12/12/21 – Advent 3 – “A Doubting Prophet?” – Matthew 11:2-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. In our Gospel Reading for today we turn our attention to the great prophet known as John the Baptist. Interestingly, John doesn’t actually make an appearance in the text, but his disciples speak for him and Jesus speaks about him. As the text begins, we’re told that John is in prison. As you might recall, John was put in prison by King Herod after John had unapologetically preached against some of the things that Herod had been doing. Herod had gotten sick of John undermining his authority, so he put him in prison to get him to stop talking. The beginning of our text says this: Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of 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?” (Matthew 10:2-3). The question of why John sends his disciples to ask this question of Jesus is hotly debated by scholars. Many scholars maintain that John couldn’t possibly be asking this question for his own benefit. They claim that John, who is called the greatest born of women, couldn’t possibly doubt who Jesus was. They claim that John has his disciples ask this question for their own benefit. I find this line of reasoning less than convincing. Just because John is a great prophet doesn’t mean that he never experienced doubts. After all, later in the chapter, Jesus refers to John as “Elijah who is to come.” The great prophet Elijah had a habit of doing incredible miracles and preaching strong messages and then almost immediately running away in fear and doubt. If the great prophet Elijah could doubt, so could John. After all, he’s been sitting in prison. John had to have known that he probably wasn’t getting out. John had to have known that it was likely he was going to die in prison. And so, the doubts probably started to creep into his mind. John’s ministry had been a “fire and brimstone” ministry. He preached strong messages of repentance proclaiming that the Messiah was coming. John proclaimed that the great Day of the Lord was near when the Lord would come and judge his people for their sins. But John wasn’t even suffering for that message. He was in prison because he had upset King Herod by preaching about something which didn’t even relate to his primary mission of preparing the way for the Messiah. And to top it off, this Jesus guy, who was supposed to be the Messiah, wasn’t acting at all like John had been preparing people to expect. John preached a strong message of repentance. Jesus came in quiet humility forgiving sins and associating with tax collectors and sinners. You can understand why John might have been experiencing doubts—Jesus was not working the way that he thought he should. And so, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?

2. Notice how Jesus responds to this doubt-filled question. He responds in reassurance. Beginning in verse 4, we read: And Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:4-6). Jesus points to the numerous prophesies that are being fulfilled in his ministry. Jesus had healed blind men. We’re told in John chapter 9: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind” (John 9:32). But Jesus did it—a true sign that he was the promised Messiah and the son of God. Jesus also made the lame walk, cleansed lepers, and restored the hearing of those who were deaf. He raised the dead (more than once) and he preached good news to the poor—a clear sign of the Messiah foretold by Isaiah in Isaiah 61:1: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isaiah 61:1). But perhaps this prophecy is part of the reason why John was struggling. Part of the Messiah’s mission is “to proclaim liberty to the captives” and “the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Yet here John sits, still in prison. And we know what’s going to come of John’s imprisonment—he’s going to die there. And yet, Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” That is to say, the one who is not offended by Jesus will be eternally blessed. Jesus makes it clear that the one who does not succumb to his doubts and give up his faith entirely will be enterally blessed. And so, Jesus sent this message by way of John’s disciples in order to reassure him—to strengthen his faith and dispel his doubts. And we know from the rest of Scripture that Jesus’ message to John did strengthen his faith—so much so that he endured to the end and died a martyr’s death. And now John the Baptist, along with all the faithful, rests with the resurrected Jesus as they await the fulness of God’s kingdom to come.

3. So, what about you and me? We live in a situation not terribly different from John the Baptist. Most of us probably don’t find ourselves in prison suffering for our faith like John, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to the struggles and doubts that someone in such a position faces. When we look at the world around us, we see brokenness and troubles everywhere. The COVID-19 pandemic and all of the confusion and upheaval associated with it is only one small example of this in the grand scheme of things. The brokenness and troubles around us are very real. Every day we see it in one form or another. We see homeless people shivering on the streets. We see people around us suffering from economic hardships. We might even see loved ones dying of cancer or some other horrible illness. The brokenness and troubles around us are very real. And it doesn’t take much to cause us to start experiencing doubts—Jesus is not working the way we think he should. Are you really who you say you are, Jesus? Are you really in control? Why don’t you do something?

4. And he does do something, although not the something we would like him to do. We would like Jesus to give us an explanation of why he allows so much evil and brokenness in the world. Or better yet, we would like him to fix all of our loved ones’ brokenness and troubles as well as our own brokenness and troubles. But instead he simply reassures us. He strengthens our faith and dispels our doubts by sending us messengers to tell us what is there to be heard and seen: New believers are brought into the family of faith. Lives are changed by the message of the Gospel. Baptisms are administered. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated. God’s Word is preached, and all the while our faith is strengthened. This may seem like nothing in comparison to what we would like to see. We would like to see homelessness eradicated. We would like to see economic hardships done away with. We would like to see physical illness cured. But all of those wishes are short-sighted. These wishes are similar to a child wanting a new toy for Christmas when they could instead have an investment account that would fund their entire adult life. In the midst of our doubts, the Lord doesn’t give us what we want, he gives us what we need—the message of eternal blessing and life with him.

5. So, what does Jesus want us to do when we experience doubts? He wants us to listen to his messengers. In his infinite wisdom, the Lord has decided to us his called ministers to reassure us in our doubts. Jesus doesn’t tell us to listen to pastors because they are particularly special. He tells us to listen to his messengers because that is one of the primary ways in which he has decided to communicate with us. In the first verse of our Epistle Reading from 1 Corinthians 4, St. Paul writes: This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). The Lord uses his messengers as stewards of his mysteries to bring his comforting Gospel message to our troubled hearts. Perhaps this is why Jesus says in the verse immediately following our reading: “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” (Matthew 11:11). I made the remark in our noon service on Wednesday that I don’t think John cares if you or I are greater than he is in the kingdom of heaven. We’re all just going to be happy to be there! But perhaps one of the reasons why Jesus calls John the Baptist the greatest to be born of women is not because he didn’t doubt, but because he knew what to do when he did. John the Baptist teaches us that in our doubts, we turn to Jesus. But just like John, you and I can’t go physically talk with Jesus. He was trapped in prison. We are trapped in this sin-filled earth. We can’t go physically talk to Jesus. So, just like John the Baptist, when we experience doubts, we turn look to our Lord’s messengers who bring us his word. And as we cling to Christ’s Word brought to us by his messengers, we eagerly await the day when one final messenger will cause the words of Isaiah’s prophecy to become a reality: Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold, your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young (Isaiah 40:9-11).

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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