When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, 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."

Matthew 11:2-11

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2019) on Matthew 11:2-11. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So what happened to John the Baptist? Why does he sound so unsure this week? And what would it take for you to ask his question? 

It was only 7 days ago when Matthew first described to us John’s ministry. John was living in the wilderness around the river Jordan, wearing clothes made out of camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey, and preaching about our need to be transformed. Now most people avoided the wilderness because you never quite knew what was lurking around the next bend. Yet John’s message made some people curious and they risked the wilderness to see him. John’s preaching wasn’t always the most pastoral; and he talked a lot about an unquenchable fire. But his words struck a nerve because they invited people to be honest about who they were and how they needed God to transform them. John was confident that God was on the move and soon someone would come to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth. When Jesus came to John in the wilderness, his presence seemed to affirm everything that John said. In the verses following our reading from last week and ones that we’ll hear in January when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, John knew who Jesus was and the entire crowd heard God’s voice say that Jesus the beloved Son. When it comes to the checklist of who the Messiah would be, God’s own statements should be enough. Yet our reading today from the gospel according to Matthew makes last week’s moment with John in the wilderness feel like it was a long time ago. Because after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness dealing with the devil. But John, during that same time, was arrested. 

Now, on one level, John’s arrest kicked off Jesus’ own public ministry. After getting word of what happened, Jesus left the wilderness, gathered disciples, healed the sick and suffering, taught in synagogues and religious centers, and he preached a very long sermon while sitting on a mountain. Jesus’ ministry grew and soon large crowds came to him while he preached around the Sea of Galilee. But while Jesus was on the move, John sat in prison. He was there because his message about transformation did not make everyone, especially King Herod, particularly happy. King Herod was basically a political puppet, a ruler who was overseen and controlled by the Roman Empire. His status as a leader depended on what Rome decided for him. Yet that didn’t stop Herod from trying to secure whatever power he could. He came from a large extended family that often killed each other to get their own way. And his family would also marry each other, using the laws about inheritance as a way to increase their own power. Sources tell us that, at some point, Herod and Herod’s brother’s wife, who was also Herod’s half-niece, fell in love. They agreed to marry but there was a rumor that they married while Herod’s brother was still alive. Their marriage was seen by some, including John, as unlawful.  And since John wasn’t afraid to tell the powerful when they were wrong, Herod had John arrested. John was in prison when he heard that Jesus’ ministry was bubbling up all around him. Visitors to John problem told him about all the different places Jesus went to; all the healing he was doing; and how Jesus even made a difference in a Roman soldier’s household. Jesus’ ministry seemed to be circling around John. Yet the One who John proclaimed would come to baptized with the Holy Spirit and Fire - didn’t seem to be coming for John. I wonder if, in that moment, John felt as if Jesus was showing up for everyone else but him. John knew the danger he was in and he might have been waiting for Jesus to save him. And as John waited, doubt settled in. 

Now, one of the words at the center of the Advent season is “wait.” We, as my kids remind me every single day, are waiting for Christmas. But we’re also waiting for something more. We’re waiting for God’s kingdom to become real. We long for peace, for refreshment, for a life where joy overcomes our burdens. And we often we find ourselves exhausted, worn out by our busy schedule and all the things we think we need to do to be the person we hope to be. We might catch ourselves saying our prayers but wondering if we’re actually heard. We might even come to church but doubt we’ll get anything out of it. We find ourselves often waiting - waiting for something to be different - even though we’re not always sure what that different thing will look like. So, we wait, and the time we spend on waiting seems to stretch on and on. 

And that, I think, is the problem with waiting. Waiting takes time. And while we wait, we find ourselves filling that time with our questions and our wondering. We might think that questions and doubts are somehow a sign that our faith is weak. But I don’t think that’s true. Because if John the Baptist, who heard God literally say Jesus was the beloved Son, also doubted during his season of waiting - we can give ourselves permission to doubt too. We can, like John, wonder. We can, like John, seek clarification. We can be honest when it feels as if God is showing for everyone else but us. And we can ask John’s question - or  come up with our own. 

Now, none of that is being unfaithful. We are allowed to doubt. And when we do that, I hope we can also lean into Jesus’ answer to John’s question. But we shouldn’t only look at the words Jesus used to describe himself. We can also listen to what Jesus told the crowd when he described who John is. John might have had doubts about Jesus but Jesus had no doubts about John. And Jesus, as he talked to the crowd, did more than name all the amazing things John did or focus only on John’s faithfulness. Jesus also made sure to point out that he and John were intertwined. John was Jesus’ messenger and Jesus needed John as his messenger. They were wrapped up in each other - and their connection couldn’t be separated no matter how much doubt John had. Even during his time of waiting, wondering, and feeling as if Jesus was seeing everyone else but him, John’s relationship with Jesus wasn’t defined by what John felt or thought. Instead, John’s relationship with Jesus was defined by Jesus alone. And Jesus promised that their relationship would not be broken. 

We know that waiting is hard. And we also know that there’s different kinds of waiting - some which are harder than others. Nothing about waiting is easy because waiting takes time - and that time will sometimes feel too long or not long enough. We will, like John, have seasons wondering where Jesus is. Yet even when our doubts seem to be all that we have, there’s still one thing that can’t be taken away. Jesus’ love for you isn’t defined by you; rather it’s defined by him. And you, through your baptism and your doubt-filled faith, are intertwined with Jesus and he is intertwined with you. Your season of doubt and of waiting cannot separate you from Jesus because he’s already with you. And when your doubts about God, faith, the world, and yourself seem to overwhelm you, remember this: Jesus doesn’t doubt you.