Matthew 11:2-15

John the Baptizer in Prison (610x351)John the Baptizer’s disciples knew about depression and darkness.  They had heard their teacher point them to Jesus, proclaiming Him as the long-awaited Messiah.  When they complained to John that Jesus was drawing larger crowds, John told them, “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30).  And when John confronted Herod and challenged him about the adulterous affair with his brother’s wife, Herod threw him into prison. 

And what of Jesus when He heard about John’s imprisonment?  When He got wind of what had taken place, He left.  Oh, John’s disciples knew about depression and darkness.  They didn’t understand what was happening or why.  I mean, if Jesus was the real Messiah, He wouldn’t abandon His forerunner, and His cousin, in jail, would He?  They loved their teacher, and they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing.

And how did John react to being in jail?  Knowing what the New Testament says about John, it’s hard to believe that, once imprisoned, he suddenly had doubts about Jesus.  Didn’t the Holy Spirit fill him while still in his mother’s womb?  Didn’t he confess Christ as he leaped for joy when Jesus came to him (while Jesus was but an embryo in Mary’s womb!)?  In the waters of the Jordan, didn’t John see the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus?  Didn’t he hear with his own ears the Father’s voice announce, “This is my Son, whom I love; in him I take great delight” (Matthew 3:17)?

Was it not John who identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?  And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus praised John, who wasn’t “a reed shaken by the wind,” that is, someone who twists and turns, shaping his opinions on popular opinion and prevailing sentiment.

No, John didn’t doubt that Jesus was the Messiah.  If depression had darkened John’s heart, it was the sadness on his disciples’ faces that brought about his gloom.  I fully suspect that John knew what was coming: He didn’t expect to get out jail alive.  And those men, whom he had taught and pointed to Jesus, those men so loyal and loving to him, what would become of them?  How could he make sure that they’d know what they needed to do?

It was John’s disciples who doubted.  And so John played the doubter to point his disciples to Jesus.  John sent them to Jesus, so they would hear and believe for themselves.  “Are you,” Jesus, “the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  John marched them off to Jesus, so Jesus, by His visit with them, would lighten the darkness of their hearts.

They needed that, for Jesus wasn’t acting like the Messiah they had expected.  John’s disciples had committed the idolatry of preference, by letting their preferences shape their expectations of the Messiah!

And so John’s question is also for us.  For how often do we, when difficult times come and test our faith, also wonder, “Is it true?  Is Jesus really the Messiah, the Savior, the Lamb of God?  If Jesus is all that, then why has my life had so many hard turns?”  How often do we commit the idolatry of preference, by letting our preferences shape our expectations of Jesus?

Unlike John the Baptizer, are we reeds shaken by the wind, blown about by the gusts of the culture and the gales of our emotions?  Isn’t that an accurate description of us?  After all, the windy opinions of this world all-too-easily sway us, and we are all too-easily soothed by the comforts that so quickly tatter and tear.

Jesus asked the crowds about John, “What did you go out … to see?”  We could put the question to ourselves: “What did you come to Church to hear?”  The Jesus that we hear and receive is not always the Jesus we would prefer, or what our culturally shaped wants and wishes expect.  But the real Jesus, the Jesus as He is, that’s the One we need.  The real Jesus forgives sin and suffers death in our place.  The real Jesus takes into Himself our brokenness, mess-ups, and our out-of-control emotions, our loneliness, and despair, our rage and sin, and kills them on His cross of death.  And, in return, the real Jesus gives us His righteousness and holiness.

That’s not what the world wants, but it’s what the world needs.  It’s what you need.  And so Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended because of me.”  How easy it is to let this Jesus offend us.  After all, He came to save sinners, and I don’t want to be lumped in that group of losers.  Even the cross is offensive, especially that radical idea that we are to follow Jesus to the cross, dying to self, and living in Him.

Yet, when our hearts are weighed down, and we don’t understand what’s happening, only Jesus is the eternal cure for what ails us.  When we think we can’t take any more, when another sickness, another death seems too heavy to bear, only Jesus is the eternal cure for what ails us.  Yes, we still need the wisdom of John the Baptizer.  For he sends us to Jesus to find out if He is the one to come or not, to have our doubts relieved and our wavering to end.

So, notice what John is doing.  With his question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John is also compelling us once again to look at Jesus.  Once more John’s urging us to think, not about ourselves or the hassles of life.  He’s urging us to set aside, baptize, and let go of our fears, doubts, and anxieties.

And what did the disciples of John discover when they came to Jesus?  Here’s the summary: “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.”  That’s the message Jesus sent back to John, making John’s own disciples the witnesses of what they had heard and seen with their own eyes.

Do you think the darkness within John’s disciples was the same when they went back to see him?  Not a chance, for they had been with Jesus.  They visited with Him, and He visited with them.  And that made all the difference.

John’s disciples had seen Isaiah’s prophesies come to life in vivid reality before their eyes.  They had seen the dawn from on high shine on those living in darkness and the shadow of death.  They had seen that He was the Healer of every ill, the Destruction of Death, and for sinners who had earlier feared God’s judgment, He was the Forgiveness of Sins in the flesh.

That was the life-creating Word that Jesus preached.  Still today, Jesus preaches: “Fear not!  God has not abandoned you to this darkness.  He has sent Me as a light to chase it from your heart.  In Me, God shines His love on you with a love immeasurable and divine.  The darkness of your sin, not even the darkness of your death, is mightier than the Light I bring, the Light that I AM.  Blessed is the one who is not offended because of me.”

So, they went back to tell John the news.  John, by pointing them to Jesus, had secured their future.  Now, when the worst happened, they knew where to go.  Matthew tells us three chapters later that after John’s execution, John’s disciples “came and took his body and buried it.  Then they went and told Jesus” (Matthew 14:12).  They had discovered where the Light was whose visit could even drive that deep darkness from their heart.

When our Lord spoke to the crowds, and John’s disciples went away with lightened hearts, it’s as if Jesus was already looking at John’s death.  Jesus said:

“What did you go into the wilderness to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  If not, what did you go to see?  A man dressed in fine clothes?  No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces [a condemnation of Herod].  Then what did you go to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet.  John is the one about whom Scripture says: “I am sending my messenger ahead of you to prepare the way before you.”

So, John prepares the way.  Soon, Jesus would walk the same way that John was getting ready to walk: An unwarranted arrest ending in violent death.  Jesus would walk the same way, although John’s would be by the sword and Jesus’ by the cross.  John would walk it ahead of Him.  John was more than a forerunner in life; He was also a forerunner in death.

But unlike the Baptizer, Jesus would give death a fatal wound by enduring its worst.  As good of a man that John was, death still had a claim on him–the claim that it also has on you and me.  After all, he was a sinner.  But death had no claim on Jesus!  For in Him, there was, and is, no sin.

In Jesus, you find only holy obedience and eternal life.  Death thought it had devoured Him down to the last, only to find that His death mortally wounded death itself!  And that’s the greatest light that Jesus gives to our darkened hearts.  He went into the darkness where John, where you, and where I deserved to go.  There, Jesus shone His light and saved us, taking us home with Him as the Conqueror over death and the grave, and the Forgiver and Rescuer of His people.

So, rejoice!  You have been baptized into Jesus!  His death is your death into sin.  His life is your triumph over the grave.  His body and blood, which He feeds into you, is your eternal righteousness.  That’s how He graciously visits with you to be the Light that can conquer the darkness of your heart.  John was not the light.  He came to point others to that Light.  And today, John still sends us to Jesus, all so we would know where to go when the darkness descends.  Amen.