Gateways of doubt

A Path Through It (photo by Martin Malina October 2022)
sermon audio for “Gateways of Doubt” (by Martin Malina

You could tell it was his first time on the diving board. Even though the edge of the spring board was only about ten feet above the surface of the water, he was not sure.

The little boy paces back and forth along the full length of the board, his index finger lifting his chin, his eyes squinting in concentration. Then he crosses his arms across his chest. Back and forth. Back and forth. Will he jump?

All the while his instructor calls for him from the water below. Her arms are outstretched, ready to catch him. The boy’s friends encourage him with: “Come on!” “You can do it!” “It’s fun!” The splashing, the playing, the shouts of joy are all evidence of the promise of what is to come.

But for the longest time, the little boy is not sure. Then on one of his return paces back to the edge, and for inexplicable reason, he unexpectedly jumps. He holds his legs tucked underneath him so tightly.

After he emerges out of the water, his face is beaming with joy. He clambers out onto the pool deck and runs happily into the waiting arms of his parents.

Today is called Gaudete Sunday, meaning Rejoice! The liturgy wants to capture the joy of anticipating the birth of Jesus. Soon and very soon! We’re over halfway in the season of Advent. 

We light the candle of joy today on this Third Sunday of Advent, although we may not feel particularly joyful these days. For so many reasons.

This Advent theme has its roots in the pregnancy narrative from the Gospels. It is the joy experienced by Mary after she receives the news that her life will birth the Savior. Mary then sings her famous Magnificat which we just read together.[1]

But the joy of the Gospel can be misunderstood. 

When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her what’s in store for her, I notice Mary’s initial confusion: “But she was much perplexed”[2] by the angel’s words. Initially she wasn’t sure about what was asked of her.

I suspect we think that a holy encounter would initially inspire certitude and confidence in our faith. And therefore, this certainty would lead us to joyful praise and discipleship. I suspect we presume that faith is borne from understanding it fully and knowing everything and being sure about it, first. Then, be joyful. 

But the joy of the Gospel does not come from being certain. The joy of the Gospel does not come from eliminating all doubt and ambiguity in life. 

In this case with Mary, the words of the angel Gabriel don’t lead her out of doubt and into faith. It’s the other way around: Her encounter with the angel leads her out of whatever preconceived notions gave her a sense of security, and into a “holy bewilderment.”[3] God’s message disrupts her certainty and turned her world upside down. “She was much perplexed.” Or, as she says to Gabriel: “How can this be?” In faithful response, Mary moves out of familiar spiritual territory and into a lifetime of pondering, wondering, questioning, and wrestling.

Doubt is the gateway to joy.

The journey to expressing true, authentic joy cannot exclude the experiences of our lives that disrupt our certitudes. Being faithful moves us into realms of unhinging, unknowing, unlearning even what has kept us secure and comfortable in our beliefs our whole life long. And moving forward anyway. And doing it. Jumping off the diving board.

In the Gospel reading for today, John the Baptist is in prison, and he knows he is near the end of his life.[5] In the uncertainty and fear, it is natural for him to seek assurances from Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” You could say, when he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the One, the Messiah, John is expressing doubt. 

Jesus’ response suggests at least a couple of cues for our own journeys of faith:

First, doubt is not the opposite of faith. In truth, doubt is very much an important, a vital, aspect of faith in God and Jesus. Jesus does not scold John for questioning Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Jesus does not say, “Shame on you John, you should know better!” Rather, just the opposite.

Jesus lifts John up. Jesus praises John for being like no other in the reign of God. John may be at a difficult part of his journey. But it’s not over. There’s more, and better to come!

It’s important in the church, even among those who have been faithful for years, decades, that we give each other permission, even admiration, for expressing honesty in doubting our beliefs. It is part of, and belongs to, a life and journey of faith whose end is life in the “kingdom of heaven’’. 

Even when we feel our own lives are nearing their end, it’s ok to question God. In truth, doing so is a mark of great faith. This authenticity provides a safe, truly loving place for having real conversations about suffering, death, life, and God. 

One of the great proponents of doubt as a way to find deeper truth was René Descartes, seventeenth century philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and Christian. He expressed the value of doubt this way: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”[6]

In Jesus’ response to John’s question, Jesus doesn’t come out and say: “I am the Messiah, the one for whom you have been waiting.” Jesus doesn’t give John a simple, clear-cut, plain-truth answer to John’s question. Jesus does not satisfy John’s clinging to certainty and long-held beliefs. Even nearing the end of his life, John is faced with bewilderment, in the sense that he still needs to be on that journey of wrestling, questioning and working through it himself.

In her faithful response, Mary consents to evolve. To wonder. To expand her vision. And continue jumping. Her gateway of doubt through which she moves turns into a path she must continue to follow and discern as she makes her way forward. She has to learn that faith and doubt are not opposites—that beyond all the easy platitudes and pieties of religion, we serve a God who dwells in mystery.

In Holy Communion, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We speak of a mystery here. Shall we say the mystery of incarnation. As we will celebrate in the coming Christmas season, God is not hostile to creation, the stuff of earth. God becomes human, part of the stuff of earth. God enters our frail, human reality. And we celebrate this mystery every week at Communion when simple gifts of bread and wine are transformed.[7]

Along with wine and bread, we offer ourselves at the table, that we might be transformed. Martin Luther claimed that “Even as bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, so the people are transformed into the body of Christ.”[8]  For we are a community, a people, sent to care for others and the world, to encourage, support and serve them.

On one level, we perceive only bread and the wine. But from the heart we perceive what God does at the table and are reminded again that God’s work of transformation continues in us and in the world around us.

If we agree to embark on a journey with this God, if we jump as Mary did, we will face periods of bewilderment and true joy. Through gateways of doubt. If we agree to embark — jump! — on a journey with God, and receive the nourishment God provides on the journey, we will be transformed. And the world around us.

Because Christ has died. Christ has risen. And Christ will come again.


[1] Luke 1:46-55

[2] Luke 1:29

[3] Debie Thomas, Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories: Reflections on the Life of Christ (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022), p. 5-6. 

[5] Matthew 11:2-11

[6] Descartes, Principles of Philosophy.

[7] Donald W. Johnson and Susan C. Johnson, “Holy Communion” in Praying the Catechism: Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2021), p.170.

[8] Martin Luther, tr. Jeremiah J. Schindel, rev. E. Theodore Bachman, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ and the Brotherhoods, 1519,” Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 35:59-60.

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