Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3, ESV). That’s what John the Baptist wondered about Jesus as he languished in a prison cell. “Was I right about you, Jesus? Are you really the Messiah? Are you truly the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Or should we look for somebody else?”
Who can even begin to understand the deep pain and terrible doubt behind this question? Only those who feel as though they have been let down by God: someone diagnosed with ALS or cancer, someone in the midst of an ugly divorce or custody battle, someone whose loved ones are taken from them suddenly and violently, someone falsely accused of a crime, someone struggling to pay the rent, someone who cannot sleep because of their tears and prayers. Only those who have longed for God’s action only to be disappointed by silence and inaction. Only those who have wallowed in the darkness of a dungeon, literally or figuratively, can empathize with John’s terrible question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Have you ever been there? Have you, like John, ever stared into the abyss or grave and wondered, “Where is God in all of this?” A couple years ago I went through one of the darkest periods of my life after my parents died within ten months of one another. My father died suddenly of an unknown illness, and my mother got hit by a car while riding her bicycle. Why does God always take the good ones? Why doesn’t he instead kill the wicked?
I was angry at God for more than a year and a half. I found no pleasure in my work or joy in my family activities. Many Sundays when I stepped into the pulpit, I myself barely believed the words I’d written and had to convince myself with my own sermon. Everything in life was too much and not enough. All I wanted to do at the end of the day was crawl into a hole and die. But God would not give me even that satisfaction.
Well-meaning people spoke in all kinds of platitudes to me—things like “They’re in a better place,” or “You shouldn’t be sad because your parents were Christians.” Side note: never tell someone NOT to be sad. Even Jesus wept. And even if my parents were in heaven with Jesus, they weren’t on earth with me. Grief isn’t selfish. We grieve because we love.
God seemed absent or even capricious during that dark night of my soul. Why didn’t he answer my prayers? Why didn’t he give me peace or joy? Why didn’t God give me justice over my enemies who profited from my mother’s death? Was I simply taken in by false advertising? Who are you, Jesus?! Are you really the one who is to come, or should I look for someone else?
Perhaps this sounds like blasphemy to some of you. If it does, you either haven’t read the Psalms or your faith hasn’t yet been tested. After C.S. Lewis’s wife died of cancer, he wrote in his grief journal that God was “the Cosmic Sadist” (A Grief Observed). Remember, this is the same giant of Christian faith who penned The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, the apologist who took to the air on the BBC to defend the Christian faith and evangelize the masses. If even someone of such notable stature as Lewis could dump on God in the depths of his despair, then so can we. C.S. Lewis and John the Baptist give us permission to tell God what we really think and feel. And if we can’t be honest with Jesus, then who can we be honest with?
When we first encountered John the Baptist in last week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12), he seemed so sure of his message, unbending, and unyielding. Rather than a reed shaken by the wind, John was a strong oak tree that could weather any storm. “Repent,” he called, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). If you listened to John and believed his preaching, you would probably think the world was going to end at any moment. Messiah was just outside the door, ready to burst in and overturn all the tables. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” John declared. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12).
According to John, Messiah would come with fire in one hand and an axe in the other (cf. Matt. 3:10). Judgment Day was near, and the whole world was about to be cleansed with fire, like gold in the crucible. Only the truly repentant and pure of heart would survive the coming fire of God’s wrath. Only the righteous would stand in God’s judgment, and the wicked, like chaff, would be gone with the end (cf. Ps. 1:4, 6). And, according to John, the one to right the world by turning everything upside down and inside out was Jesus (cf. John 1:29-34).
But that was then, and this was now. Then, John seemed unstoppable. Then, Jesus seemed like the perfect man to carry the torch. But then John spoke truth to power. He publicly denounced Herod Antipas, the puppet king who stole his brother’s wife. Adultery is one thing, incest is another. Herod was guilty of both. Nobody usually bats an eye when you preach against the sins of the little guy, but when you call out the elite for their elicit sins, your days become numbered. When the nation’s leaders behaved badly, John called them out (quite unlike most preachers today). So when John the Baptist couldn’t keep quiet about the king’s bedroom activities, he came into the crosshairs of the political establishment. Because John wouldn’t shut up, Herod locked him up.
Suddenly, from the deep darkness of his prison cell, John couldn’t see the light anymore. No longer was he certain that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, Israel’s coming King. Jesus didn’t appear to play the part. For instead of setting the world to rights, he preached forgiveness and mercy. Rather than unleashing God’s wrath and Judgment Day, Jesus told his disciples, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matt. 7:1, KJV). Instead of browbeating sinners with the Bible, Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them (cf. Luke 15:1-2). Where John was bold and brute, Jesus appeared meek and mild. Instead of chopping down trees and setting the world ablaze, Jesus was like a drink of cold water on a hot summer day. And John the Baptist, the wilderness prophet, could not understand why.
