Matthew 11: 2-11
“Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:
When was the last time you had to show some proof of your identity? Maybe you used your library card to check out books, or your student ID to get discounted tickets, or you showed your driver’s license to gain admission to a concert. Most adults have some form of proof that we are who we say we are. But if you don’t have any physical proof, how can you convince people of your identity?
I read a story this week that made me think about this question. Johnny Weissmuller was a 5-time Olympic gold medalist who starred in 38 movies and TV series from 1929 to 1976. He’s best known as the original Tarzan. He starred in 12 Tarzan movies. He’s the one who came up with that famous move where he beats his fists on his chest and shouts this loud scream, which is a cross between a yodel and a shriek. I thought about demonstrating the yell myself, but I thought it might be a little undignified, and of course, it wouldn’t come close. You’d be better off looking it up on YouTube. In one interview, he said, Tarzan was right up my alley. It was like stealing money. Think about it, a guy who climbs trees, says; me Tarzan, you Jane, and makes a million dollars?
Weissmuller was very popular in Cuba in 1958. He and his friends went there for a golf holiday. This was during the time of the Cuban Revolution, when Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army was trying to take over the government.
One day, Weissmuller and his buddies were driving through Havana when they were surrounded by a group of Castro’s soldiers. The soldiers thought these wealthy Americans were supporters of the current government, so they intended to kidnap them and hold them for ransom. Weissmuller and his friends couldn’t convince the soldiers that they were just tourists on vacation. Until, that is, Weissmuller proved his identity by doing his famous Tarzan move, he beat his fists on his chests and let out his ear-piercing Tarzan shriek. The soldiers instantly recognized it, and they let him, and his friends go free.
That takes some quick thinking when you’re in a foreign country and you’re staring down the barrel of a gun. Fortunately, his yell was known everywhere that American movies were shown. It was proof of his identity.
This evening’s/morning’s scripture lesson is about John the Baptist, the man who was chosen by God to announce Jesus’ coming. Like Tarzan’s yell, John the Baptist was Jesus’ proof of identity. Last week, we looked at how John’s ministry fulfilled the promise made 400 years earlier that God would send a messenger to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. And John was bold, passionate, completely focused on pointing people to Jesus. But there was some question in John’s mind whether Jesus fulfilled John’s expectations. Actually, he didn’t fulfill anyone’s expectations completely. And John the Baptist, the bold and passionate prophet, evidently began to doubt that Jesus was the One sent from God to restore the kingdom of Israel.
In this season of joy, it’s hard to admit our doubts about God. It’s hard to admit that God sometimes doesn’t act according to our expectations. When we’re angry, it’s often because there’s a gap between our expectations and reality. That’s where John the Baptist is right now. Maybe that’s where you are right now. And that’s a painful and isolating experience.
Maybe that’s what John the Baptist was afraid of. His expectations of the Messiah and the reality of Jesus didn’t match up. Matthew doesn’t indicate that John was angry. But he was certainly struggling with some doubts. As part of John’s prophetic ministry of preparing people for the coming Messiah, he preached a bold message of judgment and repentance. He even preached this message to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who had divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s wife. That’s how John ended up in prison.
Maybe he knew he wasn’t going to make it out of that prison alive. And so, he had to know. If this was the end, he had to know whether the purpose he had committed his life to, declaring that Jesus is the Messiah sent from God, was true or a lie. And some of you here this morning may be wondering the same thing. You want to believe there’s a God who loves you. But is Jesus really who He says He is?
Our lesson from the scripture begins with these words: When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask Him, are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?
So, what were John and his disciples looking for in the Messiah? Were they looking for a man who would be a great political and military leader, who would restore the kingdom and government of Israel and re-build the Temple?
Notice that Jesus didn’t reprimand John for his doubts. He doesn’t reprimand us either. Instead, He said, go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
What does Jesus want John, and us, to know? Here’s the first thing: In Christ, God isn’t just restoring the kingdom of Israel . . . More than that . . . In Christ, God is establishing His kingdom for all people. Jesus is showing John what the world will look like when God is Ruler over every corner of creation. There will be no sickness, no death, no injustice, and no inequality. If these are the deeds of the Messiah, the One sent from God, then what does that tell us about God?
Jesus didn’t look like a great military hero or political leader; He looked like the grace of God. When John the Baptist was looking for deeds of power; Jesus pointed to His deeds of compassion. In Jesus, God isn’t just restoring the kingdom of Israel; God is establishing His kingdom for all people.
John needed to know that in Christ, God is restoring our broken relationship with God. For thousands of years, the faithful prophets had tried to turn the people of God back to their covenant relationship with God. But like us, they were seduced by other priorities, by lesser gods. We are all guilty of that to one extent or another. God came in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, to accept the penalty for our sins and to show us how much God loves us. By His life and His death, He restored our relationship with God.
That’s what God did for us. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. When our lives were at stake, when nothing else could save us, God laid down His own majesty and authority to come in the form of a helpless baby born to a poor family living under the control of an oppressive government. He lived the life of a traveling rabbi and died a humiliating and agonizing death to save us from our sins. He gave up everything to ensure that we could live in God’s presence forever. Could there be any greater proof of God’s love for us?
Sometimes we all wish this conversation between Jesus and John’s disciples had turned out differently. When they asked, “Are You the one who is to come . . .?”, Jesus could have said, yes, I’m Him! He could have performed some jaw-dropping miracle or sent an angel to bust John out of prison to prove it was true. Instead, He pointed to God’s presence and compassion among the sick, the disabled and the poor. He gave John a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God. Even better, He gave John a glimpse of God’s heart. In essence, Jesus was saying, you can trust that God is working all things for the good even when God doesn’t meet our expectations.
I’d like to close this message with a blessing that says: when there’s hope for someday, but someday is not now. I believe this is the perfect prayer for anyone who is struggling with questions and doubts this Advent season. Blessed are you in this terrible, wonderful now. Blessed are you for whom prayer feels hopeless, disappointing, or futile. Blessed are you in your radical honesty, in the ways you speak of your grief. Blessed are you as you learn to trust, trust a God who hears, who listens, who hasn’t left your side, who prays on your behalf, interpreting those deep groans you can’t quite put into syllables or sounds. Blessed are you, as you settle into acceptance. And blessed are we who live here in the someday, but not now. Amen.