Third Sunday of Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
1 John 3:1-7
There’s a trend in online articles where the headlines are written in a certain way to try to grab your attention. The authors and editors want to make the headlines exciting so you’ll read them. You end up with articles that sound like this:
“Dog finds man in river: You’ll never guess what happens next!”
“What happens when this baby meets this armadillo? The results will shock you!”
“This woman climbs a mountain, and what she finds is unbelievable!”
The idea, of course, is that by making it sound like the information is unbelievable, making you doubt it’s real, it’s all the more satisfying when you find out that, yes, the baby and the armadillo really do become best friends and share a crib. The more unbelievable it is, the better it ends up being when you finally do believe.
Human beings are skeptical creatures. Especially in the last 200 years, after the Enlightenment, we are increasingly a species that rarely takes anything at face value. We want statements to be corroborated by multiple facts from multiple sources. We don’t believe something just because we’re told, especially if it comes from authority figures, who in our culture are less and less likely to be believed simply because they have authority.
The glaring exception to this, of course, is if we are given information that already agrees with our beliefs, in which case, we readily accept it without criticism or question. But for anything else, we are a species of doubt that must be convinced of something instead of accepting it right away. It’s just who we are.
Doubt and skepticism have been a part of the human psyche throughout all of history. Even our biblical heroes, or maybe especially our biblical heroes, had their doubts. Abraham and Sarah, who we remembered in our Bible study the past few weeks, didn’t at first believe God when they were told that they were going to have a kid. They tried to find other ways to have a kid, or to protect themselves from enemies, just in case God didn’t come through.
Moses doubted that he could live up to God’s expectations of him and tried every argument he could to get out of it. Most of the prophets very seriously doubted they could present God’s word and message to their people.
At times, the psalmists doubted that God was still with the Israelite people, and that they were on their own. When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, people doubted whether God still existed, or wondered if God had actually been killed in the destruction of the city.
The disciples had their doubts, too. They doubted whether the man they were following really was the Messiah. They doubted whether the work they were doing really was going to make a difference in the world. But most of all, they doubted that the promise Jesus made to them, that he would die and rise again, would actually come true.
I don’t really blame them. Death is the one absolutely true constant in life. Everyone, everything dies. It is one of the foundations of life as we understand it. Everybody dies, and that’s the end.
So when the women come back from the tomb and tell the disciples, “We have seen the Lord!”, or when the disciples on the road to Emmaus run back and tell everyone that they’ve just met Jesus on the road, well, I can understand how they would hear that news and think, “That’s truly, literally, unbelievable.” It flies in the face of all reason and knowledge. It’s shocking. It cannot be believed.
Even when they see Jesus in the flesh, right before their eyes, they are so happy, so filled with joy and wonder, that they still can’t believe it.
I’m actually a little disturbed and dismayed by that part. They were so filled with joy that they couldn’t believe the facts in front of them.
Tell me if I’m off base here. Is it easier to believe overwhelmingly bad news, or overwhelmingly good news? Which are we more likely to take at face value—that something awful has happened to us, or that something magnificent has happened to us? In my experience, it tends to be the former. We believe bad news more often than we believe good.
Why is that? Do we actually live in a world that is so full of bad news and so lacking in good that we automatically assume the worst is true? Do we expect more bad news than we do good news? Is that why we have all those article headlines, like “Baby meets puppy and you won’t believe what happens next”, because maybe, such amazing things really are more difficult to accept and to believe?
Maybe so. Maybe that is the world we live in.
We are so very tired of bad news. We are so tired of hearing about all the evil and awful things that people do to each other, but we can’t get away from it. Bad news sells, so that’s what we hear about all the time on our news networks. We know and we confess that our world is full of sin, broken and irreparable by human deeds, but… man, it’s one thing to know that, and another to be inundated by it.
The more we hear it, the more we internalize the belief that the world is irredeemable, un-fixable, un-saveable. And when we do that, our lives reflect it. We stop caring about what happens to other people, because life is a struggle anyway. We stop trying to serve our neighbors because it won’t make all that much a difference. We stop working to make the world a better place for everyone because there’s only so much we can do anyway.
With such overwhelmingly bad news around us all the time, it makes the good news harder to accept. “What do you mean there’s love in the world; have you seen the way we treat each other? How can you believe that there are good people in this world with all of the violence and hate we have surrounding us.”
No matter where that good news comes from, even from the most reputable sources, even from God Almighty, it is harder to accept that good news than it is to accept the bad.
“God came incarnate in Jesus Christ? Too shocking. Jesus died on the cross to redeem the entire world from the power of sin and death, freeing us from slavery to anything other than God? Unbelievable. Jesus rose from the dead, not as a ghost or a zombie, but as a living, breathing, albeit greater human being? Laughable.”
We don’t believe. We doubt. And you know what? That’s not a bad thing.
Abraham doubted. The prophets doubted. The psalmists doubted. The disciples doubted. Heck, Jesus Christ himself doubted in the garden, calling into question God’s plan and intentions. We serve a God that has never made sense, that has always been, spoken, and acted in unbelievable ways; we would be wrong to expect there to be no doubt in the face of the overwhelmingly good news that Jesus brings.
What I love about the stories of Jesus’s appearances to the disciples after he is raised from the dead is that he never berates them for their doubt. When he walks with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they don’t even recognize him, he doesn’t get in their faces and say, “How could you not know it was me?” When he meets the disciples in Jerusalem, with the wounds of his death still in his flesh, and eating fish, when they are so happy that they still don’t believe it’s happening, he doesn’t call them out for their inability to believe.
Instead, he walks with them, he talks with them, he opens their minds to this ludicrous idea that, yes, he could rise from the dead. He doesn’t get mad, he doesn’t accuse them of being bad disciples, and he doesn’t give up on them.
All of this is to say that, contrary to what a lot of Christians believe, doubt is not a sign of being a bad disciple or a bad Christian. It’s not a weakness, and it’s not something to judge others on—anyone who claims to have never doubted God’s promises is a liar to themselves.
Doubt is an essential part of faith. It is the natural reaction when we are confronted with something we desperately wish to be true, but which flies in the face of our expectations and defies the ways in which we think things should work. It is a faithful response to the unbelievable in our midst that, by all other measures, cannot possibly be true. It is the process through which we come to accept and believe.
Accepting that God is a gracious God has always been and always will be a struggle. We know the kind of world we live in. We know the kinds of people that live in it. And worst of all, we know the kind of people we are. We know ourselves better than anyone else—we know all the dark places, all the hidden secrets, all the horrible truths about ourselves.
“There’s no way God could love us as much as God claims. It’s too shocking. It’s too unbelievable.”
And yet, as we struggle with our own doubts, our own insecurities, God walks right beside us, waiting for the moment when the recognition dawns that, yes, God came incarnate in Jesus Christ; that Christ went to the cross to redeem the world from the power of sin and death; and that through the resurrection, Christ gave new life to the world and all the people in it—even the people like us.
It’s too shocking. It’s too unbelievable. But not matter how hard it is for us to believe, it isn’t too hard for God to believe. It isn’t too difficult for God to believe that we are worth dying for. It isn’t too hard for God to believe that the entire world is worthy of redemption and forgiveness and love. God is absolutely certain of it.
So don’t worry about your doubts. Don’t worry if you don’t trust God’s words at face value. Don’t worry if things are simply too unbelievable. You are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you. And God meets you where you are, walking alongside you on your journey through faith, a journey that takes a lifetime to start and eternity to finish.
Thanks be to God for those who doubt, for theirs is a journey with God.