The prayer book editors have chosen an odd passage from the Gospel for this morning’s lesson. This is the season of Advent. It’s a time of preparation, expectation, hope, looking forward to Christ’s coming.
But here we have John the Baptist locked away in a prison, waiting for Jesus to come – and Jesus doesn’t come. Jesus is not going to rescue John. It’s a story – about a Jesus who isn’t coming. And can’t you hear the frustration, maybe some anger, in John’s message to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come or do we wait for another?”
One reason the bible can be trusted is that it presents the bible characters with warts and all. There’s no air brushing the blemishes of history away. The bible tells us that the heroic King David was an adulterer and a murderer. The bible tells us that the strong judge, Samson, dropped the ball with Delilah. Peter gets his comeuppance from Jesus in the Gospel. And in this morning’s passage exposes one of the heroes of the bible – John the Baptist. Could it be that we see in John the Baptist a moment of doubt?
John the Baptist was more than a prophet. He was a specifically mentioned object of prophecy. He was a prophet who was prophesied to come. Prophets are something, but prophesied prophets are something else.
This man received the Holy Spirit in utero! He grew up taking on the disciplined life of a Nazarite. Nazarites took on certain vows. They were barred from consuming alcohol or cutting their hair. They could not come in contact with any dead corpse. And they were scrupulous about purity rituals.
John was the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. But, as charismatic and popular as John was, he harbored no illusions about his own ministry. He was very clear with them: I am not the Messiah. Another comes who sandals I am not worthy to untie. He must increase, I must decrease.
Jesus was the Messiah and this Messiah will bring judgment. You heard it in John’s preaching: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produced good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
But then Jesus must have confused John a bit. First there was the baptism. Jesus comes to John to be baptized, But it should be Jesus baptizing John,
In the temptations that follow, Jesus rejects the powerful ways of ministry offered to him. The disciples he calls were not persons of great influence, not very eloquent. And the Sermon on the Mount. He forbade his disciples to avenge attacks on evil. Instead, he promised them persecution and tough times.
The miracles he performed were not done in Jerusalem – not in the locus of power. They occurred in the backwoods of Galilee.
Jesus had more of an ambulance ministry than a ministry of Judgment. He picked up the crushed victims of evil structures. But he did nothing to combat those structures. Jesus is out in the provinces healing insignificant little individuals here and there, but doing nothing to change Israel’s structural problems. So be it.
John, on the other hand, did not pull any punches. He has no problem speaking truth to power. When the king takes his brother’s wife, John publicly calls him out for it.
And that lands John in jail. No problem, because John knows the Messiah and Messiah has come to bring judgment. The Messiah will rectify this situation.
Time goes by and no Messiah at the door. John’s got to be wondering, “Did I get it wrong?” “Because I shouldn’t be suffering in this prison for doing what was right.” “Jesus should be coming to the rescue.”
So John sends the message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
There are times when God doesn’t make sense. There are times when God seems to be neglecting things. You do the right thing, you step forward for God, and you end up in a prison of sorts. You find yourself in a dead end in life and you wonder: “Lord, where are you?”
Don’t tell me that good Christians never doubt. Don’t tell me that faithful men and women of God don’t ever experience frustration – maybe even a little anger – toward God. Because I’ve yet to meet a more devout person of God than John the Baptist. I’ve yet to meet a more biblically knowledgeable person than John the Baptist. And John the Baptist is the one person that Jesus exalts in his ministry. So if even John the Baptist experienced doubt, frustration, even anger toward God, he certainly wouldn’t be the last devout person of faith to feel that way.
But John also shows us a way forward when we find ourselves in his place. Look how John dealt with doubt.
The first thing is what he did NOT do. John did not find fault in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. There’s no complaint about the miracles that Jesus had performed. We hear no complaints about the company Jesus kept. John’s just fine with all of that.
John’s beef is not about what Jesus has done in his life, it’s about what Jesus has not done. John is frustrated because Jesus does not behave according to his conception of Messiah. Jesus has NOT judged the wicked; he has NOT punished the ungodly. While John is rotting in Herod’s prison, the king is living the good life partying with his friends.
When we experience frustration with God, it’s not because of what he has accomplished. We have no problem with what Jesus has done in history. We think it’s great that he healed the sick and cast out the demons and took our sins to the cross.
But what sometimes might frustrate us is what Jesus has not done. He didn’t heal me when I prayed.He didn’t heal my loved one. He didn’t vindicate me when I went out on a limb for him. Why didn’t he bless me the way he blessed her?
Jesus doesn’t behave the way we think he should, and that can lead to some doubts and frustration. It did for John.
