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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Why Do You Ask?

Third Sunday in Advent

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “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.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what 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:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. Matthew 11:2-15

Does today’s Gospel lesson bring any questions to your mind, or give you a problem? The story is pretty simple…

John the Baptist sends some of his followers to talk to Jesus, to ask if He is really the Messiah they’ve been waiting for, or if they should keep looking. Rather than giving a lengthy theological speech, Jesus simply tells them to look around at what they see going on, and decide for themselves. What they see is amazing: the blind are receiving sight, people who haven’t walked in years are jumping up and down, untouchable lepers are hugging and kissing their children, deaf people are swapping stories, some caskets are lying open with their former contents walking around, and the poor are hearing sermons that make them smile. It’s straight out of the Book of Isaiah. This Jesus is most definitely the Messiah! That’s the story.

So, what’s the problem? Didn’t you wonder why John had to send his followers to ask Jesus who He was? Wasn’t it only a few months ago that the two of them met by the river and the Baptist got all excited and announced, “Look over there! He’s the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” So, why does he have to send these guys now? Wasn’t he sure anymore, or what?

Some suggest that this is just one of the mysteries of scripture. Or maybe there are two different traditions about how John and Jesus met. But there’s another explanation for John’s question, that I think just might be the right one: maybe John forgot! Maybe he did recognize Jesus at His baptism, and now, a few months later, he just forgot! Of course, you’d have to wonder what could make a person forget that Jesus was the Christ. That seems to be pretty unforgettable. The best way to answer that may be to look at what makes us forget who He is. Maybe a couple of anecdotes will help…

Shelly was a new Christian. She had just gone through a religious experience that totally changed her life, and as a part of her new life she wanted to become a part of the church. She was running on high speed, and had high hopes. She was going to save the world, or at least the part of it she could reach. She watched her language. She pronounced Jesus with seven syllables, and made sure to use the word “blessed” at least once in every sentence. She started attending Bible studies and promptly made everyone there uncomfortable. But she meant well. No one could blame her for her enthusiasm, because she had just recognized who Jesus was, and we could all remember how that felt. Then Shelly came to a church council meeting.

She bowed her head during the opening prayer, and then studied the minutes of the previous meeting like they were holy scripture. She listened intently to the various committee reports, and nodded as though she understood it all. Then came Phil. Everyone knew what happened when Phil opened his mouth, you just never knew what the topic would be. Everyone knew except Shelly. Tonight the topic was the new church budget. Phil started out on the money being wasted on those expensive children’s bulletins “that don’t do anything anyway!” and ended up reminding everyone of how different it was back when Pastor Ludlan was there. Everyone grinned at each other. “There goes Phil again. He’ll get tired in a minute and wind down.” Everyone but Shelly that is.

She was amazed. This was the “church.” The bubble had been burst, and the air fizzled out all over the room. That was the night Shelly began to wonder who Jesus was again. This wasn’t what she expected from a Messiah, so maybe she had been mistaken. Maybe Jesus was a “good man,” and still worth believing in, but not really a Savior.

But John the Baptist was no newcomer to the movement. And neither was Glen. Glen had been a figurehead in the church and community for 65 years. There were few in town who had not, at some point in their lives, been touched and strengthened by Glen. He was a Christian’s Christian, and was admired and praised. His living room wall was covered with plaques and certificates from charitable service organizations, and even one from the governor. Glen seemed to know full well who Jesus was, and sought to serve Him. Then he became ill.

Glen was nearly 90 years old and had not been sick more than a few hours of those 90 years. Then the doctor mentioned cancer. At first Glen nodded and said that after 90 good years he had no complaints, but as days passed he grew quiet, the smile left his face, and the love left his eyes. He worried constantly, and complained just a bit more than that. “I’ve tried to do good,” Glen said one morning, “but I just don’t see why God would do this to me. This isn’t what I expected at all. Maybe I’ve been wasting my time.” After traveling alongside Him for nearly 90 years, Glen was now having second thoughts about who this Jesus really was. He expected better treatment from a Messiah.

Most of us do, don’t we? We get this comforting idea that if we follow the Messiah, life will somehow be smoother, or at least all fit together in some “good” way. Then we run smack into the reality that the only guarantee Jesus made to us had to do with the activities that come after this life. In fact, Jesus very clearly expected that His followers would have a harder time getting through this life than those who walked away from Him. Remember Him saying, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)

But we still have these expectations of a “Savior” and when Jesus doesn’t meet them we begin to wonder if He is really who we thought He was. There are thousands of empty church pews that used to be full of people who believed in Jesus Christ. But then He didn’t live up to their expectations and they went home. Their families still fought, they still had some tough decisions to make, they still couldn’t make ends meet on a budget, and loved ones still died. They began to wonder if they’d made a mistake with Jesus.

Maybe that’s what happened with John the Baptist. He said that he had come to baptize with water, and that the One following him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So, where was the fire? So far, there wasn’t even smoke! So far, the Pharisees and Sadducees were still in charge of the faith, and Rome was still in charge of the government.

In fact, instead of bringing in the Kingdom, Jesus had kept pretty quiet up north, while John got himself arrested and thrown into one of Herod’s dungeons. That might make a person ask some questions! Is this any way for a Messiah to behave?

At least I hope that’s what happened with John. If John the Baptist, as high up as he ranked, still had some questions, maybe there’s room for me and mine – and you and yours. I think so. Had John lost his faith in Jesus? If we have questions, have we lost our faith in Jesus? No! It’s natural; it’s our nature. But some do, but shouldn’t! How do we keep our faith when we have “second thoughts”? As Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

In cases like our two stories, it’s feeling that is affecting faith, and it’s fact – the Word of Christ – the Bible – that gives us faith. John the Baptist heard the facts and so didn’t lose his faith. When we begin questioning, that’s the time we need to get deeper and faithfully into our Bibles – hearing god’s message through the Word of Christ.

Listen to this little poem:

Three men were walking on a wall, Feeling, Faith, and Fact.

Feeling took an awful fall, and Faith was taken back.

Faith was so close to Feeling, that he then fell down too.

But Fact stood strong and pulled up Faith, and Faith brought Feeling too.

And that’s how it works!


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