This is the message I shared with God's people at Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY.
Have you ever struggled with doubt? Perhaps you have been in a situation which made everything that was formerly clear and certain, murky and uncertain. You pray and nothing happens. Where is God? You’ve done all the right things, but nothing has turned out the way it’s supposed to or the way you thought it was supposed to.
I imagine that is how John the Baptist felt. A chunk of time has passed between the events of last week’s gospel and this week’s. John has been arrested. He has been in prison during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. John may have been in prison as long as a year. If Jesus is the powerful messiah who would deliver the Jewish people and punish the wrongdoers, then why was God allowing his servant, John, to languish in prison? Who wouldn’t have experienced doubt in such circumstances?
John heard about what Jesus was doing, but Jesus was not acting the way John expected the messiah to act. The messiah’s role was to carry out judgment on Israel’s enemies. The messiah was to see that the ax is laid to the root of the trees and burn unfruitful trees. However, Jesus was not doing that.
So, John sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the one they have been waiting for. True to form, Jesus does not give a definitive yes or no answer. Rather his response is rather cryptic. “Go tell John what you hear and see.”
Hearing comes first, which emphasizes its importance. People saw great miracles taking place in Jesus’ ministry, but there is so much more to his ministry than that. Jesus was not some magician. His teaching and words were paramount. It was important to take in the whole of Jesus’ ministry— his words and his works. Jesus taught about denying oneself and taking up one’s cross to follow him.
In some ways, Jesus was answering John when he pointed to his works. Jesus simply paraphrased the various Old Testament descriptions of the time of God’s promised salvation from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 35:5-6; 26:19; 29:18-19; 61:1). Jesus does not acknowledge the title of messiah, but rather points to the nature of his works. By doing so, he is indicating the nature of the time.
Jesus is giving John the opportunity to make up his own mind. These are the works the prophets predicted the messiah would do. However, no one expected he would hang out with the wrong people—like outcasts and sinners, the poor and marginalized. Jesus’ primary activity was restoring the needy and giving life to the lifeless. Some were threatened by Jesus’ preoccupation with such unsavory sorts of people who could do little or nothing for themselves and this prevented them from accepting Jesus as the messiah.
Like the people of Jesus’ day, don’t we want a savior we can be proud of? We often try to make Jesus into our image forgetting that it should be the other way around. We Americans especially relish our strength and independence. If we suffer from weakness, poverty or hunger, we are embarrassed. We don’t like to ask for help no matter how much we may need it. Doesn’t it say somewhere in the Bible that God helps those who help themselves? Some would prefer to wait for another messiah, hoping to find a leader more to their liking. Jesus, the messiah, comes in unexpected packaging. Jesus comes to us through water, word and bread. Jesus comes to us through each other. Jesus comes to us through strangers and through nature. Jesus could be the homeless person at Walmart or the elderly person in the nursing home or the relative you haven’t spoken to in 15 years or the weird neighbor down the street.
During this season of Advent, why do we focus on John the Baptist? He got to introduce the One whom all the prophets of old had pointed to—the messiah. He was the messenger promised by Malachi, the last of the prophets. John stood on the threshold of the door of an entirely new age—the messianic age. He did not get to be one of Jesus’ disciples because of his imprisonment, but he got to see Jesus the embodiment of God’s salvation of his people.
John responded to Jesus with questions, but the questions emanated from faith. How do we respond to the claims of Christ on our lives? Jesus said, “...blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (v. 6).
Those of us who are looking for salvation wrought by our own good works, one that we have accomplished by ourselves will likely take offense at Jesus. After all, a savior that seems so powerless hanging on a cross is not very appealing to our modern sensibilities. But Jesus plays by his own and the Father’s rules, “fulfilling the scriptures which motivated him and his ministry, not some preconceived notion of what a messiah must do and be” (Ben Witherington).
Does Jesus offend us? He does not judge the people we think he should. He does not love in the way we think he should. Jesus does not do things like we think God should do them. But God is God and we are not.
Perhaps our reaction to Jesus’ claims is that we’re so very busy that we have no time for anything else in our schedules. We’re lucky to have made it here to church today!
Another response may be fear of what God might ask of us if we really take the time to listen. What if God asks us to go and start preaching to people? What if God asks us to volunteer at a charity? What if God asks us to stop and help a motorist who broke down on the side of the road? What if God was asking us to call a relative we haven’t spoken to in years?
Do we feel that we just are not up to the challenge of living the Christian life? But Jesus says that the least in the kingdom of God, like us, is greater than John the Baptist. John had to stretch his imagination regarding the power and presence of God and so do we.
If people’s expectations of the Messiah were that all diseases and disabilities would be eliminated, then they were mistaken. Neither Jesus, nor his disciples nor we could cure all the disabled and sick. There is still so much work to be done and God wants to use us to heal our hurting world. Are we open for God to make opportunities for us to share his love in word and deed?
We need to stop and get off the merry go round of our frenetic pace of life.
We need to listen—what do we hear God saying?
We need to look-what do we see God doing?
God is at work in our world today. We can be a part of that work by telling everyone what we hear and see. Let’s tell our stories and watch God change lives. Amen.