Isaiah 35:1-10 | Psalm 146:5-10 | Matthew 11:2-11
Our Psalm reading this morning begins: “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
The question we might pose, though, is: Who is God? Perhaps it’s true that we’ll be happy if our hope and help is in the God of Jacob. The problem however, is we don’t know exactly who this God is. It seems like every time I think I’ve got my finger on just who God is, God goes and surprises me – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
So who is God?
The Sunday school answer, as always, is: Jesus! And of course that’s right. But even Jesus isn’t always the easiest to figure out. In fact, who Jesus is is the very question John the Baptist asks in our passage from Matthew. This Scripture begins:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?”
What?! THIS IS JOHN THE BAPTIST. Excuse me John, let’s just look back at your history of Jesus prior to this: The first time you met your cousin Jesus – when you were both still in utero – you leapt in your mother’s womb (Luke 1:41). Before Jesus’ ministry began you declared his coming. This is the one of whom you said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). You baptized him! You testified that he was the Son of God (John 1:34). You saw the Spirit descend on him and heard the voice of God say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
And now John asks, Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another.
We’ve all probably been there. We’ve had those moments when we were so sure of who God is. When we were so sure of God’s goodness.
But then tragedy strikes. Or trauma. A loved one unexpectedly dies, or we are betrayed by another person. While none of our stories are the same, we all experience traumatic events.
And often they break us. They break our faith. They break our understanding of who God is, and who we are, and if God really cares.
John asks his question from prison. John had been a faithful prophet. He was the one who prepared the way for Jesus. He saw Jesus. He baptized Jesus.
But now it seems that he’s been forgotten. John is left alone in his cell. Left at the mercy of a debaucherous puppet king: Herod, whose more concerned with entertainment than justice. And where is God? Where is Jesus?
John put his utter faith and hope in Jesus, and contrary to what Psalms 146:5 says – “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God” – John is not happy. In fact, he’s miserable. And so he doubts. Maybe Jesus isn’t who John thought he was. Maybe that voice he heard when he was in the Jordan was in his head.
So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he’s really the Messiah. I think we can take something from that right there. John doesn’t forget about Jesus. He doesn’t withdraw into himself, but he seeks Jesus out. He still engages with Jesus, even if it’s in doubt. He keeps the lines of communication open, but he also doesn’t pretend like everything’s all well and good when it’s not.
Are you the Messiah? he asks.
Jesus’ answer is strange, and maybe even unsatisfactory. He doesn’t answer John’s question directly. Instead, he says,
“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.”
He just says what he’s been doing, which presumably John already knows, because our passage begins with the line, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” So John’s already heard all this.
I’m going to be honest with y’all. I didn’t really know what to do with this answer as I prepared for today. I wrestled with it most of the week. It just seems like a bad answer.
But I was at Coava on Wednesday, and there are a few solid Christians that work there, and one of them was walking by as I was writing my sermon, and I off-handedly asked him in a joking way, “Ben, can you just tell me why there’s evil in the world? That’d be great…” Because that’s basically the issue, right? Why do bad things happen to good people? John is a good person, a faithful servant. Jesus even says so! He says, “Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” And Jesus, God in the flesh, is in the very vicinity of John, and yet John remains in prison. Jesus doesn’t set him free. And those of us who know the rest of the story know that John will never be rescued from prison. He’ll be beheaded there. So the question really is a fundamental one, one that has always plagued those who believe in a good God. If God is good, then why is there suffering?
I expected my old co-worker Ben to laugh and say something like, “Good luck with that one!” and then hurry off to his lunch break. But instead he stopped, got very serious, and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about that.” And then he went on to tell me about two friends of his – a couple – who had had a very tough year, full of multiple hardships and even death. And how his friends were asking these kind of questions.
Ben said, “I think it has to do with how we process the evil or brokenness or sin or whatever we call it. If we work backwards, if we say these evil things happened, and work our way backward to understanding God, then we might think God is evil. But if we start with the knowledge that God is good, and work forward, we’ll come to see that those evil things are not from God. It doesn’t answer why they happen, but it tells us that God is not in them. That’s not the work of God, that’s the work of sin.” Those things are not of God.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying with his answer to John. When he says, “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.” He’s affirming what kind of Messiah he is. He’s saying that his work is, indeed, as John thought, the work of liberation and healing. And John’s imprisonment is not the work of God, but the work of the powers and principalities that continue to resist God – the powers that will eventually kill both John and Jesus. Jesus makes a distinction between the work of God and the work of Sin. Jesus is assuring John that John’s suffering is not the will of God. The will of God is the work of justice.
Our reading from psalms makes a similar point. It identifies
God is the One who“made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; the Lord upholds the orphan and the widow.”
Where those things are, God is. Where the opposite is happening, that’s the work of sin. That’s the work of the anti-Christ.
This is a really important point. A lot of times, with the best intentions, we tell people who are suffering that somehow this is God’s will. That’s not true. We can’t confuse the work of the demonic with the work of the divine. We must learn to differentiate the work of Christ and the work of the anti-Christ.
God did not put John in prison. Herod did.
That doesn’t answer the “why” of John’s suffering, or ours. And so it’s still fairly unsatisfactory. To be honest, I just don’t know the answer to why there’s suffering. Maybe some of you will have some insight in the Congregational Response time. I hope so.
But Jesus does something super interesting after he gives his answer to John. He turns to the crowd and makes a point of saying what a righteous man John was. He says,
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?8 [f]But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ [g]palaces! 9 [h]But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it [i]is written,
‘Behold, I send My messenger [j]ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’
11 Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is [k]least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
I honestly can’t think of anyone else Jesus gives such a ringing endorsement to. Can you? Words of affirmation are my love language, so if the Son of God said those things to me, I would just over the moon!
Jesus doesn’t tell John why he’s suffering, but he affirms who John is. He assures him that he isn’t being punished by God and that he has not been forgotten. He even goes out of his way to say that John was not a reed shaken by the wind, right after John had doubted him, which makes him seem like a reed shaken in the wind. Jesus doesn’t downplay John’s suffering.
This makes me think that there’s no shame in doubt or questions. John’s doubt doesn’t disqualify him.
Before I was officially called to Grant Park, I was told over and over again that this is a community where we can ask difficult questions, and in my experience so far that has proved to be true. This is a place where we can hold our pain, our wounds, and our doubts. We don’t have to be afraid of them. We don’t have to pretend they aren’t there, or come up with easy, but ultimately empty quick answers. Instead, we’re a community where we’ll hold them together. Where you can know that your hurt is not yours to carry alone. And if you’re in that place of doubt, where you can’t bring yourself to reach out to God, there are others here who will go to God for you, just as John’s disciples went to Jesus.
And this is a place where we can affirm who you are in the midst of your pain, just as Jesus affirmed John.
You are a beloved child of God. You’re wonderfully and beautifully made. Your race, your gender, your sexuality, your abilities, all these are gifts from God who make you who you are. God loves you. God is not disappointed in you.
If you have recently experienced tragedy or trauma, or if your wrestling with doubt or depression, or if there’s anything else weighing on you, I want you to know that we, as a church, are here for you. Please reach out to me or someone else in the congregation you feel comfortable with, so that we can support you and pray for you. If you feel comfortable doing so, share it in our time of joys and concerns.
We don’t know why bad things happen, but we know that God is good.
We don’t know why there’s so much brokenness, but we believe in a reconciling God.
We don’t know why there’s death, but we worship a resurrected Savior.
To be the Church is to always hold those two sides in tension. To never ignore the pain, the suffering, and the doubt, but also to hope beyond it, to believe in and point to a God who brings healing, freedom, and assurance.
John asked Jesus, “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?” The answer to John’s question seems to be yes, but also, yes. Yes, Jesus is the one to come, but also we’re still waiting. In this season of Advent we remember that. We remember that it’s hard to keep believing in Jesus in the midst of all that is wrong.
But we keep hoping.
We keep waiting. Amen.