“Now when John had heard in prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?”
This is a disturbing scene, especially if one passes over to the point-of-view of the Baptist. He was in prison and he must have known that he would not get out alive. Furthermore he seems to be having second thoughts about his strong claims concerning Jesus as the Bridegroom. Herod was anxious over John’s popularity among the common folk. So were the Pharisees who were careful not to voice public criticism of John the Baptist for fear of falling out of their favor. Not only that, but the Pharisees, with some success, worked to enlist some of John’s disciples in order to bring a united judgment against Jesus for abandoning the Jewish purification rites before and after meals. But the situation here is that John had been taken into custody by the thugs of Herod Antipas.
The Herodian Dynasty was homicidal, pitiless and characterized by paranoia. Herod Antipas was around fifteen-years-old when his father ordered what we know as the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents and after that two of his siblings were murdered because his father feared that they would attempt to usurp his throne. The pagans had a saying: “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” Herod Antipas had survived the family purges and he managed to end up as a tetrarch after his father died. Now he unhappily held John the Baptist in prison and he knew nothing good would come from it. John was a realist and it was certain that his work was about to come to an end. John had not been the sort of prophet who softened the truth for anyone and so on the cusp of his death he sent this message to Jesus:
“Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?”
Why is this disturbing? It is disturbing because it is an embarrassing question and all the more embarrassing, uncomfortable because it is coming from John the Baptist, who had declared to Israel that her Bridegroom had come:
“He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.”
So a few days or weeks later, when John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” we get hold of a different perspective on the Baptist. And it is an embarrassment to the Church that John had second thoughts concerning Jesus’ identity, because John, by Jesus own testimony, stands next to the Blessed Virgin Mary in a singular dignity. This brings us to the first point I want to make: another way to take this is that it should lift your trust the New Testament. The Church certainly did not make up John’s crisis of faith because the Church had nothing to gain by inventing this crisis. I submit to you that this is another piece of textual evidence that shows the reliability and truthfulness of the New Testament. This is the first point I want you to take away from John’s crisis: this account’s cringeworthy honesty is a mark of the Church’s devotion to the truth and it is evidence that this really happened. There really was a man named Jesus and John the Baptist thought this man was the Messiah, but at the very end of his life, John doubted whether or not that was true.
But given that this account of John’s very personal crisis is true, what does it mean? I also submit to you that Matthew’s intended audience would not have been nearly as troubled over John’s experience of discouragement and doubt as are most modern readers. We can try to identify what had pushed John into this experience of doubt and discouragement, but to be exact we will have to state simply that we can say more about the doubt than we can about its causation. The doubt had specifically to do with the identity of Jesus: “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” Are you the Messiah, the Bridegroom or not?
That is as profound a crisis as any Christian can experience –- is Jesus who we believe him to be or not? But as I have already said, Matthew’s audience would not have been as troubled as most readers are today and the reason for that is because his audience was a biblically literate community — and that is far more rare in our day. His, a community nurtured on the Bible, knows that only God is God and even some of the best, the godliest saints have known profound discouragement and doubt and have acted out in self-will. Take, for example Elijah, the great prophet of God, who later on in this chapter of the Gospel, Jesus identified specifically with John the Baptist even as he awaits certain death in prison:
“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Matthew 11:13-15
Now for a moment pretend that you were a little child standing there with Jesus and let’s say that your parents had made sure that you attended Vacation Bible School and Wednesday School where you heard Old Testament Bible stories over and over again. Your parents had a goal for you to know who you are and that meant knowing the Scriptures. Even a little child, who stood there with Jesus and heard this question coming from John, may well have thought of Elijah, Jesus certainly did and he mentions him by name later on. A little child might have recalled how Elijah had once behaved very much like John the Baptist.
Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. He single handedly defeated 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They called on Baal, but Baal never answered them. Remember how Elijah made fun of Baal when they were unable to perform even one miracle: “apparently Baal has developed a hearing problem; or maybe Baal has fallen asleep; or maybe Baal has even gone on vacation without telling you.” Elijah called on his God, the One Jesus called Father, and Jesus’ Father heard him and sent down fire from heaven to devour not only the sacrifice but also the altar Elijah had set up to worship his God. Elijah was the greatest prophet in the Old Testament.
But the little children would also remember that even that great miracle on Mount Carmel did not rid Israel of idolatry and Elijah became very discouraged. And then Queen Jezebel sent men to hunt him down and Elijah became so discouraged and fearful of Jezebel that he ran off into the desert and sat down under a juniper tree and asked God to let him die. But God sent an angel to feed him and after Elijah had eaten he was supernaturally strengthened to go forty days and forty nights without food. You know what Elijah did next? He used that strength to find a cave where he hid from Jezebel and he refused to leave the cave. So God came to him and said, “What are you doing here in this cave Elijah?” Now all the children who had been to Vacation Bible School and Wednesday School knew how this story ended, so I am going to stop there. But if by chance one does not know how it ends you can find it if you begin with I Kings 19.
And of course there were other prophets that might remind one of the Baptist. Someone in Matthew’s audience might have recalled Jeremiah whose whole work as a prophet of God was announcing the sins of the people and explaining why Israel was about to be destroyed by the Babylonians. God’s personal message to Jeremiah was “Attack you they will, but over come you they cannot.” Jeremiah was despised in Israel, beaten, put into stocks by a priest and false prophet, thrown into a cistern, and imprisoned by the king. Jeremiah grew so discouraged that he cursed the day he was born and every single person connected with his birth.
What is my point? My point is that Matthew recorded John’s struggles with doubt because it was an important reality for the Church to take in— which reality should encourage future disciples whose faith would also be tested by real hardship, real doubt, real distress and real disappointments.
Furthermore, the early Church shared this perspective because these early Christians were biblically literate and that provided them with a narrative they held in common with Jesus and his disciples, specifically the narrative of the Old Testament. St. Paul in one of the most inspiring and beautiful passages from 2nd Corinthians summarized this biblical perspective this way:
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
John the Baptist was the very embodiment of Old Testament gravitas, sobriety and holiness — the man of God, the prophet of God, the Friend of the Bridegroom. Right in the middle of the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which is all about the Word made Flesh, we are told about John the Baptist and his role in the history of salvation:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”
Jesus told John’s disciples to go back to this prison cell and tell them what they saw and heard:
“the blind receive their sight, 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 shall not be offended in me.”
Jesus knew his mission and John’s doubts did not make him in the least unsure of himself. Furthermore Jesus knew that John would recognize the words as the promises of the Scriptures because they shared a common narrative and common history of the people of God. In using the Scriptures Jesus reminded John that God himself would be the stumbling block to Israel and Judah, but not to those who trusted in him.
There are two points I want you to take with you today: The first thing I want you to take away from John’s crisis is that this embarrassing honesty is a mark of the Church’s devotion to the truth and it is evidence that this really happened. And secondly, I want you to be strengthened and know that we are all earthen vessels and so were the greatest saints. And so our faith is not in “faith,” nor is our faith in our faith, nor is our trust in our trust, not in ourselves –- our faith is in Jesus’ faith, we trust in Jesus’ existential life of trust in God the Father.
“the blind receive their sign, 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 shall not be offended in me.”