Matthew 11:2-11 When we face our own mortality–when we are confronted with a serious illness—when we stand beside the graveside of a loved one--we want to know, and know for sure, that the one we have put our faith and trust in–is who he says he is-- and is able to do what he has promised to do.
That is what John the Baptist was facing as he sat in Herod’s prison waiting for the executioner’s blade to fall. Staring death in the face, it would be only human to have some nagging doubts, after all, if I’m betting my life on something–it had better be right.
But for John there was an even bigger issue than just some nagging doubts. In his mind, the promises of God were in question when it came to Jesus.
The promised Messiah was portrayed in two ways by the prophets of old–on one hand he was to be the gentle, suffering Messiah who compassionately cared for all people–healing their diseases and caring for their spiritual needs.
On the other hand, the Messiah was also portrayed as a mighty King who would reward his followers and slay his enemies and bring judgment upon the entire earth
Jesus, proclaimed by John as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world, sure looked like the first kind of Messiah–gentle and meek and loving–but he really didn’t look like too much like the second–a mighty judge and conquering king.
Facing death, seeing one part of Scriptures fulfilled but not yet all of it, there was a serious question in John’s mind about Jesus. The Bible says that:
“when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Are you the one? I don’t know if a more important question has ever been asked-- or can be asked--and we too need to know the answer to it and be certain about it. Is Jesus the One? Is he the One that we can stake our entire life on? Or is there another? Is he the one in whom all the promises of God are fulfilled or not?
To ask this question and to seek an answer is not sinful doubt–at least not the way John asked it and the approach he took.
What did John do with his questions? He turned to Jesus. He turned to Jesus as the one who could answer his question-he turned to Jesus for assurance that his faith was not misplaced. What John did, and the questions he had, was a deep expression of faith that is completely consistent with other great statements of faith in the Bible. After all, “Lord I believe–help my unbelief” is the prayer of a believer not an unbeliever.
All of us have faith questions at times–all of us struggle to understand portions of Holy Scripture–all of us want to grow in our faith and in our confidence in God. John the Baptist shows us the way to do that. Take it to the Lord in prayer. Search his Word. That is exactly what Jesus would have us do. He said:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”.
In effect Jesus says, search the Scriptures–see what they say of the Messiah–and then see what I do and you will know the truth–that I am the one. Yes there are still things to come–but trust the one who has already fulfilled so much-- to accomplish the rest. Jesus gives the same answer today to those who struggle with doubts and questions.
God is not afraid of our questions–he is not ashamed of our struggles. He wants us to have the assurance of a deep and abiding faith and so he invites us to turn to his son Jesus–to search the Scriptures—to pray to him—and to receive the sacraments for assurance-- so that our faith in Christ does not waver.
We need that Spirit-given certainty BECAUSE when it comes to the person and work of Jesus (as it is revealed in Holy Scripture and proclaimed by the Church) doubt is not a virtue. Doubt is not the sign of a discerning spirit or intellectual superiority. Doubt and skepticism, when it comes to our faith in Jesus Christ, are tools of Satan that are used to trip us up in our walk of faith and the spiritual consequences are severe.
Twisting Scriptures to his own advantage–asking us, as he did Adam and Eve: “did God really say”--causing us to doubt--Satan desires to steal our salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life. That’s what’s at stake when it comes to doubt and it’s deadly serious.
Jesus told John’s disciples: “Blessed is the one who is not offended because of me”. In the original Greek, that word translated as “offended” means to “trip up” and the word itself is the technical term for a kind of trap used to kill small animals.
Life and death are what’s at stake when it comes to knowing and believing what Jesus says about himself–that he is the one--none other than the True God in human flesh–the Messiah sent to save us from our sins by his own death and resurrection. It is eternal life to know that and believe that for ourselves.
That is the message that the disciples were to relay to John as he faced his own death-- and that is what Jesus would have us know and believe today. And for the people who surrounded him that day listening in, and for us here today, Jesus makes the question personal. The Bible says that:
“As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses”.
Jesus says in effect, “What about you? Where is your faith in all this? What did you go out into the wilderness to see? Something for entertainment value? What did you go out to hear? Were you drawn to John because he told you what your itching ears wanted to hear or because he spoke the truth about the One to come?
That’s still a good question for us to ask ourselves regarding our worship services and our pastors.
Do you listen to what the pastor has to say because he tells you what you want to hear- or do you listen because he brings you God’s Word even when you don’t like to hear it? Is he a reed swayed back and forth by every wind of doctrine-- or does he stand fast on those eternal truths handed down by the prophets and apostles of old? Do you come to worship to be entertained and visit with friends or to grow in your faith and knowledge of Jesus?
The answer for the people that day was that they went out to John precisely because he brought God’s Word–not like their religious leaders who taught the doctrines of men–but because John would not be swayed by the opinions of men. They went to John because he unswervingly held to the central message of the Kingdom of God–to repent of sins and believe in Jesus. That message is life and salvation and the people received it in faith.
And so what was John’s reward for his faithful service? Fine clothes? A room in the king’s house? No! He was cast into the king’s prison in the rough camel hair garments of his Jordan days–known as a true prophet of God not only for his faithful proclamation-- but also for the opposition he received and the suffering he endured from sinful men-- like so many faithful men of God. And among them all-past, present and future–John the Baptist was the greatest. Jesus said:
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”.
This was why it is so necessary to recognize who John was and why he was so important–he was the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah.
To know John the Baptist and to believe his message is to know and believe in Jesus the Messiah of God. That is how important John the Baptist was—because he pointed to Jesus as the Savior of the world.
As remarkable and as wonderful as all this is, Jesus saves the best for last-- for he tells us that those who are the least in the kingdom of heaven are greater than even John the Baptist–the greatest man who ever lived. Jesus says:
“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
How is that possible that you and me–regular folks with regular lives-- least in the Kingdom of Heaven as it were--are even greater than John the Baptist?
It’s because we have been blessed to see the whole salvation story that God tells in the death, resurrection of his son Jesus Christ. John would not live to see it–he was executed a short time after these events.
He never got to see Christ’s death on the cross that atoned for the sins of the world. He never got to witness the glorious resurrection that changed the course of the world from death to life. But we have heard it and seen it through the Word and Sacraments and by these gifts of God’s grace we know that Jesus is indeed the One. Amen.