, what a wonderful sense of relief.
When I was in seminary, I had that experience like that. The seminary had revived an ancient practice called a Quodlibet. A Quodlibet was a series of two seminars held in honor of one particular professor. Everyone in the seminary community was invited, students, faculty, staff, friends. At the first of the two seminars, the honored professor would stand in the front of the room, and everyone was invited to ask that professor questions. Any questions at all, but usually having something to do with the faith or the church. That professor would silently write down those questions, only speaking if clarification were needed. Two weeks later, the second seminar involved the same professor and the same audience. And this time the honored professor was the one who spoke, giving their answers to whichever questions they wanted to respond to.
The first Quodlibet I attended was in honor of Dr. Gordon Lathrop. The auditorium was packed for the question day. There were questions aplenty. Questions about worship, about the church, about God. And then Bob Bornemann raised his hand. Dr. Lathrop motioned for Bob to ask his question. Bob said:
“What is salvation?”
There was silence. I thought, “Wow, that’s a question that I wouldn’t have had the guts to ask.” I was a senior seminarian. If I had asked that, I think some of my professors would have made a note of it: “Scholtes doesn’t know what salvation is.” I thought, that would affect anyone’s chances to be ordained. How could you admit not to understand that? I’ll admit, I was very curious about the answer. And I was shocked that somebody asked the question. But what was perhaps more shocking was that Bob Bornemann was generally known as Rev. Dr. Robert Bornemann, retired professor of Old Testament. He wasn’t a student like me. He was a 75-year-old, ordained, highly educated, respected scholar who had taught at this very seminary for decades. Now that’s the smartest kid in class. And he honestly wanted to know, “What is salvation?” Don’t we all.
So John the Baptist in today’s gospel is in prison. You might remember the story of how he got there, by shouting a bit too loudly about how King Herod’s marriage was illegal. And you might remember that John will die soon while still a prisoner. But before his death, Matthew tells us that John started to wonder about Jesus. Remember, in the beginning John proclaimed loudly and boldly that Jesus was coming, and that he would baptize everyone with the Holy Spirit and with fire! By now, Jesus was here, and his ministry was well under way. But John, who had given his whole life over to being a prophet, who was so sure, he now questioned, “Are you the one?” John, of all people. Now, that’s the smartest kid in class. How could John question this?
Don’t we wonder, too? Don’t we all wonder, even at this time of year, if Jesus really is the one? Don’t we all wonder, especially at this time of year, if we’ve missed the whole point of Christmas? Or if Christmas, or Jesus, had forgotten about us? Don’t we wonder sometimes why God allows certain things to happen? Why God doesn’t help us, or help someone else? Why God seems to be so absent? When we suffer, like John did in prison, don’t we wonder why, and if maybe we were wrong about Jesus all along? Perhaps we’re scared to admit that in church, as I was scared to admit that I too didn’t understand salvation in seminary.
But John was brave, and he sent word to Jesus, asking him, “Are you the one?” Jesus told the messengers, “go and tell John what you hear and see.” Tell him what you hear and see. Tell him that the blind can see, the deaf can hear, and the dead are raised. Tell him that.
And that’s pastoral care. John the Baptist was imprisoned, in desperate need of pastoral care. And one way his followers gave him that care was by reminding him about Jesus. Sometimes all of us need to be reminded of Jesus. Like John, we all go through times when we struggle to see it. When our faith is fragile. When our trust in God is wavering. That’s normal. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. But those are the times when we need someone else to remind us. When we need someone to tell us what they have heard and seen. God has called us to do this for one another, just as Jesus called John’s disciples to do this for John. And God has equipped us each in unique ways to do this.
For instance, one way I have been equipped to share this is with people suffering from depression. I can listen to them, and respond, I have been where you are. And I can tell you what I’ve seen. I have seen God come to me during the worst moments of depression. God hasn’t taken it away from me, but God has come to me. God came to me once in a bright light, which was probably just a streetlight, but to me was a sign that God loved me. God came to me through a congregation that told me it’s okay that I suffer like this. It’s okay that I talk about it. I could still be loved, and I could still be their pastor. God came to me. I haven’t seen the blind given their sight, or the deaf their hearing, at least not literally. But I have seen hope given to those in deep despair, because I’ve seen it happen to me.
You are equipped to do this too. Not the same way I am, but in line with your own experience, your own struggles, your own life. What if someone in this room told you today, “I’m not sure I believe it anymore. I don’t feel God in my life.” What would you tell them?
I attended the second seminar, the answer session, of Dr. Lathrop’s Quodlibet. He answered a lot of the questions raised at the question time. And I am confident that his answers were deep and thoughtful and scholarly and faithful. But I don’t remember any of them. Because I was only listening for his answer to one question: “What is salvation?” He didn’t answer that one. I don’t know what, but he didn’t answer that one. I wish he had. I still don’t know what salvation is.
Or maybe I do. Maybe for me, salvation is God coming to me in the middle of depression. Maybe for John the Baptist, salvation was his disciples telling him what they saw. Maybe for each of us, salvation is a little different. And maybe reminding one another of that is exactly what we need this Christmas season.