Shall We Look for Another?
St. Matthew 11:2-19
When I was in high school I had a teacher who, at least once a week, quoted Thomas Edison at us: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” We miss lots of things because they aren’t what we expect—they don’t fit our preconceived notions. They’re often right in front of us, but we’re blind to them. Today’s lesson from St. Luke’s Gospel is a warning and an exhortation. It’s a warning about the possibility of missing Jesus because he doesn’t look like what we might expect in a Messiah, but it’s also an exhortation to live in hope, knowing that he has, in fact, won the victory over sin and death. We may sometimes be looking in the wrong places, holding misguided expectations, or we may simply be blind. Our lesson reminds us that Jesus came to give sight to the blind. He’s the one who opens the eyes of faith. Look at our Gospel, Matthew 11:2-3:
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
John was in prison because his preaching—which is summed up in the message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”—reached Herod. Herod was an evil man and the last thing he wanted to hear was preaching about repentance. So there was John in Herod’s prison and he began hearing reports of all the amazing things Jesus was doing. On the one hand, Jesus was casting out demons, preaching good news to the poor, healing the sick, and even raising the dead. That was all Messiah “stuff”. But Jesus was also offering forgiveness apart from the temple and sacrifices, he was treating sinners and tax collectors like they could be part of God’s family, and he was preaching about loving enemies. This was not Messiah stuff—or, at least, most people thought it wasn’t supposed to be. John was confused. It even sounds as though he was experiencing at least a little bit of doubt. Much of what Jesus was doing and saying didn’t look or sound like what anyone expected the Messiah to be doing and saying. But what really bothered John was the fact that there he was, the Messiah’s herald (not to mention his cousin), stuck in Herod’s prison. If Jesus were really the Messiah, how did this happen and why wasn’t he doing anything to get him out?
Now, remember, that John knew Jesus was the Messiah. But what was going on? Despite knowing, he was still doubting. Why? Because, just like the rest of his people, he didn’t really understand the Messiah’s ministry. The same thing happens today and to many of us. We know that Jesus is the Messiah, and yet when bad things happen, when we get sick, when we lose a job, when a relationship breaks down, when our children walk away from Jesus our first response is to pray—and that’s exactly what we should do. In prayer we entrust our situation to God. The problem is that because we misunderstand God’s plan—or presume to know it too well—or because we misunderstand the ministry of Jesus just as John did, we use our prayers to do more than entrust the situation to God. We try to tell God how he should fix our situation based on our wrong ideas of who he is and how he works—as if we know better than he does. And then, when he doesn’t do what we expect, we start to doubt. Sometimes we get angry. Some people even lose faith.
Now, Jesus could have scolded John, but he instead takes the opportunity to educate the people: to dispel them of their misguided ideas about the Messiah and about God’s coming kingdom. Look at verses 4-6:
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
In his parallel account, Luke says that at the very time John’s disciples came to him with these questions, “he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight” (Luke 7:21). John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One?” And when they find Jesus, he’s in the midst of a crowd, healing diseases and casting out demons. Imagine, Jesus busy healing these people and John’s disciples pushing their way through the crowd and then struggling to get his attention so that they can ask if he’s the One. It’s a humorous image. It’s like walking up to a guy framing a house and asking, “Are you a carpenter.” Jesus turns to them a little like the carpenter and responds, “What do you think? Look around you. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor finally have hope because they’ve heard the good news.” Maybe you’ve only imagined a carpenter building cabinets or bookshelves and this guy’s sawing and hammering away at 2x4 house framing, but it should be obvious that he’s still a carpenter. He’s doing obvious carpenter things. And that’s what Jesus is getting at. In his response, he takes John’s disciples back to Isaiah and his prophecies about the Messiah coming to establish God’s kingdom: sight to the blind, healing the lame, and preaching good news to the poor. Yes, the Jews put their own spin on Isaiah’s prophecy (and the other prophets too), but that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is the one prophesied. He’s doing all the things that had been promised. They were expecting him to build one thing and, instead, he’s building something else—but once you get past that, he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing. What they really need is to adjust their own expectations. Jesus reminds them that none of this should be a surprise. When Simeon had rejoiced over him in the temple some thirty years before, he had prophesied that Jesus would be the “fall and rising of many in Israel”, but blessed are those who can see past the scandal, who can see Jesus and his kingdom and God’s salvation breaking into the world.
At this point, Jesus realises that John’s not the only one with questions. There was a crowd gathered there and many of them had heard the exchange between him and John’s disciples. And so Jesus takes advantage of the situation to teach the whole crowd.
