Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:
In last week’s Gospel we heard about John the Baptizer, the forerunner of Christ. We heard how he “prepared the way” of the Lord by calling Israel to repentance and announcing the coming of their redemption. Today we hear about John again, only this time he is a prisoner. According to Matthew’s Gospel it was while John was in prison that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus that all-important question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we look for another?”
John was in prison because he had criticized Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own. He dared to speak out publicly against the actions of a ruler. And he suffered the consequences for it. Unjust though his imprisonment was, it served the purpose of moving John into the background and putting the spotlight on Jesus. John knew that this must happen, in order that people would look not to him but to Christ, the Lamb of God, for their hope and their salvation. “I must decrease so that he may increase.” John would eventually lose his head to the sword of Herod over a silly oath.
We are not told why John sent his disciples to Jesus. Some have speculated that perhaps John was having second thoughts about Jesus. After all, he too was a sinner, just like the rest of us. He too was surely prone to doubts, and needed the same kind of assurance that we all need from time to time. Even John, great confessor and prophet that he was, was not immune to the devil’s temptations and the weakness of the flesh. He needed some kind of proof, some kind of evidence that Jesus was who he said he was. He needed to know that his faith was not in vain, that his ministry was not a sham. Let’s face it: even the strongest of Christians must confess: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
And while this is certainly a possibility, it assumes a lot about John that we are just not told. After all, John was the one who baptized Jesus, who saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descend upon him. John was the one who pointed that prophetic finger at Jesus and said: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Is it even charitable to assume that John, the greatest of those born of women, was having doubts as he sat in a prison cell.
Another explanation that has been offered is that it was not John but his disciples who needed comfort and assurance from Jesus. That is why John sends them to Jesus with the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” In other words, the little errand was more for their sake than for John’s. Perhaps it was John’s disciples who were in doubt. Maybe they were beginning to wonder if this Messiah was really all he was cracked up to be. Shouldn’t the Advent of the Christ change things for the better? Knowing his disciples were in need of some persuading, John sends them to the source. He sends them to Jesus Himself, knowing that He will know how to comfort them.
This too is a possibility. It was certainly possible that John’s disciples were beginning to waver in their faith a bit. They certainly didn’t want to end up like John, especially if this was all a big lie. Whatever the case may be, the fact is that John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Christ, or if they should look for another. And Jesus answers by pointing them to his words and works: “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.”
Jesus doesn’t waste any time telling the disciples that they just need to search their hearts or some such nonsense like that. They will not find proof or confirmation of His identity by looking to themselves or within themselves. All they will find there is a bucket full of sin and death and every other wicked thing. Jesus says so Himself: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, blasphemies, and the like.” Jeremiah says that the heart is “deceitful above all things.” It’s not something you can trust. You can’t trust your feelings either. One day you may feel like you are the strongest Christian in the world; the next you might feel like you are in the lowest pit of hell that exists.
No, Jesus doesn’t give them some “namby-pamby” lecture about finding truth within themselves like you hear so often today. He does exactly what needs to be done: he gets them outside of themselves. He tells them to stop their navel-gazing and look at Him and listen to Him. “Tell John what you have heard and what you have seen.” Confirmation of his identity as the Christ is to be found there: in his preaching, in his healing of the lepers, in his raising of the dead, in his giving sight to the blind, in his making the deaf hear again.
“Tell John what you have seen and heard.” In other words, “Tell John to stop worrying about who I am. Tell him that the words of the prophets are being fulfilled. Tell him that the Kingdom of God is not to be seen or recognized by the senses, but it must be perceived and known by faith alone. Tell him not to be offended by the apparent weakness of the Kingdom, but instead to rejoice that God’s works are being done in Truth.”
John would know exactly what this means. If he was experiencing the temptations of the devil, if he was suffering from doubts about Jesus, this would give him hope once again. John knew the words of the prophets. He knew what they said about the Christ, how he would give sight to the blind, how he would raise the dead, and preach good news to the poor in spirit. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing.
With this in mind, John and his disciples could be cheerful in the face of imprisonment and even death. They could be at peace knowing that regardless of John’s circumstances, the Kingdom of God had come in the Person of Christ. They need only wait patiently, and all would be accomplished. Their faith was not in vain; John’s ministry was not a sham. Those works of Jesus were proof that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the one who was to come, the one who would deliver John, John’s disciples, all of Israel, and even the whole world from slavery to sin.
The same certainty and assurance is needed in our day, I’m sure, especially when you consider how cynical many in the church have become about their faith and about Christ. Our culture tells us that truth is to be found in ourselves, in our feelings and experiences.
