If you or I sat down to write a book about the lives of our children or grandchildren, I’m sure there are some events that we would be happy to leave out. Why should the whole world hear about every embarrassing moment and bad decision? People don’t need to know this stuff, and there’s no reason to give the family a bad name. It’s not that the story we would tell would be untrue; it would just be cleaned up a bit.
The Bible contains many stories of God’s children. But if you read it, you’ll find that God does clean up their stories. He doesn’t seem to be concerned about how his children’s bad behavior will reflect on him. And so, if you read about Abraham, the father of faith, you’ll also find the chapter where Abraham doubts God’s promise that Sarah will bear a son and tries to make things happen with his wife’s servant. When you read about David, the man after God’s own heart, you’ll find the account of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, which includes the murder of her husband in an attempt to cover up the scandal. Why does God let all of this stuff about his children be written in the Bible? Why didn’t he clean up the history a little bit when his children acted out? It’s what I would have done.
But God caused every word of Scripture to be written for our learning and admonition. If the Bible were full of perfect people, then what hope would there be for the likes of you and me? We could never measure up. Instead, the failings of the saints are written as an example for us, and to give us hope. If God loved Abraham and David and Peter and all the rest even with their major failings, then he also loves us. There is room for sinners in the family of God. That is good news.
Jesus said that among those born of women, there was no one greater than John the Baptist. He was the last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament. His coming was prophesied by the prophet Malachi, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you” (Mt 11:10). But as great as John was, he was still a sinner. He too needed a Savior. In our gospel text, we find John in a moment of doubt.
John had been faithful to preach about Jesus. He could not be intimidated by the religious leaders. He called them a “brood of vipers” and warned them of the wrath to come unless they repented. John was also not afraid of the king, Herod Antipas. He boldly condemned Herod’s adulterous union with his brother’s wife, something none of the priests or rabbis had dared to do. With no regard for status or power, John proclaimed to all, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand! The Messiah, the One who is coming is near! Prepare his way!”
Did John know what Jesus’ kingdom would look like? Probably not. None of the prophets knew exactly how God’s plan of salvation would work. And who could have guessed it? Who would have imagined that Jesus’s crown would be one of thorns, that he would be declared king by the inscription above his cross? Who could have foreseen that the promised Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent by being executed as a public spectacle?
John preached of the coming kingdom of the Messiah, but he didn’t know what that would look like. Perhaps like the disciples, John had visions of mighty armies and glorious conquest. Perhaps he too was waiting for the moment when Jesus claimed the throne of Israel as the living descendent of the great King David. Perhaps this was the kingdom of God that John imagined.
But if John was waiting for the physical manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth, he was going to be disappointed. Because that’s not what happened. Instead, John was arrested by King Herod, whose kingdom seemed to be very much intact. And then John was thrown into a very real dungeon, where he had time to reflect on his own words.
Where was the kingdom of God? Where was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise? Why was Herod the only one who seemed to have power and soldiers and a dungeon. Nothing was turning out the way John would have expected. And so, languishing in his dungeon, John, who had boldly and faithfully pointed to Jesus as the promised Savior, began to doubt his own words. He sent his remaining disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you really the Messiah? Are you the One who was promised, or should we be waiting and looking for someone else?”
Here is a man we can relate to. Here is a beloved child of God whose faith wavered. Here is a believer who wrestled with doubts. I’m sure that just like John, you too have found yourself asking “Jesus, are you for real? Are your promises actually going to happen? Lord, I’ve been believing your Word for many years, but lately I’m starting to wonder if any of this is true. I know my dungeon is real. The situation that I’m in is real. King Herod is real. You say that you rule the affairs of men, but I don’t see it. You say that my sins are forgiven, but can that be true? You say that your return is near, but it’s been over two-thousand years. Was I wrong to believe that you are the One who is coming? Should we start looking for a new plan? Has our faith in you been a big mistake?”
How did Jesus answer John? Did he rebuke him? “John, I can’t believe that you of all people are having doubts. You were supposed to be my greatest prophet, my strongest and most faithful preacher. I’m really disappointed in you, John!” Jesus could have said this, but he didn’t. Instead, he sent John’s disciples back to him with a message of comfort and reassurance. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt 11:4–6).
The kingdom of God was present. His power was already at work. His reign had already begun. But John didn’t know how to recognize it, so Jesus told him what to look for. The kingdom of God can be found, not where there are armies, but where the Word of God is preached and heard. This is how God’s kingdom comes among us today. Go tell John that the deaf hear. Ears that were closed are being opened to the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit. Eyes that were blind to see Jesus are being opened to see our crucified Savior. Filthy lepers are being cleansed from every sin, and even the dead are being made alive through baptism into Christ. John, here is the church! Here is the kingdom of God. Wherever the Word of Christ is taught and the Sacraments are administered. Wherever the poor in spirit have good news preached to them. Wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, there you will find the kingdom of God on earth.
This is not what John expected. It’s not what we expected. We wanted armies, and battles, and Jesus standing at the head of a victory parade. Instead, Jesus took his place upon the cross. This is God’s victory? You can be sure that no one, not you or I, not John or any of the prophets saw that coming. The moment of God’s triumph occurs when his Son is executed? Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Look upon the cross of Jesus, and see his kingdom breaking in upon the world. Look with the eyes of one who once was blind but now can see. Listen to Jesus’ words ears that once were deaf but now have been opened. Lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and we poor sinners have the good news preached to us. Here is the kingdom of God on earth. Here is the One who was promised, and we need never look for another. Amen.