In the early 1960s, an 18-year-old African American man named Robert King was sentenced to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He would be in and out of that same prison for most of the rest of the decade. In 1969, Robert was sentenced to Angola again, but this time for a crime he claimed he did not commit. Of course, no one believed him. But in 2001 forensic evidence cleared him of the crime and he was set free after spending an appalling 29 years in solitary confinement. 29 years.
He described his cell as a dimly lit 9 by 6 feet box, with bars at the front facing onto the cement wall of the corridor. Inside that box were a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table, a chair and an air vent on the back wall, through which he could sometimes speak to unseen others.
Three times a week, he got one hour in the exercise yard. But even there he was segregated from the other prisoners and not allowed to speak to them. If he did speak, Robert risked being sent to the “cold box” – a place of total isolation and sensory depravation. These experiences marked him.
Since 2001, Robert has lived on the outside, but he has never been free of Angola. His sight is permanently impaired because of spending so much time in the dark. He cannot accurately judge long distances because of spending so much time in such a tiny space.
Jesus told us to visit those in prison, but this is a commandment that we feel free to ignore. We Americans are law and order types. We’re not really so interested in rehabilitation. We like punishment. We want to lock the criminals up and throw away the key. We are the willing servants of the prison industrial complex.
But who are these people in addition to being criminals? And what of the convicted innocent? And what about political prisoners? My spouse Marcos spent years living under a military dictatorship in Brazil, in which artists and philosophers and theologians were declared enemies of the state and were banished or imprisoned or “disappeared.” And by the way, the US government fully supported all of this.
John the Baptist was a political prisoner. Once he lived in the wilderness, under the sun and off the land, free to roam wherever his heart desired. Once he mesmerized crowds of up to 50,000. But now he was all alone, deprived of the sun and wind, and confined in a dark, dank cell. King Herod had John arrested because he was preaching that a new Sovereign was coming. And that message made the Romans nervous. And nervous Romans made a puppet like Herod nervous. And so he did what all political bullies do (or in our case threaten to do), he threw John in jail.
And so John was left with only his thoughts. He thought about this life and his God and his message. What had it all been about? What did it all mean? Who was this Jesus, really? This Jesus perplexed John. Jesus certainly didn’t turn out to be the rabble-rouser that John wanted. John preached that the ax was at the root of the tree. John warned of threshing floors and unquenchable fire. But Jesus healed the sick and accepted the outcast and fed the hungry. Where was the fiery judgment? Had John gotten it wrong? Had he wasted his life? Was Jesus the Promised One prophesied or was someone else coming? Suddenly he needed to know.
Our circumstances might different, but we all know how John felt in that moment. In the crucible of our living, questions about the meaning of life become all the more important and poignant. When we are sick or old or threatened, we long for assurance and comfort. John wanted that assurance and so he sent one of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
And Jesus answered: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.”
Jesus used a patchwork of verses from the book of Isaiah regarding what the Messiah will do in the world. It’s an answer to John’s question, but it’s a rather cryptic one. And in the crucible, we want straight talk, not poetry. John wanted a definitive “yes” or “no.” Surely that would have been more merciful.
Yes or no. Black or white. Don’t we all want that about the big questions of life? And yet, it has been my experience that any significant spiritual growth that I have ever had did not come to me in the blazing light of revealed truth and certainty. Instead, God seems to dwell in and communicate from the shadows of uncertainty and from the ashes of our disillusionment.
For John the pressing question was “Are you the one?” For us it might be “Does God really exist?” Or “why am I suffering?” Or “Is death the end?” And instead of a plain answer, we get clues – riddles, inclinations, yearnings, desires. For some people, that’s not enough. And so they claim to sell a brand of Christianity that is built on certainty. They try to convince us that if we have the right faith, the right theology, then all doubt will disappear. I was raised to believe that, and yet that was never my experience of God.
The desire for certainty is really about our desire for control. But in the end, faith is essentially about trust. Jesus’s answer to John’s pressing and real question was just enough to entice John to trust what he could not prove and what he would never live to see. But it was enough to get John to take the next step. And that is how faith is lived: step by step.
I was about 28 and in my first call. And I was in the darkest night that my soul had ever seen. My growing sense of identity was at odds with the theology in which I had been raised. And so I had tried every way I knew to conform and shove my life through a pre-cut theological hole. People with lots of theological certainty told that this was what God expected. But after a year or so of trying to be what I was not, I was exhausted and angry and at the end of my rope. One night I lay in bed, angry and confused. I had been asking for a clear answer from God, but I had none. In deep frustration, I looked up at the ceiling and I sent God away. And just so that God would be sure that I meant it, I used the “f” word for emphasis. And then I rolled over and went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, I was surprised to be alive. I guess I expected a lightening bolt to take me out during the night. But I was alive and so I got up and got on with my life. And even though I didn’t know it then, I couldn’t have known it then, that very morning I started on a road that eventually led me to this very moment in this very pulpit.
Faith is a journey of trust. It is taken one step at a time. It is not a destination. And along the way, what you can be certain of is disillusionment, despair, and failure. But these moments are doorways for God. There is grace in our disillusionment, for in it we open to the Advent of the One who meets us in our pain and shows us a new way to go.