Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
On this Sunday of Advent, churches around the world will read John the Baptist’s plaintive question: “Are you the one?” I can’t help but to sympathize with John. Jesus certainly seemed like the Messiah, the royal anointed One foretold to reestablish Israel. John had sensed something of Jesus’s messianic identity even before either of their births. When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, had visited John’s mother Elizabeth, the tiny Baptist leapt inside her womb (Luke 1:41).
And yet, despite all he knew, things were not going as John had hoped. Case in point: he is in prison! John had been jailed after he rebuked the personal life of Herod, the puppet king of Judea. Perhaps John had felt he might receive immunity or rescue as soon as his cousin, Jesus, destroyed Rome and all its sycophants. But instead, John was left languishing in a cold cell. John had likely memorized Psalm 54:4-5—“Surely God is my helper; the Lord is the sustainer of my soul. He will reward my enemies with evil. In your faithfulness, destroy them.” He must have expected more.
Imagine John’s agony here. All his life had led up to this moment. He prepared the way for the Messiah, as the Scriptures had foretold (Malachi 3:1). Jesus said John was the greatest of all human beings ever (Matthew 11:11). His zealous faith made him confident, secure, and steadfast. Gregory the Great (AD 540-604) remarked, “John was no reed, shaken by the wind. No one’s pleasant attitude made him agreeable, and no one’s anger made him bitter.”[i] In other words, John had done everything right. But that did not seem to matter.
The term translated as look in Matthew 11:3 does not quite grasp the desperation and exhaustion with which John was questioning Jesus. The word is more like await or expect, as in we’ve been waiting for an untold millennia, and now you’re telling me we may have rolled out the red carpet for the wrong guy? Has the messiah not really returned? Are all our hopes now dashed against the rocks?
This reminds me of a story I once heard from my former pastor. When he was just starting out, he mostly traveled and preached at underserved, rural churches. Soon it seemed like he was running up against a brick wall. There was little to no response to his messages and the payment he was promised for his services was often lacking. With a pregnant wife and young child at home, he began to feel helpless and hopeless. One Sunday evening on the long drive home from an underwhelming engagement, he pulled his car over and sobbed. Then, in a fit of rage, he pounded his fists against the steering wheel, yelling at God, “why won’t you help me?”
A week later, while doing some weekly chores, he moved his couch away from the wall to vacuum. His 4-year-old son wanted to help push the couch back against the wall. The pastor stood directly behind his son as they both pushed. To help his son feel like he had accomplished something through hard work, he pushed the couch back lightly and slowly. His son, though, pushing with all of his might and not seeing substantial results quickly enough, turned and yelled at his dad, “Why won’t you help me?” Kids say the darndest things, don’t they?
Theologians speak of God’s hiddenness when they describe why he often appears absent and emotionally immovable, even though he is everywhere present and capable of helping. However, according to Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, the popular theological notion of Deus absconditus (the “hidden God”) is based on a misunderstanding of Isaiah 45:15. Isaiah is not saying that an attribute of God is his hiddenness, but that his ways are often not seen by us or, if seen, not well understood. Isaiah 45 notes that God appeared to be inactive when he was, in fact, redemptively active behind the scenes. Yahweh himself even seeks to clarify his so-called hiddenness, relaying to Isaiah, “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain’” (Isaiah 45:19). God is mysterious, yes, and our knowledge of Him cannot grasp His totality, but he is ultimately in the business of revealing Himself to lost, needy people.
If we only knew how much God sustained us and protected us every moment of our lives, we might find our questions just as erroneous (though understandable) as the son’s. That said, there is no shame in asking for clarity on things we cannot see. However, we should test to determine whether we cannot or will not see. Indeed, God did not place the veil hiding him from those who clung to the old covenant. Rather, those individuals had stubbornly placed the veil over their own eyes (2 Corinthians 3:12-18).
For those genuinely seeking with eyes to see and ears to hear, God will enlighten, though often through a longer process than we would like. This, however, is for our own good. God delights in these encounters where, like Jacob, we wrestle with him, for it is through this wrestling that we grow in true strength, understanding, and closeness. The heavens rejoice in our discovery of him, which often happens in the most surprising of ways. Sometimes these are hard to accept in our moments of doubt and insecurity. But with hindsight we may see the hand of God upon us in miraculous ways. And the more we recall God’s trustworthiness in hindsight, the more we will trust Him in the darkness of present struggles.
In typical God fashion, Jesus responded to his child calling from prison. John will soon learn that Jesus had been anything but unhelpful or uncaring, not just to John but to the whole world. Jesus tells John’s disciples to relay to him that
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.
Some may find this response to be impersonal and dismissive. Jesus is answering John by describing miracles he is doing for other people. So, what would John have felt when he heard such a response?
In a word: Sublimity.
Jesus’s answer invited John to think bigger. John heard in Jesus’s words the beckoning of not just his long-awaited king, but his God. Though we may only hear Jesus highlighting miracles, John—who was, it is safe to say, more familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures—heard far more:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor
He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners.Isaiah 61:1
To those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.Isaiah 35:4-6
Jesus did not swoop down to rescue John from prison. Instead, he filled him with an otherworldly joy at the revelation that God himself had entered into the human story. In an act of utter empathy, he confronts our sin and our suffering to make all things new. John essentially asked where Jesus was in his time of trouble, and Jesus whispered back, everywhere. At this, John had nothing left to ask, for when we have touched the awesome hem of Christ’s garment there are no words, excepting perhaps a few dumbstruck hallelujahs.
Sometimes this life can be quite confusing, as John the Baptist and the young preacher found. There are moments where we see that God is not interested in giving us our “best life now.” He is more interested in preparing us for our best life later. As CS Lewis wrote, when we accept Christ into our lives, we beg him to make us new, but hidden in our petitions are sights set too low. “You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage,” Lewis writes, “but he is building a palace.” Why? Because “He intends to come and live in it Himself.”[ii]
We have not been left alone, beloved. Christ has come for us and sustains us even now. We are bruised yet healed, hindered yet free. When we feel like we are barely hanging on, we are wrong; in fact, we are not hanging on at all, and he is already pulling us out from the abyss into which we plummeted. Turn, lift your veil, and look up into the revealed eyes of God and exclaim with the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
Sometimes when we have our expectations shattered, our faith is counterintuitively strengthened. We are left with a broken and contrite heart, which God considers a worthy sacrifice. Have you ever felt abandoned by God, only to later recognize Him closer to you than ever before? What did you learn from that experience? And what are ways we can foster an expectant hope during our troubles?
[i] Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies 6.2, in Manlio Simonetti and Thomas C. Oden (eds.), Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 220.
[ii] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 205.