When In Doubt
St. Matthew 11:2-11 (12/11/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Matthew 11:2-3 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Have you ever felt betrayed or let down by someone you trust? I am certain most of us have. Betrayal has destroyed many a friendship, many relationships, and ruined many a marriage. When you have faith in someone and they let you down, it hurts; or perhaps you have let down someone who had faith in you?
Of course nobody is perfect in their dealings with one another, which is why the Psalmist says: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Psalm 118:8). At one time or another we are all let down by someone, and we all let others down. Either way it takes a lot of work to rebuild trust when one’s faith in another has been shaken. And faith in another can be rebuilt. It begins with talking; giving words that reassure the other of one’s commitment and good will. Words, however, are not enough. There must also be deeds; deeds that prove that the words are not empty.
In today’s Gospel lesson we see someone struggling with faith that has been shaken – either John the Baptist himself, or at least John’s disciples. Today we find the great prophet sending his disciples to inquire of Jesus: “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
It seems like a surprising question for John to ask. all, John is the one who. even before his birth, recognized that Jesus was the Coming One; for at the sound of Mary’s voice, who at the time was pregnant with Jesus, John leaped in his mother’s womb. To John had been given the prophetic promise that He would be the forerunner of the Messiah. To him had been given the sign that Jesus was that Promised One when at the baptism of Jesus, John saw the Holy Spirit descending upon Him and heard the Father’s voice identifying Jesus as the Father’s beloved Son. And it was John who proclaimed comfort to the cities of Judah saying: “Behold your God!” as Isaiah foretold. And now we find John asking “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” What’s the deal?
Look at where John is. The great prophet who was to prepare the way of the Lord and make a highway for God is in prison. When you hear the prophet’s life and work described by Isaiah and the other prophets, it all sounds so regal and glorious. But John’s life appeared neither regal nor glorious. He wasn’t given the soft clothing of kings or the delicate foods of the powerful and wealthy. He was sent out into the wilderness where he clothed himself with camel skins and lived on locusts and wild honey; not even up to today’s standards of organic eating!
And now even John’s freedom has been taken from him and he is imprisoned. He really does look like a reed that has been shaken by the wind. Where was the glory of God’s coming in all of this? Thus the question about Jesus. Was He really the promised Messiah, or had John made a mistake? Would Jesus fulfill the Messianic hopes that he and all the faithful shared? Was Jesus doing what the Old Testament had said the Messiah would do when He had come? For the baptist and his disciples the question was where were the kingdom, the power and the glory of God in that miserable prison cell?
Hard times sometimes shake even the strongest person’s faith. And whether it was John himself that was struggling against doubt or his disciples that were struggling doesn’t really matter all that much in the end. Doubts about Jesus had surfaced among them and now those doubts needed to be addressed. And John, having heard in prison about Jesus’ works, does precisely the right thing. He asks Jesus; He goes to where he will get a straight answer.
“Are you the coming One, or do we look for another?” In John’s case the issue was not one of doubting the Scriptures and the promise of the Messiah. He and his disciples knew there was One who was coming. And all his experiences having to do with Jesus told him that Jesus was the One that had been promised. But what he was experiencing at this point, and what his disciples were no doubt struggling with, was their current circumstances. If Jesus really was the Messiah then why was John in prison?
According to Isaiah (42:7), the Messiah was supposed “to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” It is not the Word of God that John or his disciples are struggling with, but whether Jesus is really the fulfillment of those Words.
So the disciples go and ask Jesus the question. And Matthew tells us: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.’”
Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is giving John an answer both in Word and in deeds to strengthen the faith that has been shaken. His answer addresses the Scriptural expectations of the faithful and shows that Jesus’ deeds are indeed fulfilling what was promised.
According to the prophets the Messiah was supposed to do just these sorts of things that Jesus had been doing, and those things were signs that the Kingdom of God had come into the world and was beginning to restore creation to its proper state of being. That which is disfigured, broken, or diseased is made right and whole again. That which is dead is even brought back to life! Isaiah says (35:4-6): “Behold Your God… will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing.”
