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Dec 18th, 2016
Big Questions Come from the Prison Cell
Matthew 11:2-11



About 25 years ago I was involved with hosting some visitors who came to North Bay, Ontario from South Africa. This was a ‘return visit’ after some local United Church delegates had made a trip to learn about how South Africa was doing in the aftermath of apartheid, the early years of a new democracy under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. For whatever reason, we thought that one of the things this small group of visitors should experience was a visit to the local police station in our neighbourhood. We were aware of the harsh action of police in the time of apartheid in South Africa. I think we wanted to show that the church could have a good relationship with law enforcement authorities who were appropriate in the way they carried out their duties. One of the black men who were a part of the visiting group was Thomas.


On the tour of the local police station we were invited to see the holding cells. Thomas and I even went in the holding cell and the door was shut behind us. It was something I had experienced on a tour through the opening of my hometown jail when I was young. The experience for Thomas was not fun. He kept his composure, but after we were ‘released’ he talked about the flashback he experienced at hearing that door clank shut. Thomas’ encounters with the police and with incarceration were never fair and just. His experiences were always accompanied by ‘over the top’ violence –clubbing which bruised and broke bones, long term confinement from others that lasted for many long days and nights.


Since then I’ve been asked to visit a few people in prison. There is a bureaucratic procedure of police checks required which takes weeks before you can be allowed in to visit an inmate. Even, once you are ‘approved’ you are required to leave behind your identification and take nothing in to the visiting area. I don’t mind a bit of time with only ‘my own company’, but the thought and possibility of confinement and isolation is frightening to me.


Do you remember in school when you were glad that someone else asked the question you really wanted to know the answer to, but you were too afraid to ask, you thought you should have known the answer? Then, if the brightest one in class asks the same question, well we do not feel so bad about not knowing it ourselves. Here John asks the question, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?


Last week I likened John’s appearance to that of a flash mob in the shopping mall-surprisingly capturing the attention of the crowds. Out in the desert, the crowds flowed there to hear his strong message of challenge and the urgency to be part of a changed world. This week the mood is quite different. John is stuck in a 8 X 8 dark, dank cell with bars on the door-Herod’s holding cell. He ended up this way because he spoke out about Herod’s adulterous relationship with Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife.


Something nags at John in the darkness of his prison. He asks himself a question that can be terrifying for us too. The question is something like, "Have I used my life in a worthwhile way, or have I wasted it on delusions?" I suggest to you that such inner searching is behind the question that is brought to Jesus by some friends still faithful to John. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" This is easier to understand, if we realize how Jesus’ words and actions challenged the traditional ways in which the Messiah had long been envisioned. In his pit of gloom, even John began to question whether he had been mistaken in his support and admiration of Jesus.


Jesus receives the question. He knows John is in prison. He imagines the awful fear and loneliness. Here is perhaps one last chance to communicate with this magnificent and courageous man whom he admires so much. He chooses his words carefully. He used the kind of prophetic language that his people would understand. "Go and tell John…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." Each phrase is loaded with action and the justice expected that a Messiah would bring to the people of Israel. Jesus knows that John will savour each word, tasting it, finding levels of significance in it, drawing hope and comfort from each syllable.


In my reading this week I was reminded of the potency of Jesus’ response and in our own ‘talk of faith and the work of the church’ with those outside our walls. Jesus could have said, "Well John, you know these are difficult days in ministry. I have to be honest, the future is uncertain. I’ve only been able to gather around me a small ‘rag tag’ group of followers, who at times appear a bit clueless. Most people I come in to contact with refuse to see the vision I offer. They are blind and will remain so. Most people are keeping their distance from me, just as they do from lepers. They refuse to hear me and are deaf to my words." Instead, Jesus’ response to John was a steadfast hope and trust in the future rather than wallowing in the difficulties of the present.


It was in my early days of discerning a call to ministry for myself, that I read from the book, Letters & Papers from Prison, a book compiled about German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer by his brother-in-law, Eberhard Bethge who I met at VST. To a friend, P.47 and his parents p.35.


It was his calm, reassuring words to his loved ones, spoken from prison-for me a frightening place which led my inquisitive mind and immature faith to learn more. Here was a man suspected and charged with leading a covert operation, known as the "Confessing Church." This was an alternative church, for the state church in Germany did not question the politics of the day, at all. Bonhoeffer was a key player in working out a plot to assassinate the fuehrer, Adolph Hitler. How could he remain so calm, when he must have known the end of his life was coming soon? How could he write from his situation and encourage me, I wondered? I want some of that calm reassurance for myself, I thought. That was a beginning journey of further inquiry in to faith and the leadership of spiritual giants of the past and of our time. In the dying days of the Nazi regime when the prisoners had been moved to brighter more pleasant quarters, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was himself hanged, April 8, 1945 at the hands of the hangman in a Gestapo prison. Bonhoeffer had been asked by the prisoners to lead a worship service that very morning. At that time he spoke about the fear they had all felt in recent months and their thankfulness that fear was now changing to hope. At the conclusion of the service Prisoner Bonhoeffer was called out. Dietrich pulled aside a friend and said, take this message to a friend in England, "Tell him, ‘This is the end-for me the beginning of life.’" He was 39 years of age. Within days the war was over. Eventually Bonhoeffer’s writings were compiled. And thousands of people around the world were inspired by a Christian who has the courage to risk living in the real world.


We could ask the question, somewhat like John, What evidence is there that Jesus is for real? I’ve seen it- "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." Some of the best minds in the world have seen it, lived it, and continued the work. Those with eyes to see will find Christ is present in word and song and fellowship and in the quietness of the heart as it sits in the pew and ponders life. Thanks be to God!


Acknowledging Inspiration from:
Herbert O’Driscoll, The Word Among Us , Year A, 1988, p.27-8
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, p.69-73



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