The Saddest Passage

Inspired by Matthew 11:2-11

This is probably one of the saddest passages in scripture for me. I mentioned last week how much I look up to John the Baptist, how he has this superhero status in my life. Well, like all superheroes, he wasn’t perfect. He had flaws and weaknesses like anyone else. Last week he was presented as this fearless prophet in the desert calling out the leaders of society for their godless ways. But today we see a very different picture of John the Baptist. Eight chapters later in the Gospel of Matthew and now he is wasting away in a prison cell. What was possibly his biggest fear has happened. His message to change your hearts and lives, his exposing of the religious and political leaders wrongdoings, was too controversial, too much of a threat, and they finally caught up with him.

So there he sits, in prison, with lots of time on his hands, and many, many thoughts to ponder. And we find him in what seems to be a very dark place in his life—a place that is a bit unexpected for the strong prophet in the desert from last week—because it’s a place of doubt, and maybe even worse than that, a place of disillusionment. All that time in the desert, wearing animal skins, eating bugs, living under an unforgiving desert sun, telling people to change their hearts and lives, and for what? For this? To rot away in a prison cell? And these weren’t his darkest struggles. He was also pondering whether Jesus was really the one. Now, just take a moment to let that sink in. Imagine if you can, going through all he had and then wondering if it was ALL for nothing.

If Jesus wasn’t the one, then he just threw his life away. That’s where his thoughts were in our Gospel story. That’s a dark place, and why this is one of the saddest Bible stories for me. So why was he in this dark place of doubt and disillusionment? Well, he must have been getting word of how Jesus ministry was going, and was surprised, and maybe even disappointed in the news he was getting. Even for a guy like John the Baptist, I mean, it’s hard to get further outside the box than John the Baptist, but even for him, Jesus wasn’t lining up with his expectations.

We can only speculate why. Maybe he expected Jesus to be more presentable to the elite of society that were the recipients of much of John’s attacks. Maybe he expected Jesus to take his ministry from the desert to the cities. Maybe he expected Jesus to raise an army and take down Rome once and for all. Maybe it was Jesus’ theology that he had issue with. We can only guess. Whatever it was, it was causing him to question, to doubt, whether Jesus was really the one.

I think many of us have found ourselves at one time or another, sitting in that dark prison cell with John the Baptist—questioning whether or not this is all worth it, whether the sacrifice is worth it, the sacrifice of our time, our talents, our money is really worth it. Especially when, things don’t turn out the way we had thought they would. Maybe it’s when people in the church behave in ways that seem so out of line with Christ. Maybe when the church leadership make decisions that are questionable. Maybe when your pastor says something questionable in his sermon. Maybe when you realize that so many around you, in the same church, believe very differently than you. What do we do when we find ourselves disappointed, disillusioned, and doubting whether any of this is really worth it.

I find Jesus reaction to John very comforting. He does not scold John. He does not judge him for doubting, for questioning who Jesus is. He sends his disciples to John to tell him what has been happening. He does not send him a sermon, or a wise Proverb, or a comforting Psalm, he sends him this report: the blind can see, the crippled can walk, the sick are healed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news. In other words, lives are being changed John. John’s preaching to change hearts and lives was already happening through Christ. Lives were being changed.

The question that Jesus repeats three times really struck me to my core, “What did you go out to see?” “What did you go out to see?” And of course, in a very human self-centered perspective I thought the question was directed at me. But as I was writing this sermon I realized that perspective was the wrong one, which led me to ask, when the people of this world are led to find Christ, and they are led to Bethlehem, what will they see? When your friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, ask you, in the various ways that they do, what will I see at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, is Christ there, how will I know? How will you answer? What will you say? My prayer is that you will have a good answer for them.

But I hope it is not that we have great potlucks, though we do. Or that we have an amazing staff, though we do. Or that the sermons are good, though I hope they are. Or that the music is great, though it is! My prayer for you, is that you can answer with the boldness of Christ in our story, that yes, Christ is here, because lives are being changed, by the work of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. And just in case you aren’t sure, ask Lisa King, our Children’s ministry director of how lives are changed through that ministry. I bet she will have a story or two. Ask the Jaspers, the Johnsons, the Brentsons, or the many others who work with our youth about how lives are changed through that ministry. I bet they will have a story or two.

Ask Randi how lives are changed through our visitation ministry. I bet she will have a story or two to share with you. Ask Jerry, our treasurer, where your offerings go, how they’re used, and how lives are changed by them. I bet he’ll have a story or two to share. Ask the quilters, the prayer shawl makers, the Gathering Inn volunteers, I bet they will have a story or two to share about lives being changed. If you asked me this week, about my ministry, I’d tell you a story about visiting a couple last week, one of whom was dying, and having the honor of communing both of them for the last time as a couple, and then being invited back the following week, to be present while the mortuary took her body. I can tell that at least my life was changed by that experience, I pray theirs was too.

My hope for you, when you find this crazy thing we call faith, to be a struggle, to be disheartening, to be disappointing, to be harder than you think it should be, when you find yourself in a state of disillusionment, sitting in the dark with John the Baptist—hear Christ’s words, and let them sink deep, deep into your hearts. Lives have been changed. Lives are being changed. Lives will continue to be changed, through the work of Christ, by the ministry of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, in spite of our imperfections, flaws and weaknesses. And that kind of hope, than kind of encouragement isn’t going to come from a pamphlet about our church, it’s not going to come from a favorite Bible passage, it’s not going to come from a sermon. It will come from the stories that we share, of lives being changed. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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