“are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (learning to shout the questions we tend to whisper; learning to whisper the answers we tend to shout)
Yesterday I sat in the basement of a small Korean church—the kind I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in—and exchanged hugs, laughter, and conversation with people I haven’t seen in years. And it was grace. There is really no other word for it—the gratitude I feel, the sudden welling up of joy I felt as I saw people who were family to me in many ways, whom I love in a way I can’t quite articulate. They represent a season of my life that is now over, and though that has been a cause of deep sadness for a long time, it doesn’t quite feel that way anymore. Maybe that time yesterday was the closure I’ve needed and have ached for, because now it doesn’t feel so sad, it feels more like peace. Or maybe that sadness has been superseded by gratitude. Either way, God is still working. That season is over, but that does not mean it never existed. There are still memories of experiences I will hold on to for the rest of my life, and there is still the quiet trust that God will continue to be faithful to our stories, that the best is indeed yet to come. And I am thankful. Thankful doesn’t quite say it.
I am especially thankful for that time because it has come at the end of a week that felt soaked in sorrow. Not my own so much as of people I care about, and in a way, of the whole world. Of the situation we are in politically, culturally, nationally and internationally, and of even our own individual lives, the sense of entropy that always seems to be corroding at the edges, pushing us a little deeper into disorder no matter how tightly we wrap our arms around the things we love and try to fix them. The Fall, I guess. That’s another way to say it. This week made the Fall feel real.
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask this question to Jesus, when he himself was locked behind bars for no good reason at all. Perhaps though, perhaps even if he’d had his own two feet to walk on, he would’ve sent his disciples, because I cain’t quite imagine that John would have felt completely free and unabashed to ask this question of the man he himself had proclaimed to the whole Judean countryside—with waving arms and brutal honesty and cracking voice raised against the winds, no less—as the lamb of God who takes on the sins of the world. And, of course, to ask of it of his own kin, when his own existence was inseparable from the prophecy that heralded his cousin’s birth. No, I think that had he been free, John would very likely have sent his disciples anyway. I would have. In a way, I do. Every time I ache to hear someone else’s testimony, someone else’s story or answered prayer, or hear someone else’s tale of grief, I am in a sense asking the same question: so have you found him to be the one, or do you think I should start looking for another?
Looking seems to be a major theme of both this passage and our modern journeys. Jesus didn’t much look like the portrait of the Messiah painted by the prophets even to the first century Jewish communities he walked among and he doesn’t much look it now, to the 21st. The most powerful human being in the world sits at a desk and sends a “My dog is bigger than your dog” tweet into cyberspace, to be read by thousands, in a sort of mocking challenge to a man whose rule is responsible for the starvation and deprivation of some millions more. In the last year alone, scores of women came into the open about stories of sexual abuse, withstanding the criticism and shaming of many skeptics in their willingness to be honest, their hope to make a better world for the next generation. Meanwhile, forest fires, hurricanes, bomb cyclones, and tornadoes made for a year wrought with natural disasters, and Vegas shooters at music festivals and racially-charged protests made for a year wrought with the unnatural kind. Every time I read the news, I ask John’s same question. Every time I look at myself, for that matter, and the selfishness that constantly corrodes me, the anger that seems to come out of nowhere. If he is really the one, why am I so little changed? Once again, I wonder if I am my own best proof against the existence of God.
And yet I find hope in the rest of Matthew’s account, because what does Jesus say? Does he rebuke John for his lack of faith? Does he point out every prophecy he fulfills, including the one about John himself? He does neither. Rather, he gives a very strange answer, one rooted in looking:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus’ reply is the opposite of theoretical and dogmatic. It is empirical in the truest sense of the world—appealing to the reality and truth of experience. Go and tell John what you have seen and heard (and have looked upon and touched with your hands), go and tell him… People are receiving their sight, people are receiving their hearing, those who cannot walk are walking, the dead are living… And good news has come in the form of hands and feet and eyes and a radical subversion of the traditionally hierarchical society. Do you want to see the truth, John? Look around. See by others’ new sight. Don’t you know that belief now has limbs? By all means, keep looking for another if you want to be safe—I’m the last person who’ll mind—but meanwhile, keep your eyes open for all the ways I am opening people’s eyes. And blessed are you, John, if you can hear this and not be offended, because God knows I know myself to be an offensive kind of truth. Like getting a shovel in answer to a request for water; like getting new eyes when all you asked was where to look.
This passage gives me so much hope, almost more than I want or can stand. It causes me to come alive in response to its beauty. It anoints me with this kind of quiet, burning desire to be the answer to John’s question to somebody else. And it awakens in me a sense of almost painful gratitude to all the people—friends and pastors, poets and novelists, theologians and musicians—who are the answer to John’s question for me. What is the Church? The body of Christ. Perhaps another way to say it is that the Church is the restored hands and feet and eyesight and hearing that Jesus resurrected during his ministry on earth, and we are to be those limbs and senses to a world aching from amputation and sensory deprivation. Come all ye who hunger and thirst, who yearn for meaning, who sting from suffering. Come all ye who are looking. There is good news here for you, and it is news that walks, laughs, weeps, sings.