“Shall we look for another?” This is the Baptist’s question in the Gospel reading of Matthew 11:2-11. Many people have the same question today.
The Baptist sat in prison plagued with doubt. What if he had been wrong? What if Jesus wasn’t the one who was to come? What if God hadn’t intervened here?
If such questions could plague John the Baptist, it isn’t so amazing that they could also plague us. Are you the one who is to come? Shall we look for another? Today the question is something like this: Is Jesus really the Son of God? Is he the one who knows God better than anyone else? he who was sent for our salvation? On what does our eternal destiny finally depend? Is he sent also for my sake, or must I seek help for myself in other quarters?
Can one find answers for such questions? Can one be certain? And how can one be certain?
Jesus gives us the answer: through hearing and seeing. The answer was given to John the Baptist. He had asked if Jesus was the one who was to come, the Messiah, God’s Son. Jesus didn’t answer directly that he did not see purely who he was. He answered instead, “Go and tell John what you now hear and see.” He pointed to his word and his deeds.
He didn’t answer directly.
Why didn’t he answer directly? Because that doesn’t help a person hear that Jesus is God’s Son. Not once does God himself say it. We have all heard it and learned it. But one can know it and understand it without truly believing, and thus one is not certain and does not believe it in the Christian manner. So when difficulties come, faith is torn asunder. One completely misconceives of what it means both that God is God and that Jesus is God’s Son. The Jews did this. They expected that the Messiah would be a great and powerful king who would make them autonomous and bring them secure income. This belief was behind many cries of hosanna when he entered the city. It explains how the mood changed so quickly that those who cried hosanna on Sunday could cry crucify him on Friday.
In like manner, people now have misconceptions of their own about Christ when they only learn from others. They have heard that Jesus is God’s Son, that he is good and merciful, and that his mercy covers everything. They heard this as children and have believed it. They recognize that God exists and that if Jesus is God’s Son, he must show great divinity. But then there is a traffic accident or a thrombosis that tears asunder all one’s calculations, everything that man hoped upon. Then come the doubts. Now one is like John, in darkness and abandoned and knowing not what one shall believe. One is perhaps completely bitter and says, “Ack, it is all just prattle. There isn’t any God; if there was, nothing like this would happen.”
The mistake is that one has not heard and seen Jesus himself. Living faith is not built on something one has heard from others. It is built on something Jesus himself has done with me, something that I have experienced while in the company of Jesus. This is something one can actually do today. One does it when one hears his word, applies it to himself, speaks with him in prayer, and comes to Holy Communion. Then one learns to know Jesus in a new manner. One learns what his divinity really means. It doesn’t mean that he is some sort of emergency rescue that one has no use for when all is going well but is bound to turn to immediately when everything starts going crazy. One must realize that everything already is as crazy as anything can be.
Living faith is not built on something one has heard from others. It is built on something Jesus himself has done with me, something that I have experienced while in the company of Jesus.
I have not one single day of my life kept God’s commandments, loved him with my whole heart, cared about and been good to all my neighbors. I have not been pure and true in my heart. But in the great catastrophe, Christ has intervened and paid for my sin. When I believe in him and keep fast to him, everything is forgiven. So I need him, not just sometimes but always, day and night. I am one of the poor for whom the gospel is preached. I am a blind man who has found my sight. Now I know something about Jesus, not only what others have taught me, that he is God’s Son. I myself have met he who is my Savior. I have heard and seen. This is the answer to the first question.
Is all this certain?
No, Jesus says. One can take offense, even if one hears and sees, even if one learns to know Jesus: “Blessed is he who is not offended by me.” He is set for the fall and rising of many and as a sign that is spoken against. One can be offended. One can fret. One can criticize and denigrate. Or one can wonder and shake his head.
The temptation meets us all. John met it. There he sat in the prison. The enemies seemed to have triumphed. Christ ought to intervene and administer justice. Why does he let all this happen? The same temptation met the disciples: Why doesn’t the Master use his power to beat down evil? He healed the sick and fed the hungry. But when it came to the most important thing, his own great matter, he let himself be bound and led away.
These very same questions can be a temptation and tribulation for us: it seems anyone and everyone mocks what should be most sacred. A neighbor crosses the line and with complete impunity says that these are merely fables. Coworkers at the office smirk and sneer at you for believing such things. And what should not happen out there in the world?
The temptation is to take offense at the insignificance of Jesus and his apparent powerlessness: that he does not display his power in a manner that everyone is forced to bow to. What did John do when these questions plagued him? He sent an envoy to Jesus. He turned to him for an answer.
Not everyone is so wise. On the contrary, many are such as Jesus says here that John was not: they are like reeds that are blown here and there in the wind. It is a picture of those who are dependent on all expressions of opinion and gusts of wind. She imagines that she is contemporary, freethinking, and independent. But in reality, she is bound. Hopelessly dependent on her environment and everything that everyone is currently chasing after, imitating, and taking part in.
Or perhaps they are more similar to the eunuch Jesus speaks about, the man with the nice clothing, to all appearances secure, sophisticated, and urbane. But he is empty inside, afraid to be different, a fool, and not as fine as others. These kinds of people dare not take Jesus seriously.
So Jesus can be a stumbling block because he demands that we be different, think and do differently. The most common reason is possibly only that a person just wants a bit of reprieve. They want to avoid taking a position, defer judgment. Maybe he calls himself a seeker, but he isn’t that—one who seeks the truth, not an excuse to avoid making a decision. But you seekers, what do you wait for? You will never escape having to take a position. When you avoid taking a position for Christ, you take a position against Christ. It is dangerous—more dangerous than taking a stand against all your social circles.
Everything is not certain. One can take offense and evade. He can say with Pilate: “What is truth?” Or, as the man in the parable, “Please accept my apologies.” Or, like the Jews, “Have any of the Sanhedrin believed in Him?” Then one will never be certain.
But you can be certain.
How was John certain? How were the disciples certain? We have already said it: through hearing and seeing. Through the deeds and words of Jesus. We also have these words and deeds of Jesus among us, if we will only hear and see.
You are a Christian even when you doubt so long as you go to Christ with it.
This is the purpose of the new church year that we have begun. Christ has come. He comes as he who wanders through the world: in the form of the word, present in the gospel and in the works He has instituted. The greatest is that which Jesus names last: the poor have good news preached to them. The word about forgiveness, about Christ giving his life. A person becomes certain that there is a God when God deals with us, when he forgives our sins with the direct touch of God’s hand. Reason will not make a man certain, but when one confesses His sins and receives forgiveness, even our doubts we can take with us, even if others accuse us of being heathens. Talk with Christ about them. Even though John was the greatest, he was afflicted by uncertainty, so you are a Christian even when you doubt so long as you go to Christ with it. In the end, no one can give solutions or answers. One must find them from Christ himself. And just for that reason, he is here, not as a teacher but as the resurrected Savior, present in all that happens in his church. For this reason, he takes you up in his church. You can be certain. Jesus can make you certain that he is God’s Son.