Elizabeth, Isaiah, John, Mary, David, Zechariah—these are the usual Advent names. As the biblical narrative moves toward its apex, the lectionary puts these names before us, Advent after Advent. Their inclusion in the story by name has made our thinking about the incarnation inseparable from their particular parts in the story.
But there are others who, even though they had a significant role to play in relation to Jesus, remain unnamed. I am thinking, for example, of the shepherds keeping watch by night, the thieves who were crucified with Him on Golgotha, and the owners of the colt He rode into Jerusalem. The biblical authors did not feel compelled to tell us THEIR names, but this does not diminish the significance of their interaction with Jesus. Indeed, sometimes it is the unnamed characters in the Bible who can most help present-day readers find their own place in the biblical story.
At the center of this week’s reading from Luke 7 are two such people. Luke describes them only as disciples of John. He does not tell us their names, but rather focuses our attention on the task they are given by the baptizer. Beginning to wonder whether or not Jesus is the Messiah as he thought, John sends these two disciples to ask Jesus directly. Their question is one every thinking Christian asks at some point in life, and the answer they receive from our Lord is ultimately the only answer any of us ever receive.
*Before we get to their question and Jesus’ answer, you might consider composing your sermon with their perspective in mind. I suggest a narrative sermon to help your hearers grasp the dire situation of John, the challenge of living by faith, and the good-news work of Jesus in his life (as well as his death and resurrection). Narrative preaching uses the story in the text as the primary vehicle for communicating the commands and promises of God in Christ. Rather than treating the text like a depository of true information, a narrative sermon would bring your hearers into the story to help them encounter with Jesus along with these two unnamed disciples. For some initial guidance on several possibilities for organizing a narrative sermon, see this brief description. See also this recent example of a “Biblical Story Interrupted” sermon.
Their question is one every thinking Christian asks at some point in life, and the answer they receive from our Lord is ultimately the only answer any of us ever receive.
Back to the unnamed messengers... John sent them to Jesus to ask a basic question. The place from which he sent them makes his question particularly pressing. John had not been mentioned in Luke’s Gospel since 3:20, when he was put into prison. Presumably, he is still there, still locked-up for being faithful, still in danger of execution (which was coming) for doing his job, and still suffering the darkness of sin despite the arrival of the Light of the World. His question reveals uncertainty about the very message he had been proclaiming in the first place. It reveals the challenge of living (and dying) by faith. Luke thinks the question is worth repeating. John tells them what to ask in verse 19, and then they ask it in verse 20. “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
John may have been the first to articulate this question, but every follower of Jesus who has encountered difficulty and suffering for their connection to Jesus has asked it at some point. I can imagine a number of profiles: The pastor (perhaps you?) who faithfully proclaims the commands and promises of God in Christ, and yet sees his congregation diminish in size and influence and viability; the grandmother who returns to the exhaustion of parenthood to care for a grandchild because the parents are unable to do their duty; the single man who channels his love for a family (that God has never provided) toward needy members of his congregation; the child who, despite the pressures to give into the world’s encouragement to create her own identity, refuses to make God in her own image. What do these people have in common? They are suffering for doing good, for living and serving faithfully in Jesus’ name. They remain unnamed to most people, and they share the same question asked by these unnamed messengers: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus’ answer is ultimately the only answer we get. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus’ answer points these unnamed messengers to what He is doing. If you want to know who I am, Jesus says, look at what I do. The messengers presumably saw these things (verse 21) for themselves. But John did not. When they returned to John, they only had a report, only a witness, only a word, only a promise.
If you want to know who I am, Jesus says, look at what I do.
It does not sound like much-the witness of a couple of unnamed disciples-but it was enough back then. And it still is today.
Your job as a preacher of the Gospel is to do for your hearers what these unnamed disciples did for John. Through your witness, show your hearers what Jesus does. In addition to His healings and proclamation, show them especially His faithfulness unto death, His resurrection from the dead, and His promise to return on that last day. The promise is those actions are for us, for them. And that promise is enough.
What is more, your witness to them will enable them to be witnesses to others in their lives. That is your goal for this sermon—that, by witnessing to the saving works of Christ for your hearers, and by proclaiming the promise of Christ, you will equip them to follow in the footsteps of these unnamed disciples and bring a message of Jesus’ saving work to the people in their lives.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 7:18-28 (29-35).
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 7:18-28 (29-35 ).