Matthew 11:2-11 New International Version (NIV)
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 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? 8 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. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 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.
Our text for the third Sunday of Advent is a strange one. It is strange for a number of reasons, but it is especially unique because of the topic and the time of the year. Today, just two weeks before Christmas, we are looking at a passage about John the Baptist doubting Jesus’s role as the messiah. I heard the timing of this text compared to questioning each summer whether or not the United States should have broken away from Great Britain in the middle of June, just before the July 4th holiday, or like reminiscing about former boyfriends two weeks before your 10-year anniversary. The timing just seems off.
But yet on the other hand, this seems quite appropriate. While many of us are celebrating the birth of our savior, other people around the world are left questioning, doubting, and perhaps even rejecting the birth of Jesus. Many people experience severe depression over the holidays. Many ask questions that have no answer.
So on this third Sunday of Advent, we will turn to John the Baptist, the one who Jesus calls great, the one who also questions Jesus’s identity and expresses his doubt.
Let’s consider the life of John the Baptist for a few minutes this morning. We first read about him before he is even born, when the angel Gabriel announces to John’s parents that they will have a son who will be a great prophet. Luke 1:17 is a portion of this announcement, which reads, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
From the very beginning, John and his parents knew what his role was to be. He was a prophet who would call the people to return to God, making straight the path for the Lord.
A few months after John’s parents are visited by Gabriel and receive this birth announcement, Gabriel visits another couple: Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph are told that Mary will give birth to Jesus and that Mary’s cousin, John’s mother, Elizabeth, is also pregnant. We are told that upon receiving this information, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth. And when Mary enters Elizabeth’s home and greats her cousin, the fetal John reacts in Elizabeth’s womb. We are told that he jumps at the sound of her voice.
We aren’t given any more details about potential interaction between John and Jesus until they are both about 30-years-old. When they are 30, we read that John was baptizing people in the Jordan, preparing the way of the Lord, just as had been prophesied. When Jesus comes to be baptized by John, we read John’s response in the Gospel of John, chapter 1:29-30: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’””
When John does agree to baptize Jesus, we are told that the heavens opened up and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove. And at this time, a voice called out from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
Based on what we read about John, I would say very few people, if any, are in a better position to know who Jesus was, to know his messianic role. If anyone was in a better position, it might have been Jesus’ mother and siblings. But surely John knew who Jesus was and had no doubt about Jesus’s role.
Except, John does seem to have his doubts.
We are told in our scripture for today that John is in prison, and he sends a couple of his own disciples to Jesus to ask him one simple question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (v.3)
What happened to the baby that leaped in his mother’s womb? What happened to the brave prophet who declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away our sins?” What happened to the onlooker who saw the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus and may have heard the voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my son?” What happened to that guy?
I try to offer grace to John in his season of doubt, because, to paraphrase someone else from the Bible, Let the one who hasn’t been there cast the first stone. It wouldn’t be hard to explore my life experiences and see God’s hand guiding me along. I’ve had some clear moments where I jumped in my metaphorical womb, where I proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins.” Maybe my experiences aren’t quite as extreme as John’s, but I’ve had moments throughout my life where the reality of God could not have been clearer.
But then things don’t go as I expected or had hoped for. Things get stale; things get boring and monotonous. And in those moments, it is easy to have some doubts.
Now let’s look at John again. John came on the scene, making paths straight, declaring that Jesus was the messiah. Declaring that Jesus was king! And this got him into a bit of trouble. Remember that today’s passage finds John in prison, jailed for preaching about the kingdom of God. Jailed for preaching that Herod was overstepping his rights in marrying his sister-in-law. I imagine that as John is pacing the floor of his small cell, he would begin to question if Jesus really was who he thought he was. Herod is still in power; so is Rome. And John was facing death.
Things didn’t turn out the way that John had expected, and he expressed his doubt.
When that disciple got to Jesus and asked him if he was the messiah or if they should be waiting on another, Jesus replied, “Yea of little faith! How dare you doubt!” No, Jesus is really compassionate. He tells the disciple to go back and tell John what he has seen. We read in verse 5, “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.” It’s almost like Jesus is saying, I know that this isn’t what you were expecting, but look at what we have done together. This is the kingdom of God.
Like he often does, Jesus uses this as a teaching moment. He asks in verses 8-9, “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.”
