Few of us ever plan on going to prison. No one wants to spend time in a jail cell. Yet many of us spend time in one every day.
We spend time in jails built around us. Sometimes they are barely noticeable. Like the fish that doesn’t know it is in a fish bowl, or the bird that doesn’t know the world outside the cage, we spend our time in prison. These are the prisons of injustice. They are the prisons of systems that keep us from fulfilling our dreams. They are the walls that are built by those that want to keep others oppressed. Hope and possibility are kept out, and all that remains is a cycle of despair.
Sometimes we are in prisons that we built ourselves. We guard our pain and our torment and make sure nothing is able to penetrate the walls we build. We have been hurt too many times, so we build walls. We remain in the cell because the outside world is full of pain, and at least inside the cell we have the illusion of safety. Intimacy and friendship are kept out, and all that remains is superficiality.
Sometimes we are in prisons that have been built for us. These walls are built by sickness, or by those that hurt us. Sometimes great wrongs are inflicted upon us. Sometimes the tragedy is too much to take. Some say, “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.” I don’t believe it, because I don’t believe it is always God that is giving it. Sometimes the pain is just too much, and the walls of the prison are too strong to break free. Healing and joy are kept out, and all that remains is pain.
In Matthew 11:2-11, we find John the Baptist in prison. He was imprisoned by a King that did not want to hear the truth. John spoke the truth to power. He called for repentance. He called for a change of heart. He called upon people to follow the path of righteousness, and he prepared the way for the one that would come. But he was not imprisoned until he demanded too much of the King. When he impeded the powerful from having his way, he had to be stopped. He was kept alive, for awhile, by the will of the people.
John was called the “greatest of all those born of a woman,” by Jesus. And yet as he was in jail, he wondered. It can be dangerous to inject too much of our own thoughts into figures in the Bible, but here it is almost impossible not to wonder what John was thinking when he sent a messenger to Jesus.
“Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?” he asked.
John was in prison, so all he could do was wait. And yet he wanted to know, “Are you the one?” Sitting in jail, still alive at the whim of a tyrannical King, looking back at his work, his ministry, and looking forward to a future that was unlikely to have a happy ending, he asked, “Are we to wait for another?”
And likewise I wait. I wait in my prison. I wait in the prison of sin that I have built around me. I wait in the prison of injustice that is all around. I look to Newtown and Columbine. I look to the Liberian Civil War and Apartheid South Africa. I look to violence on the streets of our cities, and violence in the homes our children. I look to hungry children at the school in my neighborhood, and to the cold families looking for coats at our Wardrobe ministry. I look into my own heart at the choices I make, the hurts that I cause, and the prisons I build. I wait and look back at my work, my ministry, and look forward to the future and wonder. “Are we to wait for another?”
Is the question a sin unto itself? Maybe. But at least I know that I’m in good company. I’ve never felt that doubt is the opposite of faith. .
So, trapped in our prisons, what do we do? What is Jesus’ answer? Of course, Jesus doesn’t give us a straight answer (That is why I think doubt is not an obstacle to faith, but lines the pathway of faith. If Jesus wanted us to never doubt or question, he would have given us more straight answers.).
“Tell John what you have seen,” Jesus says. Tell John to look beyond his prison walls. Tell him to look beyond the pain and the heartache and the bleak outlook. Tell John “that 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.”
This Advent, we still wait. We wait like John in prison. Not held in by despair, but looking always outward. Looking from within our own prisons at the world all around. Waiting and watching with God’s eyes to see the signs. Waiting is never a fun activity. We do everything in our power to avoid waiting… for anything. We fill our time with noise. We go to restaurants designed to limit waiting as much as possible. We go to grocery stores where the lines are filled with things to read, and last-minute items to buy. What are waiting rooms filled with? TVs, magazines, some even check out ipads.
Yet here we are waiting, but not idly. We are purposefully waiting. Waiting with eyes open to the love of God that is all around. We hear one of the Newtown mothers declare “Love wins,” and are left in awe of the power of the human heart to heal. We hear stories like the one Peter Storey tells here, of a woman in South Africa who said to the man that killed her son, “You took my son. So now you must be mine.”
Advent is a season to wait. Wait and watch for Christ in our midst. In a world addicted to instant gratification, the act of purposeful waiting is a revolutionary act. It is a soul-cleansing act. We wait with eyes wide open. We wait with hearts open for Christ, seeking the answers to our questions in the stories of hope and grace. We wait, seeking forgiveness. We do not rush into anything, because you cannot rush something as powerful and painful and precious as forgiveness.
This Advent, we wait like John in prison, who was called to notice the signs all around.
This Advent, we wait like Mandela in prison, who refused to let the walls hold him. We wait like Mandela, who transformed his prison into a crucible of learning, organization, and reconciliation. Who practiced forgiveness even as he was tormented. Mandela, who befriended white guards who were supposed to hate him, who used their friendship to secretly write his manuscript for A Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela, who wrote in prison, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death” (from A Long Walk to Freedom)
We are called to look beyond the walls of our prison. Don’t ignore the walls, but do not let them defeat you. Look beyond the walls, and do not let them contain you. See the signs of mercy, justice, and love. See Christ all around – not in holiday decorations or TV specials. See Christ in the hearts of others. The prisons made by sin and injustice can feel impenetrable, but there is freedom in Christ. No prison held Mandela. No prison held John. Let none hold you.
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