Last Sunday we talked about the arrival of John the Baptist. This is the great forerunner of Jesus, the famous voice crying out in the wilderness. He shows up baptizing the people of God as they repent of their sins and renew their longing for the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. And as we find out in our text today, John is the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning Elijah the prophet. In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi chapter 4, God declares, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). This is John. This is his work. John the Baptist is sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord, to point to Jesus and declare, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” He stands as that pivotal role between the Old Testament and the New, the final prophet to announce the arrival of God in our midst. And yet, as our text begins today, we find this crucial figure is in prison.
John the Baptist has been imprisoned by King Herod, and he has been there for a while. In fact, we know he will not be getting out any time soon. And so, John, the voice crying in the wilderness, begins to think things seem a bit off. If Jesus has come, if the Messiah is here, why is he wallowing away in prison? If this is the coming of the great and awesome Day of the Lord, why does it look like this? What we see here is John being honest. He is confused. Things do not seem to be playing out how he thought they would. His expectations were one thing and the reality seems to be quite another. So, what does John do? Well, he has a few of his followers, a few of those faithful disciples who continue to provide for him while he is in prison, go to Jesus. He has them go and ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Full of doubt and worry John begins to wonder if perhaps he had it wrong. Perhaps this is not the one who is to come. Perhaps this is not the long-awaited Messiah.
Now Jesus’ response is simple and gets right to the point. John wants to know if He is the one. Well, just take a good look around at what He is doing and tell John what you see. Tell John how the blind receive their sight and the lame walk. Tell him lepers are cleaned and the deaf hear. Tell him the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them. Now Jesus is not just rattling off a few random examples to prove the authenticity of His identity. He is quoting verses from the prophet Isaiah about what God would do when He comes to His people. And Jesus simply says, look around and tell John what is happening. For it is as he himself preached, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
What I love about this text is how we are given the opportunity to see the real struggle of John. A struggle between what he believes, what he has confessed with his own mouth and what he sees and feels as suffering tries his faith. And let us be honest, we have similar struggles in our lives. You have faced those challenges, those trials and frustrations of life which make you wonder if your faith is up to par. Too many of you know what it means to cry out to God in moments of absolute suffering, those times when it is hard to see how you can go on. And you do not seem to get an answer to those cries or find the solution you long for. And amid the struggles, doubt begin to creep into your mind. What good is your faith if it does not deliver you from suffering? What purpose does the Church serve if it cannot stop the pain and injustice of your life? Why bother with the praying and meditating and worshiping if it does not change your situation? Should you push on? Should you remain faithful? Or should you perhaps look for another?
The thing is, and why a text like this one is so important, we rarely allow ourselves to be honest with our struggles and doubts. You are supposed to keep those things to yourselves, worry about it at home, and if you cannot come to any great conclusion, why I guess we will know because eventually you will just stop showing up. It happens, and it happens far too often. We are told that the Church is supposed to be the place of miracles, of blind receiving sight and the sick being healed. It is supposed to be a place where we do not feel trapped in our depression or forgotten in our sorrow. We are supposed to, “Let go and let God,” to trust He will not give you more than you can handle, to confess that you are #blessed with pics of all the things that make you feel happy. So, when it all falls apart, when you cannot seem to hold it together anymore, when the pieces get lost and slip through your fingers, you either pretend it is not happening or stop bothering to show up.
Lately, I have found when I speak to folks who want to become a member of this congregation, I tell them how, above all else, I want to be honest with them. Too many churches it seems are content to paint themselves as a super drug which will cure all that ails them. Too many have followed the prosperity preachers and TV evangelists and convinced us that through church you too will become healthy, wealthy and wise. Instead, we must be honest. Honest with the Word of God as the only source of our faith and hope and honest with your life. Honest about the blessings and joys, to be sure, but honest about the doubts and the struggles and the downright bleak times as well. Honest there will be a time when you will wonder if you should look for another. You will want some other God than the one you find here, in Word and Sacrament, in promise and forgiveness.
Remember how Jesus was quoting texts from Isaiah to John’s disciples? The part where he says the poor will have good news preached to them is from Isaiah 61:1. The second half of the verse says He will, “…proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Now, He does not give John the second part. He stops short of setting this prisoner free. He does not solve the one thing John so desperately wants solved. What word does Jesus give to John instead? He says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). Faith in Jesus is offensive to this world and offensive to your ideals and desires. It is offensive to what you value as strong and wise and clever and holy and just.
What John learns is what we are daily learning. Your God is a God who hides in offensive and lowly things. He works under the form of opposites to seek and save the lost. He hides in water and Word, bread and wine. He hides in the stumbling mouth of a preacher to give you something sure, something strong, something lasting, something to disperse the doubt and awaken your faith. He hides in things which are outside your control so you might receive them outside of your own wisdom or deeds. He comes to bear your sins, to die in your place, to rise for your salvation. It is a, “…stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.”
Therefore, you are blessed because you are not offended but believe. Blessed because you trust in His work, you trust in the cross and the water and Word. Blessed because in the mess and struggle of your life He still comes to you to declare over and again, “You are forgiven!” You are loved, my friends. You are never forsaken nor forgotten. God has called you by named, declared you to be His children and will one day bring you into His eternal wedding feast. Hidden in these lowly and offensive things is the totality of your salvation. You struggle does not make it less sure, just as your good things do not add anything to it. Your salvation is sure in the boundless love of your God, a love received and held onto by faith alone.