Text: Luke 7:18-28
This year’s Sunday School Christmas program, presented by our children at the 11:00 service today, is titled “The child we honor.” Jesus is that child, of course. The focus of the program is on the way we honor him through a particular Christmas tradition—the use of decorations known as Chrismons. The word “Chrismon” comes from joining together the abbreviation of two words. “Chris” is short for “Christ” and “mon” is short for monograph, which is a stylistic rendering of someone’s name. Chrismons, then, are renderings of the many different names for Christ Jesus. They are often abbreviations of his name or title in the Greek language, or names derived from images used in the Bible, such as “The Sun of Righteousness.” Chrismons are not an ancient tradition. They’ve only been a part of the church since the 1800’s. But they are a growing tradition and one that enables us to explore the many ways Jesus our Savior has been described and honored by the Church over the centuries.
Jesus is certainly worthy of our honor. In our Gospel reading today, however, his status as one worthy of honor is being questioned. John the Baptist—the forerunner of Christ, the voice of one crying in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord” – that John, now sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” This is a very troubling question. After all, just a couple of years earlier John had honored Jesus with one of those great names that is such an important part of our Christian tradition, calling him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” How could he now question whether Jesus was, indeed, the One sent by God in fulfillment of God’s promises?
Readers of this text have long struggled with John’s question. Many have concluded that John himself was not questioning Jesus, but that his disciples were. In this view, John sent his disciples to Jesus so that they could ask their question to Jesus himself. However, there is nothing in the text itself to suggest this conclusion. And, Jesus explicitly tells John’s disciples to “go tell him” what they had seen and heard. Jesus seems concerned about John, not John’s disciples.
To me it seems very clear that this text is recording a wavering of John’s faith, a time of doubt. John had earlier proclaimed: “He who is mightier than I is coming.” John knew, as did the prophets before him, that God would send a mighty one to come into the world. And at John’s baptism of Jesus, by calling him the “Lamb of God,” he certainly announces his faith that Jesus is that One who was to come. But his question to Jesus a few years later shows that his thoughts have changed. He now has doubts.
On the one hand this is troubling to us, for we would prefer that those so close to Jesus would have a great and unwavering faith. On the other hand, however, knowing that those close to Jesus struggled at times is a powerful witness to us that struggles can happen to anyone, including each of us. Struggles of faith, whether of John or others, are not hidden by the Biblical writers as if they are a great disgrace. And Jesus himself reacts to these struggles with love and grace. He does not chastise John for doubting. Even when he calls out other disciples of his for doubting—saying things like “oh you of little faith” or “stop doubting and believe”—he does so in a way that encourages, not condemns.
Having said that, a strong faith is still better than a weak faith, and doubts can lead to trouble. In order that we might spend less time in places of doubt and weak faith, let’s think about the reasons John may have experienced his doubts, and see if we can learn from his situation.
John the Baptist was preaching his message of preparation at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Once Jesus arrived John recognized, and proclaimed, that Jesus must increase while John must decrease. He was certainly at peace with this, but it must have presented challenges nonetheless. Some of us experience this same challenge in our work or in our homes. It’s beautiful to watch the new generation grow and eventually take over, but it can be hard too.
Even more challenging to John was the fact that at the time of his doubting he was locked up in prison. John had been faithful in his task as a prophet, including the condemning of the public sin of King Herod. Herod responded by throwing the prophet into prison—playing out a scene which had happened frequently in Israel’s past.
Certainly John knew that he was in the right, but one can only sleep so well in prison. The isolation, the fear, the abuse—these all certainly wore on John. It could be that the months of suffering wore down his faith too. Many of us have experienced our faith waning as we experience physical or emotional pain. It doesn’t always have to work that way. But quite often it does. God understands. He endures our questions and times of doubt, calmly answering us as Jesus does here with John.
We’ll examine that answer of Jesus to John in a minute. But there’s one more possibility for John’s doubts that we should consider first. John’s message, you may recall, was primarily a message of preparation. As such, he ended up preaching a lot of law. He urged the people to turn from their sins. Yes, John was also proclaiming good news—in that the one to come would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and be the Lamb of God who takes away our sin. And yet, John’s focus was still the law. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” “he who has two tunics is to share with him who has none,” and “his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear the threshing floor.”
With all of this emphasis on repentance and judgment, could it be that John was a little too anxious for this repentance and judgment to happen? Perhaps he thought about his world and despaired that people were still so immoral and that their repentance seemed so insincere. Perhaps he was hoping that the One sent by God would do his judging quickly, swiftly and thoroughly in his own day, that he, John, would be able to see the sinners of his day pay for their sins.
