Harrowing Of Hell
December 11, 2022

Going Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

The Rev. Pam Tinsley

Good Morning, Epiphany – those of you here in the church and those of you on-line. My name is Pam Tinsley, a new priest here at Epiphany, and a new priest in general. I’ll say more about that in a minute. I’m glad to be here with you today!

The first Sunday morning text that I get to explore with you from this pulpit is a powerful one, but also a perplexing one – one that speaks to me personally because it reflects my own story of waiting and doubt.

Here are John the Baptist’s words, spoken to Jesus through his friends: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now, we are all well-acquainted with waiting, which often involves pulling out our phones and scrolling through emails or news feeds as we wait in line for gas at Costco or at the grocery store or sitting in a pre-school parking lot to pick up a child, or, in my case, our granddaughter.

And then there is the kind of waiting that smart phones just don’t help with, such as waiting for a diagnosis, or waiting for an acceptance letter, or waiting for Christmas morning.

This second kind of waiting is where we meet John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew today. He is in jail, presumably waiting to get out, but more importantly, waiting to see if the guy that he thought would be the Messiah was really going to prove to be the Messiah.

Is this man, Jesus, going to do the things that everyone expected the Messiah to do?

And, as “Jolly Old John the Baptist” (as we all know him to be after last Sunday’s sermon) sits in jail – waiting – this scripture seems to indicate that he has begun to have doubts.

Waiting has a funny way of provoking doubts. I know something of this because I waited years to be ordained a priest. Here is the story: 14 years ago, I had begun to feel a call to ordained ministry, a call that others had noticed before I did.

By then, I’d already stepped off the corporate merry-go-round, giving up a sweet salary because, well, I just kept feeling God calling me to something else. Something that spoke to my heart, not to my head. Something that nourished me spiritually.

Don’t get me wrong. I worked for a great company with great people for 22 years.

But I just couldn’t let go of God – or maybe it was that God just wouldn’t let go of me!

I’d already started a Master’s in Pastoral Studies, which folded into a Master’s of Divinity: while working full-time as a Vice President of my company; while commuting from Tacoma to downtown Seattle; and while sending our son off to college.

Sounds somewhat promising, right? God calls. God waits, God calls, keeps calling. Pam, finally, responds. And then Pam waits. And waits. And waits.

I say, “waits,” because it wasn’t until 14 years later, this past summer, that I was ordained to the priesthood! And if you’re familiar with the ordination process, you might be aware that the process is, generally, closer to seven years.

So, the word “wait,” spoken by John the Baptist from jail, gets my attention! But why it strikes so close to my heart, is that his question is not just about waiting, it’s also about the doubt provoked by the waiting. Let me read that verse again: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another.”

The first part of the question – “Are you the one who is to come? – seems so unexpected, coming from John. After all, all four of the Gospels reveal John as the prophet who points the way to the Messiah. Luke’s Gospel describes how, in the womb, John already recognizes Jesus’ divinity. And then John baptizes Jesus only with reluctance because John recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the one who is to come. He’s also present when the Holy Spirit descends like a dove upon Jesus, and, when, from heaven, God’s voice proclaims that Jesus is God’s beloved son.

John has been so sure, so certain, that Jesus is the Messiah. And he’s made that clear to his own disciples and to anyone who will listen – even the brood of vipers, those Pharisees and Sadducees who had come from Jerusalem. In fact, it’s his strong and prophetic words about Jesus that lead to his languishing in prison, King Herod’s prison.

Yet, now, from his prison cell, John’s certainty is fading into doubt.  If Jesus is the Messiah – the light of the world – and is ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven, then why is John left to sit and await death in a dark and lonely prison cell? Why hasn’t this Messiah raised an army and stormed the jail and set him free?  Isn’t the Messiah to be God’s true king who will rescue Israel? The Messiah that John anticipates is a military man of might, not some roving, itinerant preacher and healer. And yet, there John sits.

So, John the Baptist, John the prophet who is called to point the way to the Christ, John THE prophet of our Christian scriptures, starts to doubt this Messiah. We hear it creep into his question: “Are you the one who is to come?”

And in doing so, John the Baptist gives voice to our own doubts about God, our own doubts about Jesus. Doubt is a real thing and a big deal, and part of our lives. And doubt is most insidious when it creeps into our consciousness during those times we have to wait. 

I know what that’s like. I’ve had times when I questioned my own beliefs or decisions – and even my call. “If this process is taking so long, God, is this truly your call?” Am I hearing other voices too loudly, including my own voice?

And, when did my nagging doubts spring forth most loudly? In dark times that seemed as though they would never end, just as John the Baptist experienced.

Now, because you’re here at Epiphany – whether in person or on-line – and because you’re thoughtful people, you know that doubt is a GOOD thing. Sme may believe that doubt is the opposite of faith, but it is not. Doubt is the opposite of certainty. And certainty and fixed ideas are obstacles to faith. Doubt is not. Like a closed door, certainty is what constrains our spiritual lives because it is an attitude that shuts down conversation, and too often becomes the reason relationships become strained or broken. And so, because we have a relational God, we know doubt to be a spiritual quality that opens conversation and relationship.

Doubt, in fact, opens the door to faith. It invites others in and gives us new perspectives and new understandings. As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes in his Letters to a Young Poet:

“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. . .. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rlke asks us to seek the questions, not the answers, and that can only happen in conversation. 

Which is the best place to be when we are waiting and confronted by doubt.

John models this for us – or at least he modeled it for me these past 14 years.  Although imprisoned, John is not isolated. He has his community of disciples with whom he is in contact. From there he hears the news of what the Messiah is doing. And he is engaging with his disciples, so much so, that John sends word to Jesus through them. John relies on his community to help him bear his imprisonment and his doubts and his questions.

Just as John models the importance of community, community helped sustain me during the stops and starts of my ordination process. As I waited and sometimes doubted, it might have been easy to withdraw, especially when we found ourselves in a new church home.

But instead of letting my certainty be defined by changing churches, I decided to live more fully into my doubt by intentionally keeping connected to my former faith communities and by fostering new relationships. I allowed the conversation around my ordination process, doubts and all, to find new dialogue partners, and soon our new parish became my sending parish.

John models the necessity of community for working through doubt. That was my experience, as well.

My faith communities walked with me, and whenever my doubt would surface, they would point out how they experienced me living into my call – they responded as Jesus did to John’s disciples: “What do you hear? What do you see?” And, I ended up with a stronger sense of call.

During these past three years, we’ve all been living through a pandemic, which has forced us to put our lives on hold, to wait for a time when we could return to normal. But now it seems as though normal will never return, and everything is different in this world where COVID is endemic. And here, too, doubt creeps in, particularly about our relationship with God and our relationship with the church.

I hear that from folks at other churches, and we may see that just a bit here at Epiphany.

The thing is, there’s no better place to wrestle with doubt than in community. And there’s no better place to wrestle with doubts about God than in church. This is absolutely the right place to take on the tough questions of doubt. After all, you can do that here . . .  because . . . wherever you are on your spiritual journey you have a place at Epiphany, that is, an invitation to come together as a community to share with one another – and with our neighbors – what we hear and what we see about this Jesus, the Messiah.