We’ve heard much about Nelson Mandela over the past week. One of the quotes that has stayed with me was part of a letter he wrote from prison to his wife Winnie in 1975. Personally, I think of prisons as places of despair and yet Mandela writes, You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.
Prisons and prisoners have been on my mind lately. I went to a benefit concert by Brandi Carlile at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran in Maple Valley this past week. Brandi is a well-known musician from Maple Valley and one of the things she does is take her music to prisons as a source of hope and healing for the inmates. She recently visited the women’s prison in Purdy, Washington. One of the things she’s discovered in her visits, she says, is that the inmates are no different from her, no different from the rest of us. Like Nelson Mandela, Brandi Carlile has found that even as a visitor, prison is a good place to “get to know yourself.”
One prisoner in particular has been on my mind these past days. As Matthew tells it, When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This sounds to me like a man close to despair. John had spent his whole life telling his people to get ready for someone who would set them free, but where had it gotten him? The Roman Empire was still in control and now he himself was behind bars. John’s expectations about God were disappointed. And yet, there in prison John was about to learn something about himself and his expectations.
Like John, we have ideas and expectations about who God is and what God’s job is. This past week I saw an article on Facebook titled, Seven Lies About Christianity That Christians Believe. The author writes that many people believe that if you’re a Christian: 1) You’ll always be happy, 2) Your problems will disappear, 3) You’ll be blessed with wealth, prosperity, comfort, and security. Maybe those aren’t your expectations but you do have expectations. Every Christian does! What do you expect out of God? Does God live up to your expectations?
As long as life is going smoothly it’s easy to say we believe in God. When we feel in control of our lives we express our faith with confidence. When we’re free we don’t have to ask hard questions.
But what happens when something in our lives shatters our confidence? When it “all goes south” it’s not so easy to believe. When God doesn’t live up to our expectations we might find ourselves wondering, I didn’t sign up for this. God, when are you going to show up? Are you even there? Prison doesn’t have to be a cell with steel bars. It can be any situation in which we are tempted to despair. The good news is that such an experience can be an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.
John did receive an answer to his question while he was in prison. Jesus replied, 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. It wasn’t the answer John was looking for. He still had his ideas and expectations about the one who would come and set his people free.
John’s idea of salvation was a political solution. For John the answer to the problems of his time were political power and military action. These were the key to peace and freedom. How about you? Where do you look for salvation? Where do you look for peace?
There was another school shooting this weekend. It’s been one year since the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and not much in our society has changed. What will free our society from such tragedies? Our solution to terrorism, violence and crime is more guns, more prisons, more law enforcement. As it happens, the so-called “land of the free” has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. But there may be something worse than incarceration. Being free means having the opportunity to try an endless choice of solutions to problems, none of which may offer peace, none of which may set us free.
In prison choices are limited. Answers are few. John found that he was out of answers. His expectations of how God works in the world were disappointed. John’s experience in prison hints at what Jesus must have experienced as he faced the cross. But it was only in prison that John’s relationship with God began to change and a new hope could take root.
What Jesus didn’t say, was: Go and tell John that I’m so gonna bust him out of jail. Go and tell John that I’m so gonna smack down the Romans. No, Jesus said, 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. In other words, Jesus was saying to John, Can’t you see? Regardless of what’s going on in the world, God is at work all around you setting people free.
That is the good news for us today. No matter what’s going on in your life or in the world, God is at work all around us setting people free. Instead of waiting for circumstances to change, we are invited to get on board with what God is doing. Instead of trying an endless parade of solutions to our problems that we’ve come up with we’re invited to get on board with what God is already doing. Where in your life do you see someone who is longing to be free?
Some people, like Brandi Carlile, make visits to actual prisons. That’s great work! But what do you hear and see? I suspect that there are people right under your nose longing for freedom, in need of hope, yearning for good news. Theirs may be a prison of their own making; or, it may be a prison beyond their control. But they are longing for signs of hope for freedom. And God has called you to help set them free.
Go and tell John what you hear and see. What do you hear and see?
Maybe you’re the one in need of freedom. If things are going well you may not even recognize your prison. But if your life is not on track and your expectations are disappointed it’s not as easy to pretend you’re free. Nelson Mandela and John the Baptist discovered that being short of options and out of answers can be one of the best opportunities to learn something about ourselves and to see in a new way. If nothing else, it means this: if God is setting people free all around us, that includes you. As God sent Christ into the world to give sight to the blind, to make the lame walk, to cleanse lepers, to restore hearing to the deaf, to preach good news to the poor and even to raise the dead, so God has sent flesh and blood people into your life to set you free, as well.
Beloved of God, may this Advent season be a time in which you more fully hear and see this good news!