The prison that Jesus was freeing people from was the prison house of their own sins and of death, not the prison of King Herod in which John was confined. Therefore He adds those words for John and his disciples’ benefit: “blessed is he who is not offended because of Me,” for He knew that He would not be what a person might want Him to be, in this case a rescuer from incarceration, but would be exactly what every person needs Him to be, which is the Savior of mankind.
That which would benefit only the flesh does no good in the end. Jesus was not ushering in an earthly kingdom with mere worldly or fleshly benefits, but a heavenly kingdom; for as Isaiah has said (Is. 40:8), “the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.” So with these words and the deeds that prove the words to be faithful, the Lord shores up the faith of those who were struggling against doubt.
Dear friends, when your faith is shaken, to whom should you go for help, assurance, and certainty? Too often people look no further than their own noses. They only consider what they are experiencing in their flesh or feeling with their emotions. And when adversity comes along, they come to the conclusion that their faith in God really does very little good. If God does not rescue them from their particular prison house, then He must not be all He is cracked up to be. Either His Word is false or His deeds don’t live up to it. Doubts spring up and, if left unanswered, easily turn into unbelief.
But that is not the way of faith. It is not that the faithful do not at times struggle against doubt. It appears from this lesson today that even John struggled against doubt, whom Jesus calls “more than a prophet” and says “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist”. The question is not whether or not you will ever have doubts about God and His love toward you; the question, rather, is this: what you will do when such doubts arise? And here we see the greatness of John’s faith in that he does not try to answer those doubts on his own or only on the basis of what he was experiencing; he goes to Jesus for an answer. And so must we.
First we need to look to the Words of Jesus. What do the Scriptures say to you and to the particular doubt or issue you are struggling against? What have you been taught from the Scriptures? What has been preached to you? And as you listen to what Jesus says, remember Isaiah’s message to us today: flesh and people will fail you, but the Word of the Lord will not fail you and will endure forever.
In His Word our Lord gives us the promises of sins forgiven, of life eternal with Him in His Kingdom, of sustaining us in the midst of temptations, of overcoming our spiritual enemies for us. The Word speaks to us of God’s good will toward us even in the midst of terrible adversity, sadness, sickness, and even death.
But Jesus does more than give us words; He also gives us actions. All that He has promised in the Scriptures He has already paid for with His own suffering, blood and death. This is what His first advent was all about, coming into our world in our flesh to pay the penalty of our sins and remove the old curse from us. He has come into creation in order to restore it and make it new. And that is what His death and resurrection has done for us. He has reconciled us to God and opened to us the way out of the grave and into eternal life.
But He has also done things specifically for you. He has called each one of you to Himself and knows each of you individually. He has taken each of you to Himself in Holy Baptism, washed you of your sins and raised you up in His purity. There He has put His name upon you and clothed you with His own innocence. In the font by His Word and by means of water, He has breathed His Spirit into you that you might be brought from spiritual death to life. There your prison was broken open and you were set free.
But His works toward you have not ended. Every Sunday He lays a feast out for you, a feast of love and self-giving, in which He is not only your host, but the very substance of the feast itself, giving you His body to eat and His blood to drink. And through this feast you are again connected to Him, forgiven by Him, and given a taste of the heavenly kingdom which will be yours in its fullness after the last day.
This is why He gives you a Church, and why He sends you pastors whom Paul calls stewards of His mysteries, that you may have these gifts; that He may do these things for you individually and together as a congregation; so that you will have solid things to cling to when doubts assail you.
Now you do not have to wonder if God loves you or forgives you. Here He says to you again and again that it is so, and then He shows you that it is so. His Word, Baptism and Supper prove it. And therefore you know that you can trust also His other words for which you do not have tangible proof. For unlike people, who sometimes will fail you, He will never fail you give you a reason to loose faith.
And when your faith is shaken, look again to Him. He alone is faithful. His Word to you is trustworthy. And His deeds are sure.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.