Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 12th December 2010, the Third Sunday of Advent.
For those of you who missed the service last week, we spent quite a bit of time exploring the territory of wilderness, as it applies to each of us. We took a walk into our own wilderness, with all the sights, smells, and feelings attached to it. This week we continue on that journey as we explore perhaps a different kind of wilderness.
Last week we talked about a personal experience of wilderness, and how this experience is necessary for our own spiritual formation. But we also could have talked about the wilderness that the church across the world finds itself in. We don’t have to stretch our imaginations too far in order to perceive that the church finds itself in a kind of wilderness territory.
People are dropping out like flies, churches are getting smaller in numbers, they are closing down, and on the whole they are failing to add new members to their rolls. Everyone is aware of how the Church of Scotland has to trim down the number of ministers because it cannot sustain the current numbers. It is fairly obvious to everyone that the church is going through its own wilderness experience.
If we take a closer look at most of our churches, we will probably notice that we are missing a significant generational chunk. On average we are missing people between the age of 20 and 45, give or take a few years up or down. That is a significant generational gap. It should make us wonder why this is happening. Everyone has theories around that, and obviously I have my own. I’m not going to bore you with my theory, because we could be here all day.
But I believe one of the main issues connected to this generational gap is the way we currently relate to the territory of doubt. Or to put this in more practical terms, it is about the process of learning and making sense of reality. If we take a close look at the way we do church today, we will probably notice that on the whole one person is speaking and all the others are listening. The seating arrangement shows this clearly.
That used to be the generally accepted model of learning in lower and higher educational environments. We have the specialist or the expert standing behind the desk or pulpit, sometimes ‘five feet above contradiction’, and then we have the crowd who are ignorant and need to be enlightened. The expert has all the answers, or most of them anyway, and his or her role is to translate those answers from their head into the heads of the crowd. This way of learning must sound very familiar to many of us who went to school at least 10 years ago.
In this kind of educational model, doubt is a serious problem, especially if it is directed at the expert behind the desk. If you buy into this model, you have to accept that the specialist has the answers, and that you need those answers. Thus all you have to do is to appropriate and learn the answers. Expressing any kind of doubt regarding the answers which are provided for you, raises serious questions about the competence of the expert. Doubt is a big problem for this way of learning.
Doubt is also a problem for us as Christians, because we are taught to accept the answers that the church provides through its catechisms, standards of faith, creeds and so on. Preaching is a routine avenue of communicating truth, hopefully biblical truth, and you are expected to believe what you hear, and not doubt.
If your minister doesn’t have all the answers, and if you doubt what he or she is telling you, then one could ask ‘why did you call this person to be your minister’? If I am unable to provide answers to all your questions, what then justifies my existence as a minister? These are difficult questions. For many people these are painful questions.
In this context, it is perhaps surprising to read in the gospel according to Matthew that John the Baptist is sitting in prison where he hears about what Jesus is doing, and he writes a letter to Jesus asking him if he is the one who was going to come, or should they wait for another. It is perhaps surprising for our ears to discover that John the Baptist has doubts! The great prophet, the one of which Jesus says that ‘is greater than anyone who has ever lived’. This John has doubts. The one who was sent in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord is now in doubt about Jesus. Astounding!
John is sitting in prison and hears that Jesus is NOT burning any chaff in unquenchable fire, as John predicted he would do. He hears that Jesus is not wielding an axe cutting down trees that are not bearing fruit. He is not baptising anyone with fire. Jesus is not doing the things that he was expecting him to do, and thus he has doubts that Jesus is the Messiah who was to come.
And surprisingly, Jesus is not chastising John for his unbelief, but sends John’s disciples back to him to tell John what they see – namely that “the blind can see, the lame can walk… the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor” (Matt. 11:5). All these things were predicted by the prophet Isaiah, and this was what Jesus was doing.
And Jesus then says “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me”. The Good News version of the Bible mistranslates this verse saying: “Happy are those who have no doubts about me!” That is not what the text says at all. The Message puts it this way: “Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!” (Do you see how important it is to always ask questions and not believe everything you read to the letter?)
Not only does Jesus not chastise John, but he then goes on to honour John by saying: “I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived” (v.11). And then, in a typically open-ended conclusion, Jesus says: “But the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John.” Is it not interesting that Jesus leaves this issue unresolved, open-ended, inviting us into the conversation, stimulating our imagination, rather than providing a final answer that we just have to swallow or reject completely?
Every time we think we finally get it, we can finally grasp what God and the Kingdom are about, Jesus says something that opens the territory even further and widens the horizon beyond what we can grasp with our limited minds. There is always further to go.
This is why I believe that doubt is NOT a problem to be solved. Jesus is never put off by genuine questions and sincere doubt. He always meets the doubting and the questioning with gentleness. He has tremendous respect for personal space and freedom of choice, and always invites us to explore, to ask, to wrestle with our questions and doubts.
I know this may sound strange at first, but I firmly believe that doubts and questions are not signs of a week faith, but rather of a strong, mature faith. The opposite of doubt is NOT faith. The opposite of doubt is certainty. Let me say that again: The opposite of doubt is NOT faith. The opposite of doubt is certainty.
If you have no doubts and no questions, allow me to question the quality, the maturity and strength of your faith. Questions and doubts are a major part of growing up and reaching mental and spiritual maturity. Being gullible is not having faith. Let us never make that confusion. Faith is not about believing everything you hear, and not having doubts.
Doubting and questioning are essential to the process of making sense of reality. Being dissatisfied with easy answers to complicated questions is not a sign of week faith, it is a sign of coming of age.
But it can be scary to have doubts. It makes people restless and uncomfortable. It makes people wonder if they are not ‘losing’ their faith. But this journey of doubt is unavoidable if we want to grow up. It can be a painful journey, but it is nonetheless necessary.
If you’ve been involved in higher education in the last 5-10 years, you’ve probably noticed that the educational model has changed dramatically. This is also true at lower educational levels. Students are now encouraged to challenge what teachers are telling them. Doubting, critical thinking and questioning are paramount to a solid academic endeavour. Gone are the days when students believed every word that came out of their teacher’s mouth.
I also believe that gone are the days when everyone in the pews believed every single word that came out of the minister’s mouth. The minister is no longer the only educated person in the parish. We live in a different world to the 19th century. I do not expect you to believe every word I say. I do not see myself as ‘the Bible answer man’.
Rather I see myself as a facilitator of dialogue. I see my role as creating the territory in which we can all bring our doubts and questions to this melting-pot we call ‘the community of faith’.
This involves a different kind of preaching and teaching. This may involve a different way of being church. This may involve different expressions of church coexisting.
I believe we are already on that journey, and I feel blessed and privileged to be the minister of a church that embraces this challenge head on and is unafraid to venture out in uncharted territories. This is the mark of mature faith and it fills me with hope for the future.