Luke 7:18-28 One of the things that I find most comforting when I read the Bible is that the great heroes of the faith are so very human. When I read their stories I find myself.
I feel the temptation of Adam and Eve to reach for the one thing forbidden. I can identify with David and the danger of what gets our eyes’ attention and turns our head. I know the sinful, self-assurance of Peter.
The bible stories of the great heroes of the faith are comforting because their story is our story and the Good News for them and the Good News for us is that life with God is not found in our deeds-- but in the graciousness of our God.
I also find their stories convincing of the truth of the Bible—that it really is God’s Word. The Bible tells the unvarnished truth about us and God. It hasn’t been “neatened up”. The mysteries have not all been solved or the paradoxes fixed.
That is a powerful proof that the Bible is God’s story—that he is the only One confident enough to tell his story this way—in the lives of these people-- and powerful enough to bring about faith in its words—through its words.
Today we have one of these of stories where a great hero of the faith has a great faith struggle—and because of it, he has a great deal to teach us about where and how to find confidence and assurance that our faith in Jesus is not misplaced. Luke writes that:
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”
When John asked this question, he was in prison and facing the executioner’s sword and he wanted to know: Was Jesus really the promised Messiah who would do all that was prophesied of him—or should they look for another?
But wasn’t John the Baptist the same one who had pointed to Jesus and declared him to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Wasn’t he the one who saw the Holy Spirit descend upon him and heard the voice of the Father proclaiming Jesus to be his Son? Why then this question?
Bible commentators have tried to fix what they see as John’s sinful doubts or his cowardice in the face of death by saying that John’s real concern was for his disciples and so he sent them to Jesus for their benefit. But when Jesus answers the question he says: “Tell John...” Jesus knew who asked the question. Jesus knew who needed the answer.
And so why does John ask the question he does-- given all that he knew to be true? To answer that question we need to think back over what we have been hearing during the last Sundays of the church year and the first Sundays of Advent: strong messages of God’s judgment and the necessity of repentance. That was John’s message too: Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness sins! The King is coming! Prepare his way! The harvest of redemption and judgment is at hand!
But John didn’t see that taking place in Jesus’ ministry and he wondered why. His question did not spring from doubt about the identity of Jesus but came FROM his faith in Jesus because he didn’t see everything in that moment that Jesus had promised.
We can identify with that, can’t we? We believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life—but we see our loved ones die. We believe that Jesus rules the world for our sake—but we see much that is opposed to Christ. These are not sinful doubts—but faith struggles-- and only believers have them.
John the Baptist not only points the way to Christ but he also shows us the way to deal with these challenges to our faith: take them to Jesus. Luke writes that:
In that hour [that John’s disciples came to him] Jesus healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
To John’s questions and to ours, Jesus answers this way: consider the evidence and search the Scriptures. That is the way that faith challenges are met.
The evidence that Jesus listed was plain for all to see—there was no denying it-- even if people couldn’t make sense of it. The blind regained their sight and the deaf could hear and the lame could walk and the dead were raised—miraculous works that only God could do. But there was even more.
These miracles were the exact works that had been promised by the prophets that the Messiah would do. And so Jesus tells John not only to look to him—but also to consider him in light of Sacred Scripture-- and then come to the only possible conclusion: that Jesus WAS exactly who he claimed to be—exactly who John proclaimed him to be: the Messiah. There was no need to look for another Messiah—for he had arrived.
John’s example, and the words of Luke that record his story, are meant for us too. When it comes to our faith struggles, Jesus says: read the Bible—look at my life—listen to the words of the eyewitnesses—and consider the evidence. When we do that, our faith struggles come to an end: Jesus is who he says he is—the Savior of the world.
Jesus is the One who brings about the Kingdom of God and makes a place for us in it. He is the One who restores what is broken in our lives. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And even if we cannot see everything that we want to see—even if there are still things that Jesus simply wants us to trust him for—we can be confident that our faith in him is not misplaced.
That is what Jesus meant when he said: Blessed is the one who is not offended because of me. That word “offended” means “scandalized” and it describes a trap that would kill an animal. The point that Jesus is making is this: when we are considering his identity, he wants us to look to him, to read the Bible, to consider the evidence-- and not let some doubt or question keep us from believing or destroy our faith.
There will always be challenges to our faith but we must not let them keep us from Christ—for that would be fatal. Neither should we delay—for the question of his identity is one that every person on earth must answer for themselves. Luke writes:
When John's messengers had gone, 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 are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings' courts. 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.’ I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
The prophet Malachi prophesied that before the Messiah came, a forerunner would come before him—a messenger who would prepare the people spiritually to receive their Savior. Wherever you found this forerunner—you would find the Messiah.
And so who was John the Baptist? Was he the kind of man who said whatever the people wanted to hear? No! He was a prophet who spoke the Word of God unashamed and unafraid.
Was he a preacher who benefited from his association with the rich and famous? No! In fact, at that moment, not only was he not in a king’s palace, he was in a king’s dungeon for speaking the Word of God.
So what had they gone out into the wilderness to see? A prophet? Yes, and the first one in 400 years. But more than a just prophet—the forerunner of the Messiah sent to prepare his way. This is who John claimed to be and it is who the people believed John to be. And who did he point to as the Savior of the world? Looking at Jesus of Nazareth he said: Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
John the Baptist was not just the messenger—he was the message—the sign from God that the Messiah had arrived and because of his unique mission, Jesus said of John that he was the greatest man who ever lived. But he also said that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven was still greater than John. So what did Jesus mean by that?
John’s work, like all of the prophets who came before him was anticipatory—they had faith in what was to come-- but they never got to see it come to pass. John was martyred shortly after these events recorded by Luke.
John never got to see how Jesus would take away the sin of the world and reconcile God and man. He never saw Jesus go to the cross under the burden of our sins. He never saw the resurrected Lord who had conquered death. He never saw his ascension and the certainty it provides that Jesus truly is the King who rules the world for our sake.
All of these events that testify to the identity of Jesus and his Messianic work were still in the future when John died. But even the youngest child among us know these stories and the One of whom they tell. Even the youngest among us know how Jesus has made a place for us in God’s family by his death and resurrection.
John looked forward to this in faith like all those who came before him—but we know it as the accomplished fact of history that our sins are forgiven and we have a life with God through faith in Jesus—who is the answer to our questions and the cure for our doubts. Amen.