Called to Grow: Are You the One?

February 12, 2017
Brian Keepers
Luke 7:18-35

“Are you the One who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

This is the question that John the Baptist, locked up in prison by King Herod, sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus. It’s such a poignant question. But also a strange question--especially for John, of all people, to be asking.

After all, isn’t John the faithful forerunner of Jesus? Jesus’ own cousin, who recognized Jesus’ identity when they were both still growing in their mothers’ wombs?

Isn’t John the voice who was calling out in the wilderness, telling people to get ready because in no uncertain terms the Messiah, whom they’d all been waiting for, was finally coming? That he would baptize them with water but Jesus, the Messiah, would baptize them with fire and the Holy Spirit?

But here we see John, just when Jesus is growing in popularity, asking this question.

“Are you the One who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

What happened? Has John lost patience? Is John confused? Maybe even struggling with doubt?

In the first century, there were a lot of different expectations for what the Messiah would be like and how exactly he would usher in this new age of God’s kingdom. One of the main views was that this Messiah would come and save God’s people from Roman oppression and restore Israel to her former days of glory—a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This seems to be what John himself was expecting.

John hears reports about the miraculous things Jesus is doing—healing the sick and raising the dead—but it wasn’t enough. Where was this earthly kingdom he was supposed to be bringing? When were things going to actually change? The world still looked pretty much the same. Rome remained on top. Rome’s puppet, Herod Antipas, still ruled the day. And here John was, still locked up in prison.

No wonder John sends his disciples to ask Jesus this question. “Are you the One to come or should we wait for another?” You can hear the confusion in John’s question. Perhaps even doubt and disappointment.

It may seem like a strange question for John to be asking, but we get it. Haven’t we asked the question ourselves, in some form or another? Maybe we’re asking it today.

We know what it’s like to be disappointed. To feel confused. To wrestle with doubt and uncertainty.

Jesus tells us that he is the Messiah, God’s Son, and he has come to bring God’s kingdom and set things right…and that it is happening now. Jesus tells us that our hearts can be healed and our sins forgiven. That our relationships can be mended. That the world can be a different place. Last Sunday, we had a healing service, and maybe you even came forward to pray for God’s healing in your life or in the life of another.

But here we are, a week later, and it seems like nothing has changed. The cancer is still spreading. The tension in the relationship hasn’t gone away. The depression hasn’t lifted. The guilt and shame haven’t dissolved. That situation at work hasn’t gotten better. The division in our country hasn’t been healed. Those in the world who are vulnerable and in need aren’t getting justice. Where is the justice that is supposed to roll down like mighty waters? Where is the restoration that is supposed to bring healing to the nations?

We find ourselves feeling confused, stuck, maybe even locked up in a kind of prison, asking with John: “Are you the One who is coming? Jesus, are you really who say you are? Or should we look for another?”

Last weekend I went to Grand Rapids to see Martin Scorcese’s new film Silence. It’s based on Shusaku Endo’s beautifully haunting novel. If you haven’t read the novel or seen the film, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I should warn you that it is a hard novel to read, and a hard movie to watch at parts.

Silence takes place in the 17th century, during a time of severe persecution of Christians in Japan. News arrives to the Jesuit center in Portugal that senior Jesuit missionary, Father Ferreira, has apostasized (denounced his faith) after undergoing torture. Two of Ferreira’s best students, Sebastian Rodriguez and Fracisco Garpe, now priests themselves, can’t believe the rumors. So they set out to cross the ocean to go to Japan to find their mentor and teacher, and to join the work of spreading the Gospel in a Japanese environment hostile to Christianity.

Rodriquez and Garpe set out with such strong convictions about their faith. But as they encounter the suffering of the Christians in Japan and endure torture themselves, they begin to struggle with doubts. God seems silent. Unresponsive to their prayers. Unresponsive to the suffering and injustice of these poor peasants who cry out to Jesus. Where is this kingdom of peace and justice? Rodriquez finds himself asking John’s question, in his own way, “Are you the One who is coming or should we wait for another?”

One of the gifts of this story in Luke’s Gospel is that it seems to give us permission to ask such honest questions ourselves about Jesus. We don’t have to hide our doubts and disappointments, dismiss our struggles. We can honestly and courageously give voice to them.

