Why is it a surprising question? Because of who asks it – John the Baptist – he is the get ready guy, (27) the messenger sent to get the way ready for Jesus - God in human form, to come to his people - and he has been doing just that. He had baptised Jesus, has pointed him out as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But now he is in Herod’s prison and his question is are you the one we have been waiting for. Now we aren’t told what exactly caused that question but here’s my hunch. Just glance back at 3:16-17, where we see John announcing the Messiah’s coming. What does he expect? Power, fire, winnowing and judgement. As he sits in jail he hears about Jesus ministry and there isn’t any judgement. John is expecting imminent judgement, he is expecting those who oppose God to be dealt with because the kingdom of God is at hand.
As Jesus refers to John he quotes Malachi 3:1 confirming that John is the forerunner, we’ll be looking at Malachi in November, but there is in that promise a dual coming in view. John has been looking for the imminent judgement but it is still distant. I was reading a novel recently; it was set in two towns in Colorado – I’ve searched and can’t tell you whether these are real or fictional but it makes the point. The character comes across a town called Hope because as the settlers looked on the horizon the Rocky Mountains looked close. 12 miles further on is the town of Despair because they realised as they journeyed that it was an optical illusion and the mountains were still 200 miles away.
John the Baptist, and we, lived in that time of tension. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus and if we believe in him in us but it has not yet been established in the world we live in, and that causes us tension.
I guess we would say we don’t believe in the prosperity gospel, the idea that Christians should be free from suffering and be wealthy and blessed materially. But I was challenged this week that actually in a hundred little ways we do – we expect a pay rise every year at least in line with inflation, when we experience serious illness, or lose our job, or are not given the relationship we want we ask what God is doing. Do you see what is going on there – we subtly expect life to be easy, to be blessed, to live life without hardships.
But actually as you mine the gospels you don’t find that promise. We live in the time of tension. God’s kingdom has come now in us but it has not come fully yet. The hardships are not a sign that we are not God’s people, or that he has not saved us, or that he does not know what he is doing it is a sign that we live waiting for his coming again.
It is striking the way Jesus deals with this question. There’s no recoil of horror, no frantic panicked