Does anyone in this room believe in an actual, literal Santa Claus—you know, the jolly rotund guy in a red suit with fuzzy white fringe who somehow manages to deliver presents to several billion people all over the world in the mere space of twenty-four hours via a magical sleigh and some flying reindeer? Anyone?
Well, if so, you might not want to be here for the next few minutes. I mean, I don’t want to be the one who puts an end to this innocent dream of yours. Far be it from me to point out that people have been lying to you—your brothers and sisters, your parents, maybe even the whole world.
Okay, maybe not the whole world; that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it might feel that way.
I can remember the day clearly—almost exactly forty-two years ago today. Mom was out playing tennis. Dad was tinkering in the garage, probably working on one of the cars. Point is, both parents were preoccupied.
Technically, I suppose, my brother Andy and I were being supervised. He was seven; I was six. But, hey, this was the seventies: technically speaking, supervision meant Dad was home, sure; but in reality his two young boys might escape his watchful eye for an hour or two—or several.
Andy realized this. He was the firstborn and therefore already quite savvy to Mom and Dad’s ways. I, however, was the second-born and still the baby of the family, quite content to let everyone else fuss over the details of day-to-day life so that I could focus on what really mattered: not on how things really were but on how things ought to be.
Anyway, Andy, realizing that we boys were out from under Mom and Dad’s watchful eye for a while, stood up and walked across the avocado green shag carpet of the family room and turned off the TV and said, “Tim, I want to show you a secret.”
Secret, did he say? I’m in!
So I followed him upstairs to the entryway closet. We entered. He pulled the string that turned on the single 40-watt bulb that dangled at the end of a cord from the ceiling. And he shut the door.
Then, inside this secret space, he said, “Follow me,” and he ascended the built-in ladder, pushed open the attic door, and disappeared overhead.
“We’re not supposed to go up there,” I reminded from below.
Well, what was I to do? What would you do?
I ascended the ladder and entered the attic.
And to my great surprise there were several beautifully wrapped presents, apparently ready to be set out under the Christmas tree.
Andy had a pocketknife and a roll of scotch tape with him. How they got there, I didn’t ask. But by now I was thinking this all was premeditated.
His plan, I learned, was to unwrap the presents carefully enough to find out what our gifts were. He was savvy, remember. And his head was rooted in pragmatic reality.
But my head was rooted in the world of ideals.
As such, that morning my world caved in. For I read a few labels. One said, “To, Timmy; with love, Santa.” Another said, “For, Andy; love, Mr. and Mrs. Claus.” And the gig was up.
“Um, I’m leaving now,” I told my big brother. And without waiting for his approval I left that attic, exited the entryway closet, and went to my bedroom, where I closed the door, fell despondently onto my bed, and cried forlornly into my pillow.
My brother had lied to me. My parents also, I realized, had lied to me. Good grief, the whole world had lied to me!
I remember this story from my childhood about this time every year. What triggered it this year was John the Baptist’s question in today’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Now, John the Baptist was an idealist. His head usually was not caught up with the way things are. Rather, his concern was with the way things ought to be.
We know nothing about his early life, except that he leapt in the womb when he met his cousin Jesus, also in utero. But we can pretty easily surmise that he spent a lot of his early life in study, trying to discern the signs of the times. For, as an adult he assumed the role of a prophet. He knew a lot of theology. He connected his current, pragmatic world to God’s ideal world—the way the world ought to be, when the kingdom of God becomes reality.
All this was fine during his formative years, when he was able to study. All this was fine as he began his prophetic ministry, as an adult. All this was fine when the multitudes came to him to be baptized in the Jordan. All this was fine when Jesus came to him too; and he publicly proclaimed that here is the very Messiah himself. All this was fine when his message of the way things ought to be was well received.
But then reality interfered and interrupted. Herod arrested John and threw him in jail.
