The Baptism of Jesus, by He Qi
(contemporary artist who blends Christian images with Chinese folk art)
(used with permission: www.heqiart.com)*
18The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
“But why?” was little Andy’s perennial question to any member of our family. Andy was a long-ago young neighbor whose mind was persistently bursting with questions. And he wanted answers. Why was his world the way it was? Why did people do what they did? We’d all try to come up with reasonable answers, but often Andy’s response to our answers would simply be another “but why?”
John had a similar question for Jesus, the one for whom he had prepared the way. The one whom he had baptized. The one on whom he had seen the Spirit descend. The one whom he had identified to his followers as the Son of God and the Lamb of God. In those early days, John had been so sure of Jesus’ identity. So certain that here at last was the One. Since then, it was true, he had heard some good things, many good things, in fact, about the ministry of Jesus. He’d heard about the healings, the exorcisms, the powerful teachings. But he had also heard some disturbing things. That Jesus ate with sinners. That Jesus’ disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath. That often they didn’t observe the prescribed ritual laws of washing their hands before they ate.
Jesus simply wasn’t acting the way John the Baptist had understood God’s Chosen One would act. “But why, Jesus? Why are you doing these things that are so contradictory to our Jewish laws? Why aren’t you insisting that your disciples be as ritually clean as good Jewish people are supposed to be? Why are you mingling with sinners and allowing yourself and your reputation to be tainted by them? I was so sure you were the One we all awaited. But now I’m not so sure. Did I prepare the way for the wrong person? Were my preaching, my baptizing, and my faith in you all miserable mistakes?” John was in prison when he asked these questions of Jesus, and he was no doubt experiencing a dryness in his soul, a shriveling of his faith, a desert emptiness of his spirit.
John was well accustomed to desert life. He had lived and preached in the desert and knew its harsh terrain. But this “inner” desert was different. Much more uncomfortable than any actual physical desert could ever be. John didn’t like the barrenness of not being sure. Didn’t like this lack of clearly defined answers. Didn’t like that Jesus wasn’t behaving in just the ways John thought he should be behaving. This desert called for a stretching of his faith far beyond his comfort zone. But why, Jesus, but why?
So it so often is with us, is it not? We have a positive faith experience, and God’s love and presence seem so very real in our lives. And then difficulties strike. Questions arise. God’s absence hovers all around, and we lose our footing in the shifting sands of uncertainty. God is not acting, not “performing,” in the ways we had expected. Questions haunt us and chase us through the deserts of our doubts. And so, with Andy and with John, we cry out, “But why? But why, God, are you not behaving in the way we had hoped, in the way we had expected? Why does my friend have to live with cancer? Another with Parkinsons? Yet another with double depression, while I, meanwhile, can do so little to help, as I’m coping with this CFS/ME day after day after day?”
Jesus does not give John the answer that John was hoping for. John would no doubt have been more than satisfied if Jesus had simply said, clearly and emphatically, “Yes, John, I am the One for whom the world has waited. I am the Messiah for whom you prepared the way.” But that’s not what Jesus says. Instead he asks John to simply notice what’s been going on around Jesus. To look and listen to the stories of all that Jesus has been accomplishing. To look and listen and then to determine for himself just who Jesus was.
God so often responds to our “but why’s” in the same way. Like John, we would prefer decisive answers to all our questions. Explanations that are clear and definitive, answers that leave no room for questions or doubts. Instead, “Look and listen,” God says. “Look and listen to all the stories of my activity in the Scriptures. Look and listen to all the stories of saints down through the centuries who have sung of my reality in their lives, in spite of their deserts of hardship and persecution. Look and listen to the many different ways I have been active in your own life and in the lives of those around you. Look and listen and let these stories nurture and enrich your faith. Look and listen and let these stories renew your confidence that I am indeed with you and for you.”
Poet Mary Oliver tells us that “there are so many stories more beautiful than answers.” Her words so clearly echo the words of Jesus to the disciples of John, the words of God to us. Much as we might want definitive answers, perhaps we can learn instead to find courage and see the beauty in the stories that are given to us. A beauty that expands our horizons. A beauty that deepens our awareness. A beauty that helps us live with all the questions we carry with us throughout our lives.
*HeQI@2014 All rights Reserved
**“Snake,” by Mary Oliver, House of Light,1990