Sermon: Advent III
Jesus Commends the Doubter (Matt 11:2-11)
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist…
• Matthew 11:11
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Jesus gives great praise to John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. He commends him as a strong man of truth, a prophet of God, a specially chosen messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist,” Jesus says. We should be impressed by John. We should venerate him, honor him, and look up to him.
Having said that, I want you to notice that Jesus proclaimed these words of commendation at one of the lowest moments in John’s life. In this very same text — where Jesus praises John up one side and down the other — we discover that John was struggling with doubt.
John found himself in prison when Jesus praised him, and I’m sure it was a challenge for him to stay positive and not get discouraged. Our Gospel text tells us that John was so out of sorts and and his mind in such turmoil that he sent messengers to ask Jesus if he was really the One, the coming Messiah, the King God had promised.
This great servant of God found himself locked in a prison cell of doubt.
- Who had devoted his life to preparing Israel for the coming of her Messiah? John.
- Who had introduced Jesus to the public? John.
- Who had said Jesus was so great that he wasn’t worthy even to tie his sandal? John.
- Who had baptized him? Who heard the voice from heaven affirming Jesus as God’s Son? Who had seen the Holy Spirit descending upon him as a dove? John.
- Who had pointed to Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold! the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”? John.
Out of that same mouth, now we hear, “Are you the One? Or should we look for another?
We can’t be sure why John was struggling with doubts at that moment. Certainly being in prison couldn’t have helped. But, as Jesus says here, this was no weakling. This was no reed in the wind, easily swayed or broken.
Yet he found himself racked with doubts. I wonder why.
Perhaps it was because he had not seen Jesus do what he expected him to do. Perhaps John had anticipated more action, more results, more victories, more success. Maybe he expected more visible, public proofs that Jesus was king and that the kingdom of God was taking over —
- If Jesus were truly a king wouldn’t he have raised an army by now?
- Wouldn’t he have challenged the ruling powers more by now?
- Wouldn’t there be more talk of revolution and resistance?
- Wouldn’t renewal and reformation be sweeping through Jewish society?
- Wouldn’t the Romans be shaking in their boots at the rising power of God’s people?
Maybe these were some of John’s thoughts and expectations. If Jesus was truly the King God promised, why hadn’t things started to change for Israel? It is possible that John was making the mistake that Israel made when she chose her first king.
The people of Israel chose Saul, a man who was strong, attractive, and charismatic; a man they thought would get things done. Saul would surely fight and defeat their enemies! Saul would certainly bring victory and glory and prosperity to their nation. They wanted results. They wanted them now. And they believed Saul would be the king who could get those results for them.
They didn’t realize, that God had a different king in mind for his people: David. Though David showed early promise, he was nowhere near the physical specimen Saul was. He was the runt of his family’s litter, he spent time tending sheep, he was a poet who played music. After Samuel anointed him, David spent more time running for his life, hiding in caves, and figuring out ways of surviving among his enemies than he did leading Israel in glorious victories. He ended up coming to the throne out of obscurity and suffering.
Now, in the days of Jesus, perhaps John was looking for a new Saul. But God sent a Son of David. John looked for action and power and visible results. Instead, he saw a homeless teacher traveling around Israel, hanging out with sinners, having dinner with them in their houses, teaching and feeding them on hillsides. And it wasn’t adding up.
Can you relate to John? Have you had expectations about life and God and what God would do that remain unfulfilled? Have you found yourself locked in that prison cell of doubt? Have you been perplexed or disappointed at times in your life of faith?
This leads me to ask: What do you and I expect when we look for God to work in our lives and in our world? Maybe, like John, we are expecting more progress, but we don’t see it. We trusted in Jesus and life just hasn’t turned out like we thought it would.
But maybe we’re looking for God in the wrong places and expecting the wrong things. Maybe we’ve been looking for a Saul to defeat our enemies, and what we got was a David, running for his life.
And perhaps that is the whole point. Perhaps God is to be found more in the small and obscure places, among the common folks and not the elite. Maybe he walks the hidden halls of hospitals and nursing homes, with disadvantaged children in inner city schools, in homeless shelters and soup kitchen lines, and in the run-down, dilapidated houses of the neighborhoods most people try to avoid.
Maybe, in fact, God doesn’t give a hoot about the kinds of results or victories or outcomes that we are looking for so eagerly.
Maybe Jesus really meant it when he said he came to bless the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who have been oppressed and who cry out for justice.
Maybe we are being called to really believe the good news as God has brought it to us. We might just find our salvation lying as a baby in a manger. Growing up in obscurity and walking the backroads of Israel without a place to lay his head. Touching and healing a leper. Confronting and rebuking the powerful. Hanging on a cross.
In fact, it just might be that God is present and working in the prison cell of doubt and fear that some of us — maybe even you — occupy today. And though you feel yourself to be least in the kingdom of heaven, or maybe even not worthy of being part of God’s kingdom, Jesus is, right at this very moment — your lowest moment — commending you as one greater than John the Baptist.
Wouldn’t that be something?