Fulfilled Promises, Confident Faith

Now when John (the Baptist) heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are You He Who is to come, or shall we look for another?”                                                Matthew 11:2-11

When  Mother  Teresa’s  personal  diary  was  made  public,  there  were  some  who  were  distressed  because  she indicated that she had had doubts and struggles in regard to her faith.  Although there are some who wish that their heroes of faith would be immune to such times of doubt, the truth is that no one is insulated from such times.  The prophet Elijah, after his great success against the prophets of Baal was sent into a tailspin by Jezebel’s threat to kill him [I Kings 19:1-4]. Today’s Gospel is another most fascinating story set in the midst of Advent – and it also is a most wonderful and comforting story for us today.

For the moment, go back to when John the Baptist was still preaching out there in the wilderness by the river Jordan. Matthew, in his Gospel, records how when Jesus came to be baptized by John, John was bewildered.    He recognized Jesus as that Holy One from God long promised down through the prophets, and he blurted out that Jesus should baptize him, not the other way around.

The apostle John, in his Gospel, recorded how once as Jesus approached John the Baptist, John loudly proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!  This is He of Whom I spoke…!”

This is the same John the Baptist who, in Luke, leapt in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The same John who when told that the disciples of Jesus were outnumbering John’s, in fact that John was losing disciples to Jesus, replied, “He must increase, while I must decrease.”

Here was a man who did not guess at Jesus’ identity, but was rather definitely sure that Jesus was the fulfillment of all which had been promised from the days of Adam and Eve, down through the prophet Malachi.   Yet in spite of all this, John now sent a message to Jesus, in bewilderment, in doubt, in confusion – “Jesus, are You really the One we are to look forward to, or must we still wait?”

What happened?  What made this man of God, in whom the Spirit of God had worked so powerfully and clearly, fall to such a depth of doubt and despair?

The key may be in the two words, “in prison”: “when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ…”  John the Baptist was truly an outdoorsman. He wore the roughest of clothing, and scrounged for his meals of locusts and wild honey. Perhaps he even had a fierce “mountain man” appearance, an intensity of look, which spoke of God’s prophet.

Now he was in prison.  Prisons in those days were basically holes in the ground, with little by way of comfort in terms of food, clothing, even bathroom facilities.  Imagine being chained to a wall, in a cell’s dark corner – what that would do to such an outdoorsman.

So this great man of God, thrown into prison because he had offended King Herod, because he spoke God’s judgment against the live-in arrangements the king had with his brother’s wife, this great man of God wavered and stood on the brink of caving in to doubt.

Understandably he was depressed by the conditions and circumstances of his imprisonment, frustrated with being cooped up, unable to do anything he enjoyed.  Disillusionment started to creep in because Jesus did not act the way that John had expected – where was this Messiah Who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”; Whose “winnowing fork is in His hand, [Who] will clear His threshing floor and will gather His wheat into the granary; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable  fire” [Matthew 3:11-12]??

In fact, John was on “Death Row”, standing at the edge of life-or-death, as King Herod wavered on what to do with this pest of a prophet.  Out of the depth of all this, John began to wonder about Jesus.

Why did God put these kinds of stories into the Bible?  It certainly isn’t complimentary to this great man!!  It certainly isn’t the ideal of faith that we should use as a standard!  Why didn’t God have only the successes, and use only the models of power and faith. Here is someone with everything spiritual going for him, one who very much should know better, yet he fails, he doubts.  Why does God include such unsavory moments concerning the people of God?

One reason is that this is truly life.  You may also have a tremendous faith – a sureness which others envy.  Then circumstances happen: perhaps a combination of work (or school), home, maybe financial, maybe your own abilities failed you in some way – you hit the bottom of disappointment and frustration. Perhaps you are in the prison of a habit that you just can’t shake, or of some physical problem that digs a deep dark hole of bewilderment and disillusionment
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So the doubts come. In horror and bewilderment, you find your faith and knowledge being challenged, in helplessness you have no answers. What really is truth? Is Jesus really the One, or do we look for another: another way to God, another way to salvation, another way to handle our lives?  John the Baptist was real – as real as our lives are today!

In reply to John’s doubts, Jesus could have simply said, “Yes, I am the long promised Messiah.” But a reassurance like that would not have lasted long, simply because anybody can claim for himself that he is the Messiah.  No, John would need something more firm and lasting, and Jesus recognized that.

So He had John’s disciples just sit and watch for a while. And as Jesus healed and raised up the sick and dying, as Jesus gave forgiveness and life to those who were guilt-burdened, as Jesus reached out with love and mercy to the struggling person, THERE was the evidence of how He fulfilled prophecy after prophecy in the Old Testament – and Jesus knew that John would remember the prophecies and therefore find the reassurance he needed.

One reason why this story is placed into the midst of Advent is that Jesus does the same to us.  Just what are the doubts that plague your relationship with God?  What is it that makes your relationship with God limp and even become immobilized?

Now comes this story in the anticipation of Advent. I believe the intention here was to draw our minds back over all the promises which God made: the promises of salvation, the promises of a special chosen One, the promises of a totally new relationship between God and us forever.

Have you ever realized just how important the prophecies are to Christianity?  No other religion in the world has had the audacity to make prophecies hundreds of years in advance like the Old Testament prophets did, or prophecies requiring a couple of centuries to be fulfilled, and yet even now, after two thousand years or more, still hold true. For instance, when God promised that once Babylon was destroyed, it would never be inhabited again, almost three thousand years later, this once important world center is still uninhabited.

And then realize that as you go over the Old Testament promises, God demanded that every prophet who spoke in His Name had to have a 100% accuracy.  If a prophet made 100 prophecies, and only one did not come true, that prophet was to die [Deuteronomy  18:22,21].  There is no other religion on earth that has dared approach that accuracy.  Even the so-called prophets that fill the grocery-store tabloids have an accuracy rate of perhaps 8 to 15%.

So today, as Jesus handled John’s doubts, Jesus bids us also look at the prophecies made long before He came, and then look at Jesus. The cry of Advent is that God truly keeps His promises. St. Paul, in his powerful Romans chapter 8, stood in awe, as He said, “He Who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how shall He not give us all things with Him?” [v 32]

The joy and comfort is to know that God didn’t stagger at the promise of sending His Son, not just sending His Son to become a cute little Baby in a manger, but also of sending His Son so that He would die a cruel and agonized death on a cross – that has got to be the hardest promise of all, and God didn’t even back away from that one!

But as you fix your eye on the promises that God fulfilled in the life of Jesus some two thousand years ago, today comes with something even more powerful!  That same Jesus Who was born in confirmation of all that God had promised down through every age and in every circumstance, that same Jesus Who followed the promises even to the cross and the resurrection, that same Jesus is right here, right now, today.

Why He’s right here in our midst.  He’s sitting in that pew next to you, just as He promised that wherever two or three are gathered together, He’d be in our midst.  He’s to be found in that person just across church from you, just as He promised when He said that He would be in you, and you in Him. And He is here again just as He promised, here in bread and wine, here in His Body and Blood.

And just as He did with John the Baptist’s doubts, He does not come condemning your doubts, instead He sits you down quietly in a corner, and then again and again, year after year, He displays all the wonder and majesty of His promises here before you, both here in the service, and here in the season of Advent, and here in His Word and in His Sacrament.

Now it is your turn.  Sure you may have doubts – very few of us do not.  But Jesus calls you now to investigate these promises displayed before you, so that you may rediscover just Who He is all over again. And then put away your doubts and bask in the warm glow of the truth of how the Savior came for your sake.  But don’t stop there.  All around you in your daily life are people with all sorts of doubts as well.  You now have something for them. You have a God Who keeps His promises – you have Jesus Himself!  You have something truly wonderful to share!

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