09 December 2007

Is it Really Worth It?

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached today at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Using the propers for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent.

You might take comfort in thinking that St John the Baptizer had his doubts; that when he was in prison, his strength of spirit and strength of faith began to waver. You might think that this makes St John “more human”—which means that you can identify with him because he’s more like you: susceptible to doubts, prone to weakness, able to stumble. You might think that if we see St John faltering, then he is more real, common, everyday—and not on some pedestal. And, in some perverse way, that makes us feel better—not better about St John, but better about ourselves; that it’s okay that we stumble and falter and waver and doubt.

For how often do we falter and waver and doubt? How often do we wonder about what good our religion does us; about whether the fuss of fasting and the sacrifice of self-denial is really worth while and necessary—especially when all our coworkers are partying. And how often do we wonder about whether it’s practical, realistic or necessary to wrestle with the kids so long and so often in church—especially when all that wrestling seems a waste of time because we feel like we get so little from going to church. And how often do we wonder about the good of praying at a set time, or even taking the time to pray—especially when not praying doesn’t seem to hurt us, and we’re not so sure God truly cares, or hears, or helps? We are prone to believe that we’re usually just going through the motions, and that these motions are taking us nowhere and getting us nothing.

And so we hear the story of St John the Baptizer, we hear the question he asks Jesus, and we hear it as the strong becoming weak, the mighty hero faltering, the prophet losing faith—and we feel better. Not necessarily because his question is our question. But because we often find comfort in other people’s misery. Because we revel in Schadenfreude. Because St John comes down to our level, and then in some queer way we can sympathize with what he seems to be going through; we can relate. And as we’re relating, we hear St John say aloud what we often think—“Is this all worth it? Is it worth the time and effort? Is it worth the sacrifice and expense? Do we really get ahead by playing by all these church rules, by explaining our eating habits, by risking ridicule or hard questions, by disciplining our routine and words, by bundling everyone one up and trudging off to church once again?”

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, it’s worth every sacrifice—every penny, every minute, every hassle, every strange look, every delayed or denied gratification. It’s all worth it—but not because hanging tough, doing the time, and making the sacrifice finally gets us the reward we’re after. For that’s looking at it backwards. Just like thinking St John is today “more human” is looking at things backwards. For in both of those instances—in following the rules hoping for a payoff, and in dragging St John down to our level—in both of those instances, we’re still focusing on ourselves: our fears, our feelings, our perspective, our doubts, our questions, and how much we feel we have to do to finally make it all worthwhile.

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Rev. Paul Beisel said...

It's not that it makes me "feel better" knowing that he is "more human." Rather, like Thomas' doubt, it brings glory to Christ by providing the opportunity to reveal himself.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Pr Beisel,

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and post a comment.

In response, I would argue that there is a significant difference between St Thomas & St John the Baptist. St John's singular task was to announce that Jesus is the Coming One, which he did from the womb, and before and after Jesus' baptism. St John also had the singular blessing of hearing the Father and seeing the Spirit while baptizing the Son. St Thomas, on the other hand (with all the disciples) displayed moments of weakness prior to announcing his doubt (e.g., when he forsook the Lord and fled).

No doubt, one could argue that at in the grip of prison and certain death, St John the Baptist wavered, and was grasping for surety. (This latter point, of course, raises the question of whether surety is the key denoter of faith.) However, given both the narrow and wider context in the Scriptural witness, many more church fathers have concluded (unlike Luther) that St John himself was not doubting, but either that he was voicing the doubt his disciples were afraid to voice, or was using the "moment" to urge his disciples once again to look to Christ.

Fr John W Fenton said...


In his Kirchenpostille, Luther agrees with the consensus of the church fathers:

Why then did John ask this question? Answer: It was not done without good reasons In the first place, it is certain that John asked it for the sake of his disciples, as they did not yet hold Christ to be the one he really was. And John did not come in order to make disciples and draw the people to himself, but to prepare the way for Christ, to lead everybody to Christ and to make all the people subject to him. (Electronic source)

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Thanks for giving Luther's view. Both ways require speculation on the part of the preacher. The text just does not say. Of course, the main point of the pericope is the revelation to John (and disciples) of the works of the Christ. One would think, though, that the "raising of the dead" would be the culmination of the works, but it is not. It is "the poor have the good news preached to them." Maybe that has something to say about John's condition.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Pr Beisel,

An interesting discussion indeed! I especially appreciate your comment that "the poor have the gospel preached to them" is the unusual climax to the list. Building on this comment and taking into account your first statement, perhaps you'll permit the following two thoughts.

1. Perhaps one could more readily see "the poor" as applying (a) to the disciples St John sent (as St Peter Chrysologus & Luther see it), (b) to the gathered crowd (Mt 11.7), and likewise (c) to those who hear these words during the Mass. Certainly (a) and (b) are part of the immediate context.

2. If "both ways require speculation" (a premise I grant for the sake of discussion), then it would seem to follow that one would speculate more safely and less doubtfully if one follows the "sanctified speculation" of those great lights who have gone before (be it following the consensus of the church or the consensus of one's own tradition).