It tells us that you can’t be certain of something you can’t feel or sense. Perhaps this is why so many of our churches have abandoned the reverent, solemn and formal church services in favor of the informal and concert-like atmosphere. If I can’t feel or experience something, then I can’t be certain that the Holy Spirit is really working. We must ask ourselves: are we basing our certainty on our emotional responses, or on the Word?
There is a need for certainty about Christ today, even in this congregation. I would venture to say that there are many sitting here today who are in their own prisons, suffering their own personal hells. You’ve had your share of doubts over the past few months, too? You’ve wondered if your marriages were valid, if your confirmation was valid, or if your baptism was valid.
Perhaps your doubts go even deeper. Maybe you’ve questioned the very words that you have heard for the past several years, wondering if they were even true. It is even possible that the events that have taken place in this congregation have caused you to question the most basic truths of Christianity: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we look for another?” For many of you, your faith has been shaken something terrible. You’ve had to endure the pain of seeing the effects and consequences of sin on a dearly loved friend and minister of the Gospel. You’re hurt, and you’re confused.
All of this is tragic, but it is normal. It is a normal human response to the things that you have been through. And I’m not here today to dredge up the past, or to cause painful memories to resurface. But I am here to tell you that the Truth of God’s word is not invalidated by the actions or condition of the one who delivers it. Every marriage that has been performed, every baptism that has been done, every service that has been conducted is just as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ our dear Lord were doing it Himself. And this is true because no man makes God’s Word valid or invalid. We are mere heralds, sent to deliver a message to you, a message that is true whether it is spoken by a mule or a man. The power of the Ministry is not in any man, but in the Word of God alone.
For this reason I invite you to take refuge in the words of Jesus today to John: “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.” With these words, our Lord Jesus Christ would set aside your doubts as well. With these words Christ would also comfort your souls, which thirst for certainty and assurance. “Look at my cross—see how I have bled and died for you? Look at the empty tomb—see how I have risen for you? Look at the font—see how I have washed you and baptized you by water and the Word? Look at the altar—see how I have fed you with my true body and blood?” These are the places where Christ has told us to look for Him and His Kingdom.
When we are assailed by doubts, we will do well to remember the answer that Jesus gives to John’s question concerning his identity: Confirmation and assurance will be found nowhere else than in the words and the works of the Christ on our behalf. We need look no further than the cross of Christ, and His Word and Sacraments to know that God has reconciled the world to himself and does not count our sins against us.
We need not wonder if Jesus is the Christ, or if we should look for another. We need not wonder if our faith was in vain, or if the ministry in this place was a sham. We need only follow our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and listen to His voice. And there we will find all the proof, all the certainty we need.
For it is true, as much for us as it was for John, that the Kingdom of God is not to be known by our senses, or by what we can see or feel, but by faith alone. Christ’s Advent into this world did change things, but the changes are not perceived by our eyes. That is why so many people get discouraged when they see such terrible things in the world and in their own lives. They think that Christ came to improve this world, when what he really came to do was to redeem it by his blood. And they wonder if God really exists, or if it is all just a big, fat lie.
It is easy to see why this happens too. In colleges and universities, even in high school class rooms you have teachers who deny the existence of God, or who say that there are many ways to heaven. They claim that it is pure folly to believe that the world was created in six, 24 hour days. They do everything that they can to strip you of your faith because it is not “scientific.” And as if that weren’t enough you have politicians that treat human life as if it were something that can be thrown away at will; you have movies that call into question the truths of Christianity, or try to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is a sheer wonder that more people haven’t given up on God, lost their faith, and thumbed their noses at the Church. When you consider the way our culture mocks our faith, and the faith of all Christians, it is a miracle that there is anyone left in the Church that still believes that God created the world and all that is in it, that He redeemed the world from sin by sending His Son into death, and that by His Spirit He continues to work and make us holy. The ironic thing is that those who say, “Prove it to me,” are the same ones who would refuse to believe even if they had all the proof in the world.
Whatever you do, and I speak especially to you young people who have yet to be tested and proven, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you don’t see proof or evidence of Christ’s kingdom in the world that it isn’t truly upon us. Don’t fall into that trap that so many fall into in the church of thinking that because you don’t feel something in the liturgy, or when you go to communion, that God’s Spirit is not really working. It is by faith alone that we apprehend and recognize the works of Christ, whether in the liturgy, or in baptism, or in the Lord’s Supper or in our daily lives. Do not be offended by the apparent weakness and humility of Christ and His Kingdom. Its glory and yours will be revealed when He comes again.
Christ’s words to John’s disciples are for your ears as well: “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.” Amen.