If this morning’s Gospel lesson leaves us a little uncertain, set a bit back on our heels, it’s understandable.
Last week, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard John the Baptist’s confident proclamation of the impending appearance of God’s promised Anointed King—what the Hebrew of the Old Testament calls the Messiah and the Greek of the New Testament calls the Christ.
In the Christ Who was coming, John told the crowds who heard him preach, God was getting ready to re-establish His reign over a sinful, rebellious world. When Jesus later showed up to be baptized by John, in a passage not a part of last Sunday’s lesson, John must have felt that all his preaching had been proven true. Jesus was the Messiah He’d been waiting for!
When we fast forward to the Gospel lesson for this Third Sunday of Advent, we come to a very different scene.
If John was like most of the Jews of his day, his expectations would have been that the Messiah, the King of kings, was going to push the bloodthirsty, corrupt Judean kings off of their thrones, would save the people from their foreign overlords, the Romans, and would take away the power and prominence of the vain and faithless rulers of Judea’s religious life—the priests and teachers of the law. Like other Jews, John probably expected the Messiah to execute a clean sweep of what we would call church and state, making everything in society right. John thought that the Messiah would, in one famous phrase, bring “hope and change” and, in another famous saying, “drain the swamp.” (I'm being bi-partisan.)
Since John's encounter with Jesus at the Jordan River, Jesus hadn’t taken over the government, led a military junta, established a government program, or punched anyone in the nose.
Instead, Jesus had undertaken a ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, and miracle working. Great stuff, but not exactly what John had expected!
Herod, the Romans, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees were still in charge. And as we meet up with John the Baptist today, he’s in prison, the once-confident preacher wrestling with doubt.
With a probable death sentence hanging over him and with the kingdom of God seeming no nearer than it had been when he first began his ministry, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else??” [Matthew 11:3]
John wanted to hope in Jesus, but Jesus didn’t seem to be meeting John’s expectations. John wondered, “Is Jesus the Messiah we’ve been waiting for?”
Have you ever been there?
Have the promises of Jesus to hear and answer your prayers sometimes mocked your faith?
Have your life circumstances cast your faith in a sovereign, loving God in doubt?
Have questions pressed on you as you’ve watched loved ones suffer or die, or you’ve struggled with health issues, financial issues, or when your sense of purpose in life has disappeared?
Have you played by God’s rules and watched people who ignore them seem to skate through life as you face troubles and difficulties?
The truth, if we’re honest I think, is that we have all been there in the prison of doubt and uncertainty John experienced in that prison cell.
And so, John did what millions of people have done through the centuries when wrestling with their questions and doubts. He turned to Jesus. He asked Jesus, in effect, “Are You the One in Whom I can place all of my trust and hope?”
Jesus’ response to John’s question in today’s Gospel lesson is not just for John the Baptist, it’s for all of us who have ever doubted, who have wrestled to understand God’s plans in the midst of unbearable pain or indecipherable situations.
Please look at our Gospel lesson, Matthew 11:2-15, starting with verses 4 to 6. It says: “Jesus replied [to the men John had sent to Jesus with his question], ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.’”
Jesus didn’t deny that He was the King Who would bring judgment on the unbelieving world. And He would confirm that He was to be the judge of the world many times.
In answer to John’s question though, Jesus pointed John to all the signs that showed Him to be not just the Messiah, but the Lord of all creation, Who can speak a word and create life where there was death, wholeness where there was brokenness.
To John’s doubt and disappointment, Jesus says, “Consider the evidence. I’m doing the things that God told the prophets He would do when His kingdom came into this fallen world.”
There’s another message in Jesus’ words, though. It’s this: Change your expectations of the Messiah. Change your expectations of God.
I’m not saying that there is any limit to God’s power or to God’s willingness to hear prayers offered in Jesus’ Name. In Jesus, we meet the sovereign, almighty God of the universe Who can do anything, Who is committed to bringing the world’s injustice to an end, Who will allow those who refuse to trust in Him to go their own ways for eternity, and Who, by His cross and resurrection, has destroyed the power of sin and death for all eternity for those who believe in Christ! Everything that Jesus did, including His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His rising from the dead, show us Who Jesus is and the good plans God has for those who repent and believe in Jesus.
But Jesus’ kingdom hasn’t come in its fullness yet.
Right now, you and l live in a world in which bad things happen to faithful people. It can cause us to question, just as it did John the Baptist.
The week before she died, a friend of ours, being ravaged by cancer, wrestling with her suffering, worried about her husband and two young children, but holding onto Jesus in the midst of it all, confided to me, “I keep wondering what it is God wants me to learn from all of this.”
I think that, like John the Baptist, she wondered, when Jesus was going to act decisively. When would God finally act to bring about the promise given by God through the prophet Isaiah and repeated in the New Testament book of Revelation: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” [Revelation 21:4]
That promise will come to pass. The God Who was born in a stable, lived among us, died for us, and rose to give us life can be counted on to make things right.
Until then, He gives the Church, the fellowship of forgiven sinners.
He gives us His perfect Word.
He gives us the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, filling us with His Spirit and with His life.
He gives us a mission of reaching up to God, reaching in to grow together as Christians in His Church, and reaching out to help others to know and follow Christ.
And this life, with all its troubles, is also God’s gift to us.
But we know that God also gives new life, one free of sin, death, and darkness.
So, why doesn’t God set things perfectly, totally, completely right for us now? Take a look, please at what the apostle Peter has to say about that in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
If we’re inclined to see Jesus as a hedge against the nasty realities of life, a cosmic Santa Claus who makes life just go away, we need to change our expectations. As was true for Jesus, before our resurrections, there will be challenges to face, hurdles to overcome, crosses to bear.
But God doesn’t let us have pain, hardship, or uncertainty because God is slow in acting or because God lacks the power to act.
Instead, God is giving us the gift of time.
- Time for us to repent and surrender to Him;
- Time for us to share the good news of the baby born in a manger who went to a cross and rose from the dead for all sinners, making new disciples for Jesus;
- Time for us to serve others in Jesus’ Name;
- Time for us to grow as believers who are fit for eternity with God.
And when, like John the Baptist, we wrestle with our questions, Jesus calls us to focus our hopes on Him alone.
After the friend I mentioned earlier had died, I was handed a note she had written for me to read in just that situation. (She had written notes for many people to read after she died.) She said, in part, “Please help everyone to know that just because I have died doesn’t mean that their prayers did not ‘work.’ Healing is so much more than having a whole and perfect body…I’ll be seeing you again—then we can forget all of this sadness…”
While we await the return of the Messiah Who came to our world on the first Christmas, we can live in this uncertain world with the absolute certainty that Jesus will make all His promises good for all who trust in Him.
When we let that certainty fill us, we can face everything with joy and peace, the very blessings of which the angels sang on the night of Jesus’ birth!
May we join their song every day we live and on into the eternity with God that the crucified and risen Jesus gives to all who repent and believe in Him! Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during both of the congregation's worship services today.]