Evidence Notwithstanding

3rd Sunday of Advent


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I have never experienced a solar eclipse in person, neither a partial nor a total solar eclipse. I guess I have never been anywhere a solar eclipse was happening. But I know I’m not alone. Anyone here never ever seen a solar eclipse in person? Exactly. (If you have, that’s nice. But that’s not what I asked.) Still, we all know what a solar eclipse is. We understand the scientific explanation—sun here, earth here, the moon in between casting a shadow on earth. We’ve seen pictures. People have talked about it. It’s no big mystery. We’ve just never experienced one. And with the meteorological forecasting technology we have in this day and age, we can most conveniently travel to places that would provide a good viewing experience of the event. Incidentally, the next total solar eclipse will take place on 26 February 2017, and will be visible along a path originating in southwest Africa around 8:15AM EST cutting across the South Atlantic through South America from Argentina to Chile into the South Pacific. The only reason I even looked at what time it would be on the east coast was in case the morning TV shows plan to broadcast a live webcam of the eclipse. Then we won’t need to travel at all. We can enjoy it from the comfort of our kitchens and living rooms. And just for reference, 26 February 2017 is a Sunday. (It’s no excuse to be late for church.) The next total solar eclipse visible in North America will take place on 21 August 2017, the first total solar eclipse visible in the 48 contiguous states since 1918. That day will be a Monday, and the event will start in the North Atlantic at 12:48 PM EST. It will be visible first from the coast of South Carolina and make its way west to the coast of Oregon, likely passing through Hilton Head, Nashville, St. Louis, Cheyenne, Boise, and Portland. But I’m sure we will also be able to watch it live on TV.

Now if we come across extraordinary phenomena, especially if it isn’t something we are accustomed to experience, we would likely pause and think about it, and decide whether such an experience would have a lasting effect on our lives. I’m limiting our exercise to extraordinary phenomena that we are not accustomed to experience. I would most definitely consider every sunrise and sunset extraordinary, but since they happen every day, we barely even notice them anymore unless, of course, we also happen to be in Tahiti or San Juan at the time. But I bet people who live in Tahiti and San Juan don’t post as many amazing pictures of sunrises and sunsets on Facebook.

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Now we would definitely notice if the things we hear the prophet Isaiah saying ever came to pass, “the desert and the parched land blooming with abundant flowers.” But his audience was Israel, unaccustomed to such things. And yet it always makes the news when Death Valley in California, one of the hottest and driest places in North America, explodes with colorful wildflowers once every decade or so. As easily as it can be explained, it will still have power to make us pause in wonder and awe. But since science can explain it away today, it is not as easily overtaken by superstition or magic. I have read stories of ancient cultures giving supernatural and fantastic meaning to a solar eclipse, something we would dismiss today.

When John the Baptist first met Jesus, he was preaching and baptizing at the Jordan river. We heard last Sunday how he called on his listeners to acknowledge their sins, repent, and reform their lives. This business of seriously preparing for the coming of the Messiah was not going to be a peaceful and trouble-free process, something many of them probably imagined should be conveniently accomplished without completely overturning their lives. But John was convinced this would entail a profound and radical change in one’s way of thinking and living. He didn’t even try to soften the blow, calling the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism ‘a brood of vipers.’ “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath,” he taunted them. “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. … Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” He imagined God’s wrath would sweep across the nation, destroying the unfaithful and the unrepentant, eventually bringing to birth a new Israel, cleansed and formed anew to receive God’s justice and favor.

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So, when he heard from prison that Jesus was not quite the revolutionary he had imagined him to be, John entertained some doubts. Did he get it wrong? Was God’s wrath not going to sweep across the nation, to destroy the unfaithful and unrepentant? And he sent some disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Some scripture commentators suggest John himself did not doubt Jesus for a moment, but only asked his disciples to put the question to Jesus so he could answer the question directly, a question that bothered them. Either way, Jesus put the evidence before them, and challenged them to make up their own minds.

“Tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” I imagine John had heard stories of Jesus healing the sick and restoring the broken. But since he sat in prison not long after Jesus began his ministry, he may not have witnessed any firsthand. His disciples would have, and probably shared with him what they saw and heard.

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All well and good at that time and place in human history. But would we say the same here and now? If Jesus told us what he told John’s disciples, would he convince us that something extraordinary was happening right before our eyes? “… the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Is there enough evidence to prove that Jesus is the one who is to come, and that we need not wait for another? I believe that last line might be meant for the skeptics among us. “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” In Jesus’ time, any physical healing would be considered miraculous. There is no such evidence for us to document today, but perhaps Jesus was speaking to us of a different kind of healing—sight and hearing restored, the lame walk, the unclean cleansed, the dead raised to life, the good news proclaimed to the poor. If extraordinary events like these were widely reported and unchallenged, then perhaps the Age of the Messiah is truly upon us. But despite all the evidence, there were people in Jesus’ time who remained unconvinced. Evidence or not, skeptics will abound. We don’t know what conclusion John the Baptist came to, whether he was convinced or not. But Jesus offers us the same. It’s our turn now. Is he it, or do we wait for another?

So what do you see? What do you hear?

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Rolo B Castillo © 2016