Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson was the story of Doubting Thomas. This is the Gospel lesson every year on the Sunday after Easter.
Pastor Jason used it as an opportunity to seek out more about Thomas in the Bible and fill in a few gaps about this apostle. There isn’t much about Thomas, but it turns out that he needs a better nickname than “doubting.”
A comment I saw online, referring to Thomas, led me to a whole different search.
"If you think it'd be easier to have faith in Christ if He'd appear before you, remember that John the Baptist - the "greatest man" ever born - sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the Messiah even after John had literally heard God Himself speak from the Heavens and confirm it." (Matt Walsh, Twitter, April 6)
That sent me to the Bible to check out a few things:
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3: 16-17)
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)
According to three of these accounts of Jesus' baptism, it isn't altogether clear that John did hear "God Himself speak from the Heavens and confirm it."
Mark is vague with the pronouns. Which "him" did the heavens open up to? Jesus? John?
Mark and Luke both say, "You are my Son."
Only John provides an account where John clearly heard the proclamation.
There is no indication at all that anyone in the crowds heard or saw anything. It seems to have been a very private matter.
So now I want to know a whole lot more about John. What did he do between the baptism and his death? He surely preached, but what did he preach? He wasn't hanging around with Jesus, so he wasn't getting Jesus’ message of a life with God. Did he know the message anyway?
Unfortunately, the Bible isn't very helpful on filling in those details. There are gaps.
We can speculate about the gaps in John’s story. There are one or two novels I’ve added to my reading list.
Novels allow us to speculate about other gap-filled stories in the Bible. The Red Tent speculates about the life of Dinah, the only named daughter of Isaac. The only thing the Bible tells us is that she existed, that she was raped, and that some of her 12 brothers destroyed a town in revenge. The book allows us to see the life and culture of the times, and how these Biblical characters fit in.
The Secret Chord speculates about the life of David, from his childhood as a shepherd to his adulthood as a flawed king. David is covered pretty well in the Bible, but the book gives context to relationships and actions.
These novels give us a way to learn about the history and culture of the times, within little- known Bible stories.
But they’re speculation. They answer “what if” questions.
Different questions about the gaps allow us to interpret rather than speculate. And they send us back to the source for information.
I wonder what John the Baptist was preaching during those missing years. That requires speculation. But I can fill in gaps by asking what else was happening during that time that made Joh’s story so unimportant that it didn’t need to be explicitly told?
Minding the gap doesn’t mean stepping over the gaps, it means stepping into them. How can we rephrase questions to go from speculation to interpretation? What questions can we ask that will let the Bible itself give us a response?
Questions arising out the gaps can lead us to new explorations of the Bible.
I used to hate Bible study. It meant sitting in a room being lectured to by the "expert" about what the passage meant. Everyone was dutifully underlining passages and writing notes in the margins of their Bibles. There was no discussion, though there might be some sharing of how God has worked in someone's life. I never liked those Bible studies, and spent a long time not going.
Bible study, fortunately, has evolved. We laugh about passages. We question the impressions left by different translations. We do quick searches to understand historical context. We discuss how the Bible text of thousands of years ago can have a message for us in this time and place. We explore about how different texts relate to each other. We delve into the gaps in the stories and try to fill them. We not only mind the gaps, but enjoy the journey they take us on.
- Ann Warner