Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”Matthew 11:4-6
This is our second Sunday in a row looking at John the Baptist. Next Sunday, our lectionary will turn our attention to Joseph and Mary and the Christmas story. But today we continue with the story of John the Baptist, the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord.
Last week, we heard his call from the desert to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord. That was his task in life: to be the forerunner of Christ, to get the world ready for the coming of the promised Messiah.
This week, the story told in Matthew 11:2-11 is much different. John is no longer in the desert baptizing; he is in prison, awaiting possible execution. And he is beginning to wonder if Jesus really is the one. The very same person who devoted his life to preparing the way of the Lord is starting to have doubts. Was it worth it? Did he really do the right thing with his life? All that time, all that sacrifice. For what?
It would be tempting to skip over this part of the story and get right to the answer from Jesus. But I think it’s important to sit with John in that prison cell for a few moments before we get to the good news in this reading.
John the Baptist in Prison
John the Baptist is in prison. Why? He was put in prison by King Herod, after he confronted Herod for acting unlawfully when he married his brother’s wife. His wife, Herodias, convinced her husband to have John arrested, and eventually beheaded. As this story opens, John’s fate is still undetermined. He is in prison. There is a good chance he will be executed. But I don’t think any of that is what is troubling John. He spent his adult life in the wilderness, clothed in camel’s hair, surviving on locusts and wild honey, and preaching fearlessly, without worrying about the consequences. Prison was probably the least of his worries!
No, what bothered John was something completely different. It seems that he was beginning to doubt, beginning to lose his faith that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He was born to prepare the way of the Lord. He had devoted his life to doing this. But now, he wasn’t seeing any evidence that Jesus really was the one. Because Jesus was not doing what was expected of the Messiah. Rome was still in power. Herod was as corrupt as ever. Jesus had not yet restored the Kingdom of Israel. And it seemed unlikely that he would – not in the way people expected. And people like John were still finding themselves being oppressed and imprisoned. So John is beginning to wonder if Jesus really is the one promised. And if so, why hasn’t he done all that the Messiah was expected to do?
We don’t usually think of John the Baptist as being a role model for doubters, but perhaps we should. He is wondering whether Jesus really is the one. And he is no doubt questioning the very purpose of his life. Because he has devoted it to preparing the way for Jesus. And now, he is in prison. And Herod is still King. And nothing seems to have changed.
But what John the Baptist does next is what, I believe, makes him a good and worthy role model for doubters. Because what he does is very simple, but profound: He sends word by his disciples to ask Jesus a question – one of the most poignant and heartfelt questions in all of Scripture: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As John ponders his life from his prison cell, he begins to question; he begins to wonder if he was right, if Jesus really was the promised Messiah. Was his life lived in vain, or did it have a purpose? Is Jesus the one, or not?
When We Doubt
We all have times when we question our faith, when we struggle with doubt. No one is greater than John the Baptist, according to Jesus, so if he has those moments, we should expect them, too. But what do we do when that happens? Here is why John is so important. Because he shows us the way forward. When we have questions in life, or even doubts, we should take them to God in prayer. John sends his followers to Jesus to ask if he is the one. The way that we can do the same thing is through prayer. Talk to Jesus, and ask him to help us with our questions. When we doubt, what better thing to do, than to pray – to ask the questions that are leading us to doubt, but to ask them directly to the one we doubt? So, that is what John the Baptist does. Are you the one, Jesus?
And then, Jesus answers. Not directly, but he answers John’s question, by saying:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus answers John by quoting the very same book of scripture that first inspired John to cry out in the wilderness, that inspired him to prepare the way of the Lord: the Book of Isaiah. And Jesus invites John’s disciples to look around and tell John what they hear and see. Scripture is being fulfilled. Maybe not in the expected ways, but in ways that are promised by the prophets of old. The Messiah may not be overthrowing Herod, but he is healing the blind, the lame, and the deaf. He is raising the dead. He is bringing good news to the poor. These are real, tangible signs that God is at work in Jesus; that he is the one that John was waiting for, and that John devoted his life to. Jesus is the Messiah. And blessed are all who believe it.
Now Jesus’ answer, when you think about it, doesn’t get John out of prison. It doesn’t change the circumstances of his life. But what it does is far more significant: it gives him hope. Now, John can die in peace. He can accept his fate, whatever it may be, knowing that his life’s work was not in vain, knowing that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. And that is what true faith is all about, and that is what true faith gives us: True faith gives us true hope. Our faith doesn’t always change our circumstances. But it always gives us hope.
We can still doubt, even when we have faith. Just like John the Baptist, we can find ourselves in a place where our faith starts shaking and crumbling. But when we do, Jesus invites us to look around. See this beautiful world. Take a breath. Receive again the gift of our very existence. Trust God. Trust God’s slow work. Trust God’s promise of presence. Believe that God so loved the world that God’s son was born for us. Bask in the beauty of this world. Kneel with wonder and in adoration of the child in the manger. Believe in the Savior born for us; who grew up to heal and to teach and to proclaim good news; who died, and who rose again, and who promises to return to bring the kingdom of God in all its fullness to a world that longs for this, even when it doesn’t know it, and even when it struggles to believe it.
Go and Tell
In this gospel reading, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what you hear and see. And I believe that he tells us the very same thing. Go and tell those who doubt what you hear and see. Go and tell those who are in prison what you hear and see. Go and tell those who are grieving, those who are lonely, those who are struggling in life, those who are fighting any kind of battle – and isn’t everyone? Go and tell them what you hear and see. Go and tell them that we have a God who loves them, and who promises to be with them – and us – always.
Greater than John the Baptist?!
Jesus concludes this gospel reading with a remarkable claim. He tells us that: “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” No one is greater than John the Baptist. Of course. He devoted his life to preparing the way of the Lord. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. He shared with all who would listen that the Lamb of God was coming into the world, to save us from our sins. And John the Baptist also stood up to power. He stood up to those who were abusing power, particularly to King Herod. And he was killed for it. “Among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
But Jesus goes on to say that, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Huh? What is Jesus saying here? How can this be? We are all, every one of us, greater than John the Baptist?! How can that be? What does that mean? Here’s what I think it means: I think it means that we are greater than John the Baptist because we live in a post-Easter world. John was killed before that first Easter. He was killed before Jesus died on the cross; before he was raised on the third day. Before he ascended into Heaven, and sent the promised Holy Spirit.
In John’s earthly life, he died before he knew how the story ended. His question – Is Jesus the one? – was answered for John by what Jesus was doing in his earthly ministry. But John’s question – Is Jesus the one? – has now been answered for us, post-Easter, in a way that exceeded the hopes of all. Because the Messiah, Jesus, was raised from the dead. He showed the world that death no longer has power over us. He showed us what we all will experience when he comes again. When the kingdom will come in all its fullness. When God will wipe every tear from every eye, and put an end to all suffering, pain, and death.
We who are blessed to live in this post-Easter world – we know how the story ends. And we can share that story with others. And that makes us greater than John the Baptist, according to Jesus. Every one of us. Or, if you don’t want to think of us as greater, think of us as simply more blessed. Because we know how the story ends: for Jesus, for us, and for the world. We know it because we have been told it, and because we believe it. And because we believe, we are called to share this good news. We are called to share our faith. And to answer the question that everyone, at one time or another, is bound to ask: Are you the one, Lord, or are we to wait for another? Yes, Jesus is the one. The world’s Savior. The resurrection and the life. Thanks be to God. Amen.