There is a piety in some Christian circles which views questions about God’s way of dealing with the world as somehow unfaithful or disobedient. In an effort to justify God’s action (or more often inaction) that appears arbitrary or unjust, we are tempted to suppress doubts and stop short of being honest with God and ourselves. The motivation, a desire to trust God no matter what, is well-intended, but the result is often a reluctance to take seriously the reality of living by faith.
This reluctance has led to disastrous consequences. In his book, You Lost Me, Barna president David Kinnaman names the Church’s disinclination to deal openly and honestly with doubts as one of the main reasons so many young people have left church. His research found that 50% of 18 to 29-year-olds who have a Christian background do not feel they can ask their most pressing questions at church. 10% are blunter by agreeing with this statement: “I am not allowed to talk about my doubts at church.” The problem is that the church (and its preachers) often present the Christian faith as having no room for doubts.
The dilemma, of course, is life throws at us a constant barrage of reasons to question God’s loving presence and power. Some examples are extreme. There is the seemingly healthy 45-year-old mother who, upon walking off the plane on a family vacation, collapses and dies without explanation. There are the years of abuse suffered by a young girl at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather who leaves her wounded and hurting for life. John the Baptist’s beheading fits into this category. Terrible things happen and God does nothing to stop it. Not all suffering is so intense, however. It is often a slow bleed. There is the silent struggle of the post-partum mother, the long and lonely days of the nursing home veteran, and the learning disabilities which make every subject a battle for the high school athlete. Sometimes, God does not provide the support and strength we so desperately ask of Him. The resultant doubts are real and pressing. We (and now I am talking directly to preachers) cannot brush them under the rug. In your sermon, do not limit yourself to the extreme examples. Many of your hearers struggle quietly with the mundane and need you to acknowledge their challenges.
John the Baptist’s question in our text offers you an opportunity to help your congregation take seriously the doubts experienced by those who live by faith. Your task is not to celebrate such doubts, neither is it to parrot superficial platitudes and pat answers. The point is to be honest and help your congregation grow as a community of believers who support one another in the struggle to live faithfully. By naming the doubts that inevitably arise, you will equip your hearers to live together by the faith we confess to believe.
By naming the doubts that inevitably arise, you will equip your hearers to live together by the faith we confess to believe.
For your sermon on Matthew 11, it will help to remind the congregation of the context. In Matthew 4, we learn John the Baptist has been arrested. We do not read about the cause (or decapitating result) of his imprisonment until chapter 14. Chapter 11, then, places us in the middle time. This is the time of waiting, the time of doubt, the time of questions which all thinking Christians experience at some point in life. “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (11:3), John asks. It is an honest question from a faithful prophet. It arises out of John’s struggle to live by faith. Reports were clear: The blind were seeing, the lame were walking, the lepers were being cleansed, the deaf were hearing, and the dead were being raised. But none of this was happening for John. There he sat in prison, wondering why God was not acting on his behalf. It is a question your hearers also share, but they may need you to invite them to acknowledge it. Some of them are afraid to name their questions. They may even feel shame or fear about their reluctance.
The key to the text, and to your sermon, is the P.S. to Jesus’ message for John through his disciples: “Blessed (μακάριός) is the one who is not offended (scandalized, σκανδαλισθῇ) by Me.” The echo of Jesus’ beatitudes in Matthew 5 is unmistakable. Those who hear and believe the promise of God in Christ are blessed. This is not because things go well for them here and now, but because, like all who suffer and mourn with faith in Christ, their reward is great in Heaven. Like all of the beatitudes, this can only be taken on faith. Although God gives occasional glimpses of this joy in this life, we must wait for Jesus’ return to realize it in full.
In the meantime, your job as a preacher is to be honest with your hearers about the challenges and struggles of life in this time of waiting. View this sermon as a means by which your congregation can take seriously the doubts we experience in life. You cannot possibly address the manifold ways in which your hearers suffer, but you can call them to a life of trust in the fact of doubt and encourage them to support one another as a community of questioning believers. This may involve the invitation for further conversation, perhaps in Bible study after the service or during the week, which involves mutual sharing and mutual consolation. The purpose of this honesty would be to strip away all props that downplay the scandal of Jesus, to remove all the false answers trying to explain away God’s hiddenness, and to expose all the idols preventing your people from depending ONLY on the promises of God in Christ. From there, your job is both easy and a privilege: Proclaim the fullness of the Gospel promise of life and joy in Christ in His final coming.
If you are looking for an example of what such a sermon might sound like, see this chapel message from my colleague, Old Testament professor Tim Saleska. It is on a different text, but it does well to name our doubts and proclaim Jesus as the only answer.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 11:2-15.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 11:2-15.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 11:2-15.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 11:2-15.