During Advent, Christians proclaim two things – the world is not supposed to be like this, with all of its hurt and pain. And we say that God is beginning to change that world right now.
So a couple of reasonable questions spring to my mind, and if I’m going to say those things, I’d better have some kind of answer, because I bet someone will ask me.
First, they might ask me for some kind of evidence that what I say is true. Sure, they tell me. It’s easy to say God has a different idea of the world than what we see, but can you really prove things are supposed to be different than they are? People doing each other wrong seems pretty widespread – can you give me something that can help me believe those people are somehow different from what God had in mind for them?
In a sense, this is the question John has his disciples ask Jesus. John made some comments about the irregularity of the royal marriage. Today, that gets you your own TV show but back then it got him thrown in jail. From prison, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the Messiah, “the one.”
I don’t wonder that John asks this. Talking about the Kingdom of God and what it means in the world got him thrown in jail, after all, so I can see why he might wonder about what he’s done, and about Jesus. From John’s point of view, things don’t look at all like he figured they’d be once the Messiah showed up.
Through history, people have asked similar questions. If God is real, they ask, why do bad things happen? How does all this evil happen if a good God has anything to do with the world at all? In fact, since people are evil and bad things happen, that proves God isn’t real, doesn’t it? Of course John doesn’t go that far, but I’ve met people who have, and you might meet them sometime too.
Jesus could give John a great philosophical answer, which would explain this problem that people have wondered about since they started wondering.
But he knows that John doesn’t want something explained as much as he wants a reason to hope, so he offers that instead. Go tell John about the miracles you see, Jesus said. Go tell him lame people walk and blind people see and deaf people hear and the poor hear God speak to them.
And that answer turns the question about why evil exists around, too. If bad things prove God isn’t real, then what do good things prove? If murder proves there’s no God, how do we explain it when the victim’s family offers forgiveness and even love to the killer? Where does that come from?
John wants to know if he’s been on the right track or if he wasted his time and he sits in prison for nothing. Jesus’ answer lets him know he is definitely on the right track – the Kingdom he proclaimed is coming, and the healings and miracles he hears about bear witness to it.
Jesus’ actions also answer the second question we might get asked if we proclaim God works to change this world into what he wants it to be. What, folks might ask, is that world like? If things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, what are they supposed to be like?
Well, in that world, folks who are sick get cared for – sometimes they might even be healed by miraculous means. Nobody tries to pretend poor folks somehow don’t rate with God the way rich folks do. Like Isaiah says, the lamb sleeps next to the lion without fear.
And yeah, John, people don’t get thrown in jail for telling the truth to the powerful. Or for other reasons that have nothing to do with breaking a real law or hurting someone.
There’s a long list of what God wants this world to look like, and people who sit down and really think about it will find themselves overwhelmed by how big the job is. Maybe they feel as hopeless as John did, locked up by an evil king who wasn’t paying any attention to a Kingdom of God.
We can’t pretend the world is something it’s not any more than John could pretend he was still noshing on bugs and wild honey at the Jordan River.
But we can proclaim that God is here, at work in this world. And we can see signs of that all around us when we look. Some days we have to look pretty dadgum hard and maybe those signs are very faint.
They are real, though. And in and through them, God is making the real world new.