“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John’s question is as honest as they come, and it is not surprising, given the context. Even though he was there at the Jordan to see the heavens opened, even though he heard the Father’s voice, even though he saw the dove descend, even though Jesus would identify him as nothing less than Elijah himself, still, there he sat, in prison. There he sat, awaiting his executioner. John looked around at what God and His Messiah were not doing, and even the greatest among those born of woman had his doubts. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
This question lurks in the hearts of all of God’s people who suffer in their faithfulness. Every Christian asks it at some point (or multiple points) in life. There is no sugarcoating the fact that the reign of Heaven, as it comes about through Jesus, does not make everything better; not yet, at least. It does not remove the tears or dispel the fears which characterize life in this dark valley. This is what makes John’s question so important. His willingness to give it voice invites the preacher of every time and place to bring the question to the surface for us all. Do not pass up this opportunity to name for your congregation the struggles and the doubts they may be afraid even to speak.
The cross of Jesus is not explicitly mentioned in the text. But the theologian of the cross, and the preacher of the cross, is accustomed to calling it like it is. We may not be comfortable with God’s ways, but we are familiar with them. We worship a God who died, after all. No matter how much good might come from His death in the end, on Friday evening there was no way to spin it. As Jesus foretold in verse 12, the violence of the world would take Him by force, and it still does. Like the disciples who found themselves alone, afraid and in hiding, we continue to grope around in the dark, struggling to make sense of what seems like a backwards way of reigning over Heaven and Earth.
But resurrection is coming! Jesus’, John’s and ours! That is the promise to proclaim to the faithful as they suffer. The resurrection is coming for all who are not offended by Jesus and His ways. We see the beginning of this resurrection in Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophet. In verse 5, Jesus names what He was doing: the blind were seeing, the lame were walking, the sick were being healed, the deaf were hearing, and the dead were rising. And the poor? Well, the poor were receiving good news. So too, will your hearers, for you will proclaim to them the good news of their resurrection in Christ.
The question is by what method you might deliver this message. As I was considering how I would approach it, I found myself imagining what it would have been like to be one of John’s disciples. I wondered what they would have been thinking as they left John in prison to ask Jesus this discomforting question. As followers of the imprisoned one, they certainly would have shared John’s question. When they finally got to Jesus, I can imagine them asking on John’s behalf, but also from their own struggles. Did Jesus’ response alleviate their uncertainty? Did He answer their questions?
Then, having heard Jesus’ answer, I wondered how they returned to John. Did they return immediately and report with confidence what Jesus had said? Or did they need to stop and regroup and carefully craft how they would share Jesus’ response? Then, I wondered about how John received their message. Did it comfort him? Did it raise more questions? Did it provide the strength he needed to endure? Did it lead him to cry out more fervently?
The fact Matthew does not answer these questions is itself a reminder of how we live by faith. We live, with John, in all sorts of uncomfortable places. We live by the witness of those who have seen, heard and touched the Word of life (cf. 1 John 1:1). We live, and we wait. We wait for the final resurrection, for the full realization of Jesus’ restoring work.
Having put myself in the shoes of John’s disciples, it also crossed my mind that your hearers are similar to them. They come into contact with friends and family members who have equally difficult questions. As you proclaim Jesus and His resurrection for their benefit, you are also preparing them to take Jesus’ message to people in their lives who also struggle. You might even explicitly invite them to imagine themselves as John’s disciples with you.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 11:2-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 11:2-11.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 11:2-11.