Today's Gospel has caused quite a debate among us theologians. The text very clearly states that John the Baptizer was talking to Jesus through his disciples and asking this question, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Here is John the Baptizer, who even as a baby leapt for joy at the sound of Mary's voice, who cried out, [Matthew 3:2] "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," who declared, [John 1:29, 36] "Behold, the lamb of God," who witnessed, [John 1:32] "I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him." How is it that this man now asks, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
One group of theologians just can't believe that John had these doubts. They suggest that John was concerned that his disciples were too attached to him. John wanted them attached to Jesus. So he sent them with this question so that they would attach themselves to Jesus. John was hoping that their experience with Jesus would convince them that Jesus was indeed the true Messiah, the one who was coming.
Other theologians suggest that John had his doubts just like any other person. After all, John had prophesied a kingdom of grace and judgment. Yes John had declared, [John 1:29, 36] "Behold, the lamb of God," but he also declared, [Matthew 3:2]"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." He called a delegation from the ruling counsel, [Matthew 3:7] "You brood of vipers!" He warned, , [Matthew 3:10] "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." So, where is Jesus' axe? Where is the fire? Why doesn't Jesus rescue me from this prison? I see the grace and mercy, but where is the judgment? Is it possible that Jesus is not the one who is coming?
Christians of good conscience can side with either group of theologians, but they cannot deny that John asked the question and they cannot deny that Jesus answered it. They cannot deny that even the strongest faith has doubts. While theologians can debate whether John asked this question from doubt, there is no doubt that he had days when he was bewildered. Everyone does. We know this from the personal experiences we've had with the attacks of Satan as he tries to undermine our walk with God.
How often do we doubt God because He doesn't remove the arthritis or cure the cancer or take us off oxygen or allow us to walk again? How often do we doubt God because our family is in disarray or our finances are shot? How often do we doubt God because life is just plain hard?
Doubt is one of those sins of thought that will never really go away while we live in this sin sick world. Even when it is not "front and center" in our minds, it is always lurking about - ready to take advantage of any situation. It is one of those sins that reminds us that just because everybody does it, that doesn't make it right. Even though everyone doubts, it is still a sin and has earned us a place in the fires of hell. It is a form of idolatry and it, like every other sin that plagues our lives, shows us that we cannot save ourselves. It shows us that we need a savior.
Doubt has plagued mankind for thousands of years. We can see this throughout Scripture. Abraham had doubts and fathered a child through Hagar. Moses had doubts right there in front of the burning bush. Read the Psalms of David and his doubts spill out all over the place. The disciples all doubted the resurrection until Jesus appeared to them behind closed doors. Those of us who are honest enough to admit our doubts join with some pretty famous people, people who are considered heroes of the faith. Instead of wearing our brain down to the white meat in speculation about John's reason for asking this question, let's turn our attention to Jesus' answer and the assurance it gives to doubters of every age.
Jesus did not answer John with a direct yes or no. Instead, He told John's disciples, "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." There were many false prophets who claimed to be the Messiah, but only Jesus could let His works do his talking for him. Any time we see Jesus' healing work, we see him removing the curse of sin by undoing the damage done in Eden.
Jesus' works also show that he is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. We can look at our Old Testament reading for this day and read Isaiah's words, "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy." Even the blind man in the temple said, [John 9:32] "Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
As much as Jesus' healing ministry showed that He is the One Who comes, His preaching ministry shows this even more. For the Prophets say this about the Messiah, [Isaiah 61:1] "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…" Now here is Jesus preaching the Good News to the poor. All the signs are in place. Everything points to Jesus as the Messiah. Here is the answer that assures John and us that Jesus is the one who is coming.
After John's disciples left to take their witness to John, Jesus turned to the crowd and talked about John a little bit. Jesus asked a series of questions that describe John as one who did not lead by taking a poll to figure out which way the people were going and then getting out in front of them. He was not one to angle for riches or power by working in the royal palace. Instead, John was God's messenger and he was willing to go to prison and die for that. Then Jesus said this about John, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist." These are very strong words of praise especially when you consider that they come from the mouth of God himself.
It is then that Jesus proclaimed one of those paradoxes that will keep us theologians arguing until He comes again to judge this world. Jesus said, "Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." What can Jesus mean by this? If no one is greater than John, how can the least be greater than he? How can the least be greater than the greatest? Jesus Himself gave the answer to that question. [Luke 10:23-24] He said … "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." John the Baptizer was the last Old Testament prophet. God's words came out of his mouth and he was blessed to see the coming of Messiah, but he did not live long enough to see the end of Messiah's mission on this earth. Just as Moses stood on the mountain and saw the Promised Land, but never experienced it, so too John looked into the future and saw the kingdom of heaven, but never experienced it before his death. John joined the great heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 about whom it was said, [Hebrews 11:39-40] "All these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect."
So it is that, while none of us will be the prophet that John was, we are all greater than John because we have history of our Savior in ink on paper. John declared that Jesus is God's perfect Passover lamb, but we have the history that tells us how Jesus is that lamb. We know that Jesus lived a perfect life. We know that through Baptism he gives us that perfect life and takes all our sins, all our doubts onto himself. We know that through the instrument of Pontius Pilate, Jesus received the punishment we earned with our doubts and other sins. We know that through His death, Jesus conquered all our sins. We know that through his resurrection, Jesus leads us to eternal life with Him. We experience Christ's baptism of Spirit and fire. We know the intimacy of Jesus' presence within us as we eat His body and drink His blood in the Sacrament of the altar. John saw all these things as a prophet, but did not experience them in this life. We experience them now and so have the greater blessing from God.
Satan often sends doubt to attack us. How blessed we are that Christ's answer to John also comforts us in our doubts. We are even more blessed to have the full revelation of Christ's salvation in His word and the experience of Christ's presence in His Sacrament. Through these precious gifts, God removes all our doubts and fears. He makes us greater than the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Amen.
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