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’ (Matthew 11:7-10)
Jesus starts by asking the people who they think John is. Many of these people were following Jesus because they had first followed John and received his baptism. John had prepared them for Jesus’ ministry. But, then, what is Jesus’ ministry? That’s the question at the heart of the passage and so Jesus to turns to John to answer it. Again, who is John? He asks the people who they went to the wilderness to see. “A reed shaken by the wind?” This was a reference to Herod. One of Herod’s symbols was a reed. It was stamped on his coins. Maybe Jesus even held one up as he asked them this. Jesus’ question hits at two points: Did you go out to see some weak, namby-pamby preacher in the wilderness who blows around like a reed? No. They went out to hear John the Baptist preach fire and brimstone and to condemn corrupt Herod, the king with a reed on his coins. John wasn’t the sort of preacher who tickled itching ears, but as the forerunner of the Messiah, neither was he kingly. Did you go out looking for a man in soft clothes—like a Herod or one of his nobles? Most people associated the coming Messiah with the king. If Herod was grand and dressed in fine clothes, the Messiah and his herald ought to be dressed in even finer clothes. But no. They went out to the wilderness to see a very different herald. John wore camel’s hair. Did you go out to see a prophet? Yes! You went to hear John because he was preaching with conviction something the people never would have heard from the palace or from the wealthy and powerful people invested in the status quo. They went to hear John because he was like the prophets Israel had known in the old days: Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others.
Jesus reminds the people: You went out to see John, because he’s the one prophesied by those old prophets. In verse 10 Jesus calls to mind the whole covenant and all of God’s promises to Israel as he mashes together Malachi 3:1 and Exodus 23:20. In Exodus—at the very beginning of Israel’s history—God had promised one day to send his messenger and through Malachi, at the end of the Old Testament—one of the last of the prophets—he again promised to send his messenger to prepare the way. Jesus is saying, “That’s John—the one you’ve been expecting since God led you out of Egypt and all through your trials and tribulations. And yet John is more than a prophet. He’s the one who draws the whole prophetic ministry of the Old Covenant together. He takes all those strands from more than a thousand years of history and revelation and he braids them into a cord that leads straight to Jesus. But what does that mean for Jesus? And what does it mean for his people. Look at verse 16:
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
So, again, what does this mean for Jesus? The whole point of John’s questions on that day had to do with who Jesus was. Was he really the Messiah? Because he didn’t really look like what the people expected. If John was more than a prophet—if he was the consummation of the Old Covenant’s prophetic ministry, then that must mean that the one he has heralded is—so to speak—“more than more than a prophet”! He must be the Messiah. And that means that as the Messiah, Jesus is inaugurating the new kingdom that everyone had been waiting for. It’s full of poor people; formerly blind, sick, and dead people; and even—gasp!—gentiles, but all those poor people and outsiders, because of their new kingdom and new covenant status, have something that even John didn’t have. John was still part of the Old Covenant that pointed to the New. Those who have heard the good news and are in Christ are now part of his New Covenant.
Luke, in his account, interjects some commentary of his own at this point. What is Jesus revealing here? It’s the central theme we’ve been seeing in our study of Romans. Luke writes:
(When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) (Luke 7:29-30)
The people who had received John’s message of repentance and, more importantly, who had acted on it by being baptised by John—they heard what Jesus was saying here and declared, as the ESV puts it, that God is just. The word translated “just” is the word that Paul uses for “righteous”. To the Jews that meant that God is faithful, that he keeps his promises. Paul says that the good news about Jesus—that he is the crucified and risen Messiah and Lord of all—reveals or unveils God’s righteousness, his faithfulness to do what he said he would do. Yes, the people were confused by Jesus. He did some of the things they expected and he did some things they didn’t expect, but as Jesus reminds them of what God had promised of the Messiah through the prophets, their eyes are opened. “Yes! Now we see. Jesus really is the Messiah! In Jesus we see God doing what he promised he would do. He is truly righteous! He is truly good and faithful!”
But not everyone was willing to give up their own agendas. Not everyone was willing to heed John’s call to repentance and to accept and submit to what God was doing through Jesus. And so Jesus goes on in verses 16-19:
“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
This generation—and Jesus is referring to all those who had rejected John’s baptism and message of repentance and as a result had turned aside from the path that leads from John to Jesus—this generation is stubborn and stiff-necked—just like the generation that grumbled against the Lord and against Moses as they were being led from their Egyptian slavery into freedom. God is being gracious, but they can’t see his grace for what it is. Ultimately there’s no pleasing them. Jesus compares them to brats playing in the street. The other children invite them to play a fun and happy dancing game, but they refuse. They aren’t in the mood for playing that game. So the kids, wanting them to join in, decided to play at a funeral game, but that’s no good either. We’ve all met people like this. They criticise you for one thing and then when you change to try to satisfy them, suddenly that’s no good either.