Wait a minute! This isn’t how things are supposed to go. If Jesus truly is the Messiah, then he should be righting wrongs. He should be increasing while the powers of this world are decreasing. Yet Herod has thrown John in jail. The powers of this world are yet triumphing. Reality is not allowing Jesus to gain a foothold. All is not fine now!
And John wonders: Maybe my brothers and sisters have lied to me; maybe my parents and teachers have lied to me; maybe the whole world has lied to me. Maybe Jesus is not really who I think he is—who I’ve been told he is.
So: John the Baptist, the top kid in the class, the one person about whom the scriptures say no one born of a woman is greater, this John the Baptist asks a question that pesters all of us.
Maybe it only comes around only once or twice in your lifetime. Maybe it comes around annually with Santa Claus. Or maybe it pesters continuously. But here it is: Jesus, are you really the Messiah? Or are you nothing more than a sophisticated Santa Claus story?
Has my family been lying to me? Have my teachers been lying to me? Has the church been lying to me? Has the whole world been lying to me?
And I’m glad John asks it. Because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kid to raise my hand and ask a stupid question.
I don’t want everyone else to know that my faith is a struggle; that my faith is weak; that maybe at times my doubt is in fact stronger than my belief, maybe even for long stretches of time; that I often wonder if I even believe at all anymore.
I don’t want to be the one to admit I’ve lost my faith, especially when I’m sitting here in church!
But what about when I’m sitting in my own prison cell, and it sure seems like Jesus isn’t doing anything about it?
We all have them, you know: our own prison cells.
You might feel imprisoned by large events in the world: terrorist acts; supernatural disasters; large-scale events that produce chaos. You sit there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless to do anything about them.
Or your prison cell might be a past relationship gone bad, and now it’s impossible to seek any kind of reconciliation. You’re there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless, a cell made for you by another person.
Or your cell might be past mistakes you’ve made as an individual; and now you must face the consequences of your past choices, consequences you’re powerless to change. Your cell has been made by your own hands.
Whatever your prison cell of brokenness, you are left with no other alternative but to cry out to a savior.
But what if your savior doesn’t deliver? What if Jesus does not do the things you always thought he would? What if Jesus does not do the things everyone always told you he would? What then?
Has your family lied to you? Has the church? Has the whole world been lying to you?
I’m glad John the Baptist asks this question from his prison cell today. Aren’t you? For he’s the top kid in the class. And if the top kid in the class struggles with this question, somehow that makes it okay for me and for you—for us—to struggle with this question too.
Jesus, are you the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of this sin-infected world?
Or are you merely a sophisticated Santa Claus story?
So, guess what: Jesus does not answer John’s question directly; which compels me to think, by extension, that neither will Jesus answer our doubts directly. We’re talking about faith, after all; not proof.
Nevertheless, Jesus does give John a kind of answer. And it is this: look outside your prison cell.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “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 I imagine John’s response: “Fine and well, Jesus—for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the half-dead, and the poor. But what about me?”
I know it doesn’t feel like Jesus is saving the world as you sit there in your prison cell with John the Baptist. But Jesus says to look outside your own prison cell. And, when you do, if you are able, what do you see?
Despite all the bad news, great strides are being made in the world towards liberation—from oppressive governments, from poverty, from illiteracy, from terrorism, from disease.
And it’s not just global society I’m talking about: great strides are being made right here in Yuma County. And it’s not just the corporate: we hear an awful lot these days about individual mental health and personal wellness.
All around us, people are being liberated. Take a look beyond yourself and see and hear it. Any time we see or hear about liberation for a person, a family, a community, or the globe, this is Jesus at work. And this gives up hope.
But what about those people who just can’t do it? What about those who just cannot seem to see beyond their own prison cells, no matter how hard they try?
If this is you, please, I ask, let someone know, someone you trust, someone who might be able to help you in your prison cell.
But know this. Even there, imprisoned and unable to see beyond the very walls of your cell, Jesus is with you. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Whatever dignity you can find within yourself, whatever self-respect, there is comfort: Jesus in you.
Comfort, comfort, ye my people, says the Lord.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
. . .
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.