Jesus’ actions did not fit John’s take on the Messiah’s mission. John wanted measurable results, but Jesus just loved people. It didn’t add up. Maybe John’s own preaching and significance was now called into question. Perhaps he was wrong about Jesus. Maybe he handed off the baton to the wrong guy. Maybe he ran the race in vain.
All those maybes can drive a person mad, and as he awaited his fate, John wondered and worried about the future of God’s kingdom and mission. He needed hope. He needed reassurance. He needed faith. He needed to hear from Jesus. So he sent a delegation of his disciples to inquire, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).
When John’s disciples found Jesus, he was hard at work preaching, teaching, and healing people. Sweat dripped from his face, but even with so much work to do, Jesus seemed unhurried. And instead of giving a direct answer to John’s question, he told the messengers to tag along and shadow him for a day.
What they saw confronted them with the reality of Jesus Christ. With only a word or a touch, Jesus gave sight to the blind and sent the lame skipping home along the path. He cleansed the skin of lepers and restored them to community. He opened the ears of the deaf so that they heard birds and wind and singing for the first time ever in their lives. He preached the Good News of the Gospel to those who were poor in spirit, crushed by their sins. He even did the impossible and brought back the dead to life, both physically and spiritually.
What John’s disciples beheld in Jesus was undeniable. He was the Christ! He was the Son of God! He was the King of Israel! And God’s kingdom came with him. John the Baptist was the wilderness prophet foretold by Isaiah—“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” (Matt. 3:3). And Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s mission, outlined in our Old Testament lesson:
“Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:3-5).
Jesus did everything Isaiah prophesied. He brought healing where previously there was no hope. He brought life where there was only death. John chopped down trees and waited for the world to burn. Jesus planted trees that sprang up out of that same scorched earth.
So Jesus told John’s disciples to go, report back to John everything they’d heard and seen. “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:6).
We do not know how John responded to Jesus’ words. We don’t know if he had a change of heart after his disciples’ report of Jesus’ deeds. But I cannot help but believe that, before John was beheaded by King Herod, he smiled, nodded, and said (like Simeon), “Yes, yes, Jesus. You are the one who is to come. And you are here. Messiah has come. Now I can die in peace.”
John was not a reed shaken by the wind (cf. Matt. 11:7). But he still needed Jesus’ Word to strengthen him and rekindle his fire. And because Jesus was gentle and kind—“a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench…” (Matt. 12:20)—that is what he does. Christ heals our bodies, calms our minds, and gives peace to our hearts. All this he does by pointing us to his Word and the cross. On the cross, Jesus bore all our infirmities and iniquities (cf. Isa. 53:4-5). He took our sin and sickness to the cross and left them there.
But Jesus didn’t stay there—on the cross. After he died and was buried, God raised him from the dead. He came back to life! Christ’s resurrection was the vindication of his ministry and mission, every word he spoke and every deed he did. Is Jesus the one to come, or should we look for another? After the resurrection of the Son of God, there can be only answer: Yes, Jesus is the one we have been waiting for, longing for, and yearning for with every fiber of our being.
And for those of us who live on this side of the resurrection and ascension, Jesus is not only the one who was to come, but also the one who is to come again on the Last Day. When he returns, he will finally set the world to rights and put an end to all suffering, sorrow, and sin. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat” (Rev. 7:16). When Christ returns, he will make all things new (Rev. 21:5), and all manner of things shall be well. Those who hope and wait for him will never be disappointed ever again. For “hope does not disappoint” us (Rom. 5:5).
After eighteen months of darkness and despair, God brought me back into the light. Jesus lifted me out of the mire and set my feet in a broad place. There is always light at the end of the tunnel because Jesus is the Light which the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5). Right now we see in a glass darkly. It can be difficult to discern that God is still with us and for us. But God always keeps his Word, and not one of his promises fails to come true. Even in prison, John clung to Christ, for it was to Jesus he turned when he prayed, “Are you the one who is to come?” Yes, Jesus is the one who came—and who comes again. He comes for you and me. He comes to make all things new. The blind will see, the lame will leap, the deaf will hear, the mute will speak, and the dead will be raised. So together we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Where John was bold and brute, Jesus appeared meek and mild. In the name of Jesus, our coming King. Amen.