John, the forerunner came like one of the Old Testament prophets to preach repentance, and so it was appropriate that he lived the life of an ascetic. Something was wrong and he was anticipating God’s coming to judge and to vindicate and so he “fasted and prayed”. But that was no good for these people. The people who rejected him justified their rejection by saying that John must have had a demon. But now Jesus has come—the one who has come to manifest God’s presence. He’s the one John fasted and prayed for and so with his coming, he’s brought feasting and celebration, which shows in itself the nature of his ministry of bringing the good news. But that’s no good either. Ultimately, the problem isn’t the behaviour; it’s the people who have determined in their hearts to reject God’s plan for saving his people and his creation.
In contrast, Jesus says, “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Think of “Wisdom” in the Old Testament. In Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and in Sirach wisdom is often portrayed as a woman who calls out for men and women to follow her. She represents God’s good will for his people. To walk in or with this woman, Wisdom, is to submit to the way of life that the Lord has laid out in Scripture and specifically in this case, to submit to the lordship that Jesus has manifested as the Messiah—to repent, to be baptised, and to walk with him in faith as he makes everything new.
So Jesus uses John’s doubting questions as an opportunity to explain his purpose and his ministry. He uses John’s questions to again assert his Messiahship—his role as Saviour and as Lord. And in doing that he leaves us with a choice. We can choose to submit to the lordship of Jesus and to submit to God’s saving plans and through that to be blessed as we take part in his victory over sin and death. Or we can be like the Pharisees and lawyers for whom nothing was good enough. They had their expectations of what the Messiah would do and what he’d be like and because they weren’t willing to set aside those false ideas, they rejected Jesus and brought God’s judgement on themselves. They were so convinced that God was going to work in one particular way that when he manifested himself and was working right under their noses, they missed him. Again, think of the silly scene of John’s disciples approaching Jesus as he was healing the sick and giving sight to the blind. They had to interrupt his messianic work to ask him if he was really the Messiah. And Jesus pointed them to what he was doing and sent them back to John: “Am I the Messiah? Go back to tell John how you saw me doing everything that the Messiah is supposed to be doing.” But the Pharisees, even as Jesus fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophets—what was written in Scripture—were still blind to God at work. They refused to open their eyes even as Jesus was right there with them.
Brothers and sisters, let this be a warning to us. Let us never miss God working in our midst and in our lives because we refuse to let him open our eyes and correct our pre-conceived notions of how he’s supposed to work. We do this in all sort of different ways. A few years ago Veronica met another Christian at a homeschool function and they started talking about church. The woman asked her: “What is God doing in your church?” And Veronica started telling her all the wonderful things going on here, but the woman stopped her and said, “No. That’s not what I meant. What “signs and wonders” is God doing in your church?” This woman was convinced that God only manifests himself in overtly “miraculous” ways. The conversion of sinners into saints, the transformation of hearts and minds, the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit didn’t qualify as “God’s work” for her. I think of people who have claimed that this or that person somehow doesn’t have the Holy Spirit because he or she doesn’t speak in tongues—or the people who themselves question where they stand with the Spirit because they lack a certain gift or a certain experience. This was the error for which Paul rebuked the Corinthians. We are not to look for miraculous gifts as evidence of the Spirit: we look for the profession that Jesus is Lord and for the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in a person’s life—for the transformation that the Spirit makes in all who are in Christ. I think of Christians who are stuck with a certain view of what mission and ministry are. They become so fixated on doing some big thing for God or on thinking that real mission work means going to some faraway place, that they become blind to the everyday opportunities for ministry that are right under their noses or they miss the fact that their single greatest mission is to their own family—raising covenant children to have faith in Jesus. Often it’s that we create an ideal image of what a Christian is supposed to be like—and it’s not who and what we are. When I was in University I once talked with the chaplain of our student ministry about my own doubts. I looked at the passion and ministry of some of my friends and felt inadequate. I sometimes questioned my own status with God because I didn’t show the same kind of passionate emotions they did and because I just couldn’t seem to manage the same kind of ministry they were doing. And he gave me a rebuke and an exhortation at the same time. He reminded me that every one of us is different: in our personality, our character, our abilities, and our gifting. That’s part of the beautiful diversity of the body of Christ. Each of us needs to be who God has made us and bloom where we’re planted. We need to be open to God working with who we are and what we have, not obsessing over duplicating the experience and ministry of other Christians. Doing that is a sure-fire way to miss seeing God at work and to drive ourselves into a defeatist mindset.
Brothers and Sisters, study the Scriptures. That’s where we see God at work. It’s where he tells us how he works and dispels our false ideas. But most importantly, be open to God working in ways you might not expect. Where you see his kingdom manifest, his Good News proclaimed, his Spirit at work, the Holy Trinity being given glory, and his Word honoured you can be sure that he is at work whether it’s as we expected or not. As Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Let us pray. O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: grant that we, the ministers and stewards of your mysteries, may likewise so prepare and make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Sermon Topics: Advent 3