I can’t say for sure that John thought this way, but I do know that sometimes we think like this. We get tired of the godlessness around us. We get frustrated that sinners keep hurting us with their sin. And then we wonder if God is really ever going to do something about it. We get impatient. We get angry. And sometimes we doubt.
Maybe John’s question was one of impatience. Or, maybe it was one of misunderstanding the “Coming One’s” real task. Everyone else in Jesus’ circle had times of misunderstanding his task, why not John?
As Jesus would do to his disciples so many times, he also did to John. He answered him. And this was his answer: “Go and tell what you have seen and heard.” Note the reference to both seeing and hearing. So also with us, right? We have seen things of God with our own eyes, and we have heard from His Holy Word of much more. “Go and tell what you have seen and heard,” said Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
As we examine this list of evidence that Jesus points out to John, we immediately note how much of it involves miracles of healing. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, etc. These things were happening quite literally everywhere Jesus went. The scriptures record multiple examples for us. John certainly would have heard of these too, although maybe he had not seen with his own eyes.
You and I have seen many examples of help and healing in our day. But maybe we’ve given all the credit to our doctors, or to nature, or to simple good fortune. Why do we ever doubt that God is behind all healing? Maybe it is because there are times when God doesn’t heal, or at least heal in the way we want him to. Maybe it is because we think life should always be easy. Maybe it is because death still seems to win.
Or maybe it is because our view of healing is too narrow. Maybe we don’t appreciate the healing which comes to our hearts when a kind word is spoken, or when a message of hope is given, or when the forgiveness of our sin is offered.
When John questioned Jesus, Jesus put forth the evidence of his healing as reason to believe in his Lordship. That same message needs to be proclaimed today. Where Christ Jesus is present through his Word and Sacraments healing is taking place.
Jesus’ list of evidence to John included many kinds of healing. The last miracle listed stands out. When Jesus notes that “the dead are raised” it may sound like just one more item on a list, but we know that’s not the case. The raising of the dead is the ultimate miracle. It cannot be explained by skilled doctors, natural causes or good fortune. The raising of the dead is the defeat of our greatest enemy. The raising of the dead is given only by God.
Jesus raised the dead during his ministry, and then was raised himself from the dead to show that death is not the end of God’s plan for His people. All people will be raised from the dead some day. Those who have received and acknowledged God’s forgiveness of their sins through Christ Jesus will live forever in the new life to come. Those who do not receive God’s forgiveness in Christ face God’s judgment of sin on their own.
In the list of evidence he presents to John, Jesus mentions one more item—an item which doesn’t seem to fit with the rest because we don’t think of it as a healing or as a miraculous event. But its inclusion here means that it’s very important nonetheless. Jesus tells John that “the poor have good news preached to them.” This preaching, given here at the end of the list, is the natural extension of Jesus’ miraculous works. True Christian preaching is always good news for the poor in spirit—those who realize their need before God. True Christian preaching includes the Law of God, telling us how to live and reminding us where we come up short. And, true Christian preaching is dominated by the Gospel—the good news that in Christ Jesus we find the forgiveness of our sins. This preaching belongs on the list Jesus gave to John, for through it miracles of healing take place.
Jesus concludes his message to John with these words: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Certainly Jesus’ mention of this is a clue that John was struggling with his faith. To be offended by Jesus means we doubt that what he says is true or good. Again, we do well to note how Jesus makes his point, to John and all who doubt, in a positive way—not condemning those who doubt but rather encouraging the way of faith. Certainly these words should remind us also to seek, as Jesus does, the blessing of any who are not offended by him, even those who may not yet believe.
As Christmas approaches many people will wrestle anew with the message of Jesus Christ. They see the blessing of lifting up voices of celebration, shining light in the darkness and being moved by God coming to us in such a gentle and beautiful way as the birth of a child. Some will be moved to faith. Others, sadly, will conclude that it is an offense, and having concluded such will look for reasons to be offended. We who are believers do well to remember during this blessed season not to impose our celebration on anyone. We do not condemn those who doubt. At the same time, we can’t help but giving voice to our joy, and we certainly invite people to join us. Therefore let us all during this season resolve ourselves to show our joy in gracious and loving ways, with an eye toward works of healing, and an appreciation of the miracle of God’s Word doing its work. In the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen.