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Matthew 11:1-19

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We’ve been talking a lot about hopes, expectations, and a longing in our souls for Christ to come. That’s the force that’s behind the season of Advent. It’s a season when the hope for Christ’s return, when God makes all things new, Advent is a season when that hope is highlighted in order to draw us again into a deeper desire for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit today. So we have heard a lot about this hope throughout the past couple weeks, and this morning as we look at this passage in Matthew and this fascinating moment in Christ’s ministry, we’re looking at this hope once more. So look with me at verse 1.

11 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.

2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

So at the center of this passage is this person, John, often called John the Baptist - no relation to the present day denomination which wouldn’t be a thing until some fifteen hundred years later. So who is this guy? Well, John the Baptist is a crucially important guy in Jesus’ life. Their families were quite close with one another, their childhoods are connected with one another, and at some point John becomes this incredibly eccentric person in the vein of the great prophets of the Old Testament, and he feels called by God to go out into the wilderness and serve as a voice calling to the people of Israel to confess and repent of their sins, to be baptized, and to wait for the coming of the Messiah. John becomes this larger than life figure, and his ministry gains an incredible amount of public attention, and Jesus himself goes out to John and is baptized by him. So John gets all this attention, and for a number of different reasons he gets on the Herod’s bad side - Herod being the puppet governor set up by the Roman Empire - and he is thrown in prison to rot and die.
Now, prisons in that time period were nothing like American prisons. You weren’t given food in prison. You weren’t given anything. There were no services afforded to prisoners. This is one of the primary reasons why you see throughout the New Testament this call to go and visit and care for prisoners - because otherwise you would starve and die.
So John is in prison, and he hears about all the things that Jesus is doing and so hearing these amazing reports, John sends some of his disciples, some of his followers to go ask Jesus a question. Now, given John’s close connection with Jesus and his experiences with Jesus - being at his baptism and seeing the heavens open up and the voice of the Father speaking and the Spirit descending - given all that, why on earth does John ask this? “Are you sure you’re the Christ, the Messiah? Are you sure you’re the one we’ve all been hoping for, or should we be expecting someone else?” Of all the people to ask this question, the last person we’d expect would be John. All that he had seen and heard and experienced. This was one of the closest people to Jesus. This is the one who uttered that famous line, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” What has happened here?
John has heard the reports of what Jesus is doing, and upon hearing these reports of the kinds of things Jesus is doing as he’s traveling from city to city, because of these reports John starts questioning whether Jesus is really the Messiah. Did you catch that? John hears word about the deeds of the Christ, and it doesn’t convince him that Jesus is the Messiah, instead it causes him to question and wonder. Why?
Last week in our gospel reading in Matthew chapter 3, we heard John preaching to all of the folks who came out into the wilderness to be baptized, and what was he saying? Chapter 3 verse 9 he says,

9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

[We’re Israelites. We’re good. We’re on great terms with God just on the fact of our birth.]

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.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming

Remember John’s question now, “Are you the one who is to come?” Here in the wilderness, he’s saying that the one is coming, he’s announcing the arrival of the Messiah.

but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So this is an intense guy with a very intense message. And it feels especially out of place in our world today, but in John’s day this was not out of the norm. John sees himself in line with the great prophets of the Old Testament and he sees his calling as one who, like them, would announce the coming of this great day when God would act in history to reclaim the world he had made, to bring his Kingdom, to send the Messiah who would set up this kingdom that would be known for peace and justice and righteousness, and God would bring flourishing and salvation, but the Messiah would also bring justice and because of that he’d bring a refining judgment on the people of God, to purify them of unrighteousness.
So John’s announcing that this Messiah is coming right after me, he’s coming and it’s going to be awesome but it’s going to be intense, you better be ready for it, because this guy is bringing the fire!
And then in chapter 4, John baptizes Jesus, the heavens open up, the Spirit descends, the voice calls out from heaven, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And John witnesses all of this, and he knows that this is the guy. This is the one who’s bringing the fire!
And then Jesus leaves, and starts doing his thing. And John hears what Jesus is doing out in the cities of Israel, and he starts questioning if this is really the guy. Because what do we see Jesus doing? He’s healing people. Left and right he’s healing people. What did John think he was going to do? Bring the fire.
And John is rotting in prison, and he hears what Jesus is doing, and it doesn’t make any sense to him. That’s what’s going on with John’s question here. Now look at what Jesus says in response, verse 4:

4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

How is this a response to John? Well, Jesus is giving a summary of what he’s been up to. He details six things hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor receive good news. If you go back through the past five chapters you’ll see each of these being done by Jesus. This is what he’s been up to. Presumably, John knows all this, because he’s heard reports of what Jesus has been up to.
But these aren’t just what Jesus has been up to. Jesus is also quoting phrases from four different passages from the prophet Isaiah: , , , and 61. And all of these passages are talking about that great day when the Messiah comes, the kingdom comes, God’s salvation and refining judgment come. All of them talk about the day that John was proclaiming out in the wilderness.
So what is Jesus saying to John? He’s saying, “You weren’t wrong John. Look at what I’m doing - the kingdom is here. I am the one who is bringing all of this into reality. But it doesn’t look like what you thought it would look like.” And look at what he says at the end, “and blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
John told everyone that the Messiah was going to bring the fire of God’s justice. Jesus comes, and he brings healing. John is in prison, and what is the Messiah doing? He’s having dinner parties with tax collectors and sinners. Where’s the kingdom? Where’s the fire? And Jesus says, “John, the kingdom is here, but it looks different than what you thought. And blessed are the ones who can see past their expectations of they thought would happen, and can see what is actually going on.”
Now, I don’t think Jesus is rebuking don’t think he’s angry with think Jesus clearly sees that there is a disconnect in Johns mind. I think we can be very sympathetic with John. He’s in prison, most likely knows he’s not getting out, and he was once this larger than life figure in close connection with Jesus, he set the stage for Jesus’ public ministry, and he told all these people what Jesus was going to do, and then comes to find that Jesus is not doing those things, and also he’s in prison. John’s world is rocked. He’s in a crisis moment. John had a story in his head about how things were going to go and about what Jesus was going to do in the world and in his life, and it’s clearly not coming true.
John is going through something that all of us either have gone through in the past, are going through presently, or will go through one day.
Now here’s an important question - and think on this through the lens of John’s perspective. Is John’s hope and trust in Jesus? It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? On the one hand, John would not be asking this question if he wasn’t hoping in Jesus in some way. He’s confused and questioning because he had been hoping in Jesus; so certainly on the one hand, yes John’s hope is in Jesus. But in another sense, I think we can say no. John’s hope is not in Jesus, but he is just now discovering that. John is discovering that he has been placing his trust in a story that he had in his head about who Jesus was and what Jesus would do, and now that Jesus is not what he expected, his world is falling apart because is hope has failed him.
There are times in our lives when know that we have high expectations, and because we know that we have high expectations, when they aren’t met, we’re disappointed yes, but we recognized that that was a very real possibility. This is the sequel-problem. Any time there’s an amazing book or movie that comes out with a sequel, we’ve learned to prepare ourselves for the worst. How many times have you heard they were remaking a classic TV show or movie and you thought to yourself, “Oh there’s no way it’ll be as good as the first,” or “ten bucks they ruin it.”
There are all kinds of expectations that we know we have, but there are some expectations that we don’t know that we have until they are not met. And those unmet expectations are the ones that can really crush your soul, and most of the time you don’t even recognize that you had those expectations until you feel the soul-crushing disappointment that follows when that person or situation let you down.
Suffering and hardship have a way of revealing these hidden expectations. And it’s the same with following Jesus. We may not realize that we were banking on Jesus to solve most of our problems, that we were expecting him to make all our dreams come true and keep us safe and happy - we don’t realize it until our dreams don’t come true, and then we find ourselves in this place where we are crushed by Jesus. And sure, we see and hear and read what Jesus is actually doing in the world, all this wonderful stuff, and we say that’s great and wonderful, but it’s not what I wanted, it’s not what I was hoping for, and you realize what you were really expecting of Jesus all along. This is where John is, and this is where we can often find ourselves.
So here we are, midway through Advent, talking week in and week out about our hope and expectation for the Messiah, and this morning we’ve got be honest and ask, “Is my hope and trust in Jesus? Or is my hope in a story of my own making of how things should go?”

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17  “ ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

So the children are in the marketplace playing music, trying to get people to dance and sing. Do you remember your middle school dances? No one wanted to dance or do anything that would draw attention to themselves, and the DJ that the school hired, usually some middle-aged guy, he’s really into it, really trying and expecting people to be as excited about The Red Hot Chili Peppers as he is? Well, imagine that DJ complaining that his expectations aren’t being met, that’s what Jesus is saying. He knows he’s not doing what people expect him to be doing, but he also knows that we don’t know what we really want. He goes on in verse 18:

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

So John doesn’t go to the dinner parties and they say he’s crazy. Jesus does go to the dinner parties, and they say he’s a drunk. But look at how Jesus ends.
The thing is, Jesus knows he’s not what we expect. In fact, he’s counting on it. Look at verse 16:

Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17  “ ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

Jesus says, “I know that I’m not what you expected, and I’m not doing what you expected and hoped that I’d be doing, and so you don’t think I’m the one, well watch what I’m going to do. Watch what’s going to happen and you’ll see that the kingdom is here, that this is God working in the world, and even though I’m not what you expected, I’m exactly what you’ve always wanted and everything you need. Watch what I’m going to do, because Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.
Do you remember your middle school dances? No one wanted to dance or do anything that would draw attention to themselves, and the DJ that the school hired, usually some middle-aged guy, he’s really into it, really trying and expecting people to be as excited about The Red Hot Chili Peppers as he is, and when the kids don’t respond, even to Journey, he gets all dejected and forlorn.
How do we process through those times when Jesus doesn’t do what we expect of him? When our hidden expectations of him are revealed when we’re crushed with disappointment and we’re rotting in prison. What do we do?
Jesus is saying, he knows he’s not doing what we expect of him, but the thing is, no one expected Jesus to die on a cross. No one expected the Messiah to be executed on a Roman instrument of torture. Even after repeatedly telling his closest friends that he would be killed, not one of them expected him to go to the cross. That just wasn’t the way things were supposed to go.
And so often that is where we find ourselves, thinking that here we are following Jesus, but things are not going the way we expected them to go. And some us are crushed by that. Where’s the kingdom?
You can bet that the disciples were asking the same exact question the day after Jesus hung on the cross. Their hope had failed them. But even the death of the Messiah could not derail the coming of the Kingdom. The kingdom’s arrival didn’t look like anything anyone was expecting, but what Jesus says to John and he says to us this morning, “Pay attention to what I’ve done and what I’m doing, and you’ll see that I am the one who has come and is coming, and I’ve brought the kingdom to you.”
“Watch what I’m going to do,” he says. Watch him as he continues his ministry of teaching and healing in the face of mounting hostilities and opposition against him, watch as he is arrested on false charges, put on trial, and watch as he is hung on a Roman instrument of torture until he dies, and watch as everyone will sees it as a huge failure. Clearly he was not the Messiah, because a dead Messiah is no Messiah at all. No one was expecting Jesus to die. Not even after he repeatedly told them he would, no one expected that he’d be killed. Why? Because that was not how it was supposed to go.
Jesus has incredibly high praise for John.

11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.

And yet he says,

Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

John is one of the most unique and important and privileged persons in all of history, he is the voice of one calling in the wilderness, he is the herald of the Messiah - but the reality is that John will die in prison - he will never see the birth of the things that he is announcing. He will never see Jesus bring about the things that he had announced. He won’t see Christ die and rise again. He won’t see the Spirit descending on the disciples. He won’t witness the spread of the gospel and the miraculous works of Christ’s followers. He won’t see those things, but you have. You’ve seen that the kingdom has come, and that it has come in unexpected ways.
And how many times have I thought to myself as I look at what’s going on in my life, “Jesus, this is not how it’s supposed to go. I don’t see the kingdom in any of this.”
So how do we process through the times when Jesus doesn’t do what we expect him to do? We pay attention to what he’s done - the cross and the resurrection - and to what he is doing through his spirit and his church, and truly we’ll find that though it may look different than we expected, the foundation of our hope and trust is unshakeable. Your dreams may fall apart, but your hope never will. Though heaven and earth should pass away, Jesus says, but my words shall never pass away. If your hope and trust is in Jesus, it is sure and unshakeable. Let’s pray.
But Jesus says, “Pay attention. Pay attention to how the story goes and you will see the kingdom of God brought into your world and your life. Wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
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