But John didn’t deny Jesus. And he didn’t lay a guilt trip on himself. Instead, he went to the source. He went to Jesus with honesty and openness. “Are you the one who is to come or do we wait for another?”
He’s not the first to question God. When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive a child, she asked, “How the heck will that happen? I’m a virgin!” Look at all the questions that disciples peppered Jesus with. “When will you establish your kingdom here on earth, Lord?” “How can a man be born again?”
God delights in our questions. God wants to reveal himself to us. That’s why he sent the prophets. When God frustrates you, when he doesn’t make sense, go to Him and in the most straight forward, everyday language that you can muster – ask him. Lord, what gives?
You’re not going to hurt God’s feelings and you’re not going to anger Him. Look how he answered John.
Jesus told John’s messengers: 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.
You see, John was a man well acquainted with Scripture. He would hear these words and recall the words of Isaiah: See, your God comes …he comes to save you. Then shall blind men’s eyes be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout aloud.
It was kind of code telling John that the Messiah has indeed broken into to history. But what he leaves out was the prophecy of the Messiah freeing the captives. That was also intentional.
There had been a lot of people appearing in Jewish history claiming to be the Messiah. It would be John’s knowledge of God’s word that would show him that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. But what John couldn’t have known was that the Judging Messiah was still thousands of years away.
God spoke to John through the language of Scripture. God speaks the same way today. He speaks in the language of Scripture. And that’s why it’s so important to be conversant with God’s word. And just as he used John’s disciples to deliver that message, he uses His church to deliver his message today.
John didn’t have the full picture of the Messiah. John the Baptist saw a one dimensional Messiah. We have the benefit of hindsight.
Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened when John received Jesus’ message. But we get a clue about how Jesus felt toward John. At the end of his sermon to John he says: Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
Notice that he didn’t say: Blessed is anyone who never doubts that I am the Messiah.. Those would have been cruel words for John to hear in prison.
By the same token, he doesn’t say: Blessed are those who in discouraging situations grow in faith.
Instead, he is pastoral toward John. He pitches a blessing at John at a level John can reach. He essentially says: And God bless you, John, if you don’t throw the whole thing over because I am different.
God’s ways are not our ways. God’s perspective is far higher than ours. And sometimes, we can get frustrated with his timing. It’s anticipation without the payoff.
But Jesus’ roundabout way of being Messiah just might be God’s way. And, in the long haul, that way just might be the most effective and humane way of doing salvation and liberation.
John would not be the last to receive God’s message in the suffering of captivity. Jacob DeShazer was one.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, DeShazer was part of Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo. His plane ran out of fuel and he was captured. He would spend the next 3 ½ years as a POW, 3 of those years in solitary confinement.
He was severely beaten and malnourished. He watched as three of his buddies were executed and another died of slow starvation. Where was God?
Like John the Baptist, he put his question to God. And God answered him through the language of Scripture.
DeShazer persuaded a guard to loan him a bible. He had it for three weeks and read it. Then he read it again. 10 days later – he met Jesus in that darkness and asked forgiveness
It was after that encounter with the Lord that DeShazer looked at his guards differently. He realized that if Christ were not in his heart, it would be natural to be cruel. Then, in the confines of that prison he asked God’s forgiveness for those who tortured him. Fourteen months later he was liberated by American paratroopers.
DeShazer would go on to write a booklet called, “I Was A Prisoner of Japan. It recounted his prison experience. Here’s where the story gets interesting
Mitsuo Fuchida was the Chief Commander of Pearl Harbor Raid. He had advised against it. But when the decision was made, he carried it out.
When war ended, Fuchida returned home. When he stepped off the train someone handed him a copy of DeShazer’s booklet. He knew what those POW camps were like. How could anyone who had been through that hell ask God to forgive those guards? DeShazer’s witness prompted him to check out the bible and then to go on to accept Christ.
Mitsuo Fuchida, was a sworn enemy of Jacob DeShazer. But Mitsuo Fuchida received eternal life, only because Jesus allowed Jacob DeShazer to suffer in prison for 3 ½ years.
Christmas can be the loneliest time of year for a lot of people. So I think the prayer book editors got it right to include this morning’s Gospel passage at this time of Advent.
Advent is the season of anticipation. And John the Baptist speaks to another kind of anticipation. Anticipating a Christ who did not show up in the way he expected. Anticipating a Christ who might frustrate us. Anticipating a Christ who doesn’t meet our timing.
John the Baptist speaks to those disciples of Christ who hold to that faith once delivered, regardless of what others might try do to them. They can find a soul mate in John. And Jesus commends them when he says of John the Baptist, John the Doubter, John the Frustrated One,“I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”