By Paul Koch –
There is nothing worse than the feeling that comes over you when reality beats back your wish dreams. When you imagine what something would be like—how it would look, act, or feel—and then you experience it in real life and finally take it all in only to find that it’s not what you imagined. In that moment, your expectations, your ideal is shattered. And in a way, a big part of what our Lord does as he walks the earth is tear down the images and dreams people had concerning the Messiah. Everyone was waiting for the Messiah, eager to receive the Anointed One, and they all had their own detailed understanding of just how he would act and what sort of things he would accomplish. Would he be compassionate, kind, and forgiving? Would he be a critical judge and immovable threat? A liberator of the people of God? A deliverer from oppression or a political king? Everyone took the title of Messiah and filled it with their own wish dreams, and everything went along wonderfully until it crashed into reality.
The question “what sort of Jesus do you want?” is not a foreign question today. No, in fact, I think that entire churches are being built on the notion of offering you just the right Jesus for you. Whatever your wish dream, whatever sort of Jesus you like best, there is probably a church out there that caters to that particular version. This is the great joy of church shopping, of going around to different congregations or confessions to find the Jesus that matches your own desires, then you can feel most at home, most satisfied in the Jesus you’ve found. Do you want the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who welcomes you with an embrace? This Jesus is most often heard in praise songs where he sounds more like a boyfriend than the King of kings and Lord of lords, “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I’m his own…” Or perhaps you prefer the lawgiver Jesus, the one who calls for you to change the type of music you listen to, who you hang out with, and what you eat and drink. Do you prefer the liberator Lord or the tolerant shepherd of wandering sheep?
The thing is, no matter which type you most passionately long for, no matter which one you expect to find, he is not going to meet up to your dreams and desires. He isn’t made of clay, and he can’t be fashioned into whatever you desire. You don’t get to change Jesus, and neither do churches; Jesus is the one who changes things. He is the eternal Word who spoke everything into being. He is the real thing everything else must conform to, not the other way around. But when he comes like this, when he comes through Word and Sacrament for his purposes, to fulfill his goals, and makes a wreck of your dreams, he may leave you wondering if this is really the Lord. Is this the real Messiah? Is this the one who was to come, or should we look for another?
Now, John the Baptist was the great forerunner of Christ. He prepared the way of the Lord and called for repentance. He turns the eyes of God’s people to our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness. He baptized our Lord and declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And he had followers, disciples who took his call seriously. They reported to him what Jesus was doing: He was driving out demons, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, and even raising a widow’s son to life again. The Messiah has come, just as John declared. But why didn’t John see this happen? Why did he have to get reports about it? Well, John was in prison. In fact, he wouldn’t get out of prison with his head still attached. The Messiah has come, but John is going to die in prison. The Savior is here, but John can’t see it. Deliverance, but still in bondage; hope, but surrounded by despair. So he asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
I don’t think John has abandoned his faith in the one he prepared the way for. I think he is just having difficulty uniting his expectations and desires with the reality of what is happening. It doesn’t seem to make sense. If this is the Messiah, the one who is healing people, driving out demons, and bringing the dead back to life, why is he still locked away? Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps there is someone else. And to be honest, I am somewhat sympathetic to John here. I mean, there have been times—though not a lot of them—when a member of the fellowship has poured out their struggles to me, looking for answers. Together we bring our petitions to our Father in heaven. We pray for healing or assurance or some sort of answer, yet none come. The amount of suffering and pain that is carried within the people of God is profound. There is depression and loss and shame and guilt. And when they are met with silence from above, we might dare to wonder: Is this the one? Should we look for another?
When Jesus doesn’t meet your expectations, what do you do? We are taught these days that if you are not satisfied with something that you return it and perhaps offer your business somewhere else. So, what do you do when your Lord doesn’t seem to fit with your wish dreams of what a Lord ought to be? When your sufferings and trials seem to be too much, do you pull away from him and his gifts? Do you begin to seek elsewhere for the answers you’re looking for? Do you go church shopping for the right match?
Jesus replies to John’s disciples by saying, “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” (Luke 7:22-23). What he describes is what happens when the kingdom of God reigns: the curses of humanity, the brokenness of our lives and our bodies are healed in his presence. But then he clarifies what is happening here. He asks about John, about who he was and what they went out to see in the wilderness. This was the unshakable forerunner of Christ, the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord. And he says that no one born of woman was greater than John. This man who wallows in prison was a great man, no denying that. But the Messiah that comes does not come to fulfill the dreams of one as great as John. No, he comes to usher in a new kingdom altogether.
So, Jesus says, “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” (Luke 7:28). The least in the kingdom of God, the least of those who are not ashamed of Christ as he comes. The least of those who trust that in Christ alone there is life and salvation are greater than John the Baptist. Greatness is not measured by the dreams and wishes of this world but by faith in the kingdom of God. Greatness comes in your small faith that clings to the promises of Christ for you. That clings to his love in your despair, his light in your darkness.
And so, while I may very well understand John’s concern and struggle with it myself from time to time, in this place, among these people of faith, I find greatness. Your gathering around the Word of God, your coming again and again to the sacraments of our Lord to feed upon his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins is a proclamation of the arrival of the kingdom of God, here and now. This is not the Jesus of our wish dreams but the God in flesh who came to deliver you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. This is the proclamation of true and lasting hope, for the Messiah has come. He comes even now and will come again in glory so that you might see with your eyes what you trust by faith.