He’s going somewhere with this, I assure you. But what is this reference to reed swayed by the wind, or some versions say a reed bent by the wind? Because, you know, I often go out into the wilderness to see broken, bent reeds saying in the wind.
A reed is word we often use to refer to hardy grass-like stem of a plant that grows along a river or a wetland. I usually think of cattails and other plants that are not quite as think or rigid as a tree, but more hardy than a blade of grass. Another good example is a reed that you would use to weave a basket. It is pliable, especially if submerged in water, but also somewhat rigid.
Reed-like plants would have been common along the Jordan River where John was baptizing. But it still seems strange that Jesus would even suggest that the people would be going out to see some cattails along the Jordan. Interestingly enough, the answer is found on the back of a 1st-century coin.
Today we put leaders who we find especially powerful on our money, but in the 1st century, it was common for the current leader to put their own image on a coin. There were several coins issued by King Herod, and a couple of them include a symbol that was associated with his leadership: the reed. The reed was an appropriate symbol for Herod as his kingdom stretched along the Jordan River, where reeds commonly grew in the marshy soil. But a reed was also a metaphor for Herod, as he was known as a flexible king. During his tenure, he switched the capital from one city to another. He switched wives. And to the Jewish people, he seemed willing to bend over backwards to accommodate the Roman Empire.
So when Jesus asks the people what they had expected to see, a reed swaying in the wind, men in fancy robes, everyone knows that Jesus is talking about King Herod. If they didn’t realize it, all they had to do was look at the coins in their pockets.
John had gone along the Jordan River, preaching that the Kingdom of God was near. When that kingdom didn’t come about the way John expected it to, John questioned whether Jesus was the messiah or not. But rather than a kingdom where the king dresses in fine robes, lives in a palace, and bends over backwards for the Roman Empire, this is a kingdom where the blind see, the lame leap, the deaf see, and the dead live. What Jesus has started is the undoing of the curse of the fall of humanity, showing he was king over all. Even king over death.
But do you know what the weirdest part of this entire passage is? It’s how it ends that really gets me. Okay, John is in prison, and he has his doubts. I get that, and I probably would have some doubts, too, if my life was on the line. Then there’s that weird thing about the reed, but we’ve explained that. The weird thing to me is that after John expresses his doubt, our passage ends with Jesus praising John.
Verse 11 says, “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.”
Come on, Jesus, that dude was just doubting your identity as messiah. And now you are saying that among those born of women, he is the greatest? Everyone was born of a woman, except Adam, Eve, and, well, you Jesus! So John’s in the top four, at least.
Here’s the real take home point for this morning. Jesus isn’t mad at John, because Jesus knows that John’s doubt comes from a misunderstanding of who Jesus is and what his role is as the messiah.
When I think about the times that I’ve had my doubts, I realize that they often come when my bad theology comes under fire. And ultimately, it isn’t God that I question, it is my bad theology that I doubt.
In my growing-up years, God was the equivalent of a genie in a bottle. If I just prayed, God would grant me my three wishes, and I knew enough to use one of my three wishes on an infinite number of additional wishes! As I entered my teenage years, my wishes didn’t come true, and I had my doubts about God.
When I got a little older, I realized that there were some really good people who were Christians, yet didn’t look like the conservative Anabaptists that I grew up with. Growing up, we used the phrase, “they profess to be Christians…” to describe people from other churches. That phrase was usually followed with the word, “but.” They profess to be Christians, but they have a tv. They profess to be Christians, but she cut her hair and wears pants. They profess to be Christians, but they go to the Methodist church.
Then I got to know some of these tv-watching, hair-cutting, pants-wearing Methodists, and learned that there are some pretty good Christians in other faith traditions. I began to doubt what I had learned in my growing up years about the church, and about God.
September 11 happened. Sandy Hook happened. The Charleston Church massacre happened. And I doubted.
But like John, rather than turning away from Jesus, I tried to get closer. John was in prison, so he sent his disciple to ask Jesus some questions. We search the scriptures, pray, and read theology books. And more often than not, when I have my doubts, I realize that it isn’t God or Jesus that are wrong. My doubts are usually the result of bad theology.
John was expecting Jesus come in and restore Israel. The ax is at the root of the tree. The winnowing fork is in his hand! And what did Jesus do? He healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, and allowed the deaf to hear. He even raised the dead.
Jesus lifts up John as an example of how to grow and develop our faith. Don’t reject God, don’t reject Jesus. Reject bad theology.