A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 14 December 2022
A crisis of faith can sometimes be an important step towards a fresh and deeper understanding of God. Of course, that isn’t always the case. But a crisis of faith can sometimes be a positive thing; which is one way of understanding our two readings this morning.
Our Old Testament reading was from the middle chapters in the book of the prophet Isaiah which I talked about a few Wednesdays ago. Chapters 40 to 55 are wonderful chapters that date from the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon, when the nation had lost everything, their homeland, their temple, their king, all the key markers of their identity, and they were now living in a foreign land. This led to a profound crisis of faith which the prophet Isaiah faced head on with astonishing boldness and confidence.
Up to this point, many scholars believe that the Jewish people accepted the reality of multiple gods even if they themselves were bound to worship only the one god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Multiple gods were thought to exist, but the people of Israel were to worship just one of them – Yahweh, as he was called.
In exile in Babylon some of the Jewish people wondered whether they wouldn’t be better off worshipping the local Babylonian gods rather than the god of Israel, because these gods had clearly triumphed over their own god.
The new and radical insight that the prophet Isaiah came to is the understanding that there is in fact only one God ‘and there is no other’, as we heard him reiterate at least six times this morning. God is the creator of the heavens and the earth. There are no other gods besides him.
In other words the crisis of faith that the Babylonian exile caused, led the prophet Isaiah to a fresh and deeper understanding of God – monotheism, as we understand it, finally emerged in Judaism.
Our New Testament reading was about John the Baptist, a rugged, difficult character who eventually fell foul of the authorities. He criticised Herod for taking Herodias, his own sister-in-law, for his wife and as a consequence John was imprisoned.
It’s probably from his time in prison that today’s Gospel story comes; we heard it on Sunday too. John the Baptist sending some of his disciples to Jesus, to ask him:
‘Are you the one who is to come,
or are we to wait for another?’
What lies behind John’s question?
Perhaps his time in prison had led to a certain introspection, causing John the Baptist to question whether he’d been right in his preaching? Perhaps John was having to face the fact that Jesus was not who he expected him to be?
After all, John’s preaching had been fiery. In much of it there was an expectation of judgement; that the coming messiah would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire; and when Jesus appears on the scene, he doesn’t fit this picture.
Instead, as we heard in Jesus’ reply to John’s disciples:
‘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.’
So out of a crisis of faith that John the Baptist faced when in prison, a fresh and deeper understanding came of the sort of messiah that Jesus was – not the warrior, but the servant of the Lord.
So, crises of faith happen to communities, as we heard this morning from the Old Testament, and to individuals, as we heard from the New Testament. They’ll happen to us, if they’ve not already done so, and they’re an important part of the journey of faith.
When they happen, we need to ask ourselves: what am I being asked to let go of here? What fresh understanding or insight am I being invited to embrace?
God’s invitation is always for us to go deeper. When facing a crisis of faith we need to ask ourselves what that might mean for us to go deeper?