Notice how Jesus responds to John’s question. In a way, you could say that John is slighting Jesus, doubting his legitimacy as the Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t get upset and act defensive. He says to John’s disciples, “Go and report to John the things you’ve seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Jesus mentions all things he proclaimed in his sermon in Nazareth, when he preached on Isaiah 61. He identified these things as signs that God’s kingdom had arrived in his person and ministry. They’re happening now. John can’t see it. His vision is limited by his circumstances. So his disciples are sent to tell John that though he can’t see it, they have witnessed such things. It is Jesus’ answer to John, his way of saying, “Yes, I am the One who is coming; the One you prepared the way for! Be assured! Don’t lose hope.”

Then Jesus says something strange: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Is this a rebuke of John’s question? His wrestling and his doubt? I don’t think so. On the one hand, how can Jesus and his ministry not offend us? You could say that the gospel is inherently offensive because it confronts so many of our false expectations about who Jesus is and the way that he is supposed to act. It confronts our own sin and selfishness, our own blindness. When the light shines in your eyes, it hurts. How did Martin Luther say it? “If the gospel does not offend us, then we haven’t heard the gospel.”

So there is something about the way that Jesus doesn’t bend to fit our expectations that will always carry with it a level of offense. But Jesus is really calling John (and us) to trust him, even with our questions and doubts. Blessed are those who put their faith in Jesus, even when they feel trapped and stuck and uncertain.

If Jesus is rebuking anybody in this story, it’s those who pride themselves in their certainty and think they have it all figured out. That would be the Pharisees and the scribes. The ones who are in danger of rejecting Jesus are not John and his disciples, who even with their questions remain open. It is the Pharisees and the scribes who are stuck in a prison far more cramped and perilous than John’s prison: the prison of their own certitude and insistence that they are right.

They insist they know what the Messiah will be like and what the kingdom will look like… and this isn’t it! Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners for goodness sake! And so Jesus rebukes them for their blindness—a blindness far worse than John’s—because they have rejected both John and Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t throw John under the bus for asking his question. John questions if Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus affirms John as his messenger who prepared the way. And then Jesus says that there is no one greater than John; but the least in the kingdom—those who embrace him—will be even greater than John. For they will be children of Wisdom. What is wisdom? Jesus himself is wisdom. Blessed are those who embrace him, Wisdom in the flesh, and do not reject him.

John’s asks his question, and so do we. Jesus welcomes our questions, our confusion, our doubts and wonderings. And he replies with an assurance—yes, he is the One, even if we may not be able to fully see it yet. This is where faith comes in. Trusting him even when our vision is clouded. Sometimes we can’t see it because we’re looking in the wrong places. God’s kingdom is breaking in right in front of us, but in a way we least expect.

One of the things I find most striking about this story is the way Jesus assures John that he is the Messiah. Jesus doesn’t go to John himself, although he certainly could have. Instead, he sends John’s disciples to give a testimony—to share with John what they have seen and heard.

It reminds us that faith is always about community. Even though faith is personal, it is never individualistic. One of the reasons we need community is because there are simply those times when, for whatever reason, we find ourselves in a place where trust and belief is hard. And it is in those moments when we lean into the faith of those around us. The gift of community is that sometimes we have faith for one another.

I remember talking with a man who stopped coming to church because he said he no longer believed. It felt hypocritical to be in worship. I said to him, “Please, don’t stop coming. You belong with us. Let us have faith for you.”

At the end of Endo’s novel Silence, Rodriguez realizes that Jesus was not absent but was with him all along, suffering beside him and all those who suffered. His life, the lives of the Christians who endured such pain, were a testimony to Christ’s presence. The novel ends with these words: “But our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”

Such beautiful and poignant words. Maybe that’s it. We bear witness to one another of what it means to be children of wisdom. We see Christ in the faces of each other. That’s where Jesus is most powerfully to be found. So let us look for him there as we come around the table and receive the gift of the bread and the cup this morning. For even when God seems silent in the world around us, even when we struggle with our questions and doubts, it is our lives together that speak of his goodness, mercy and love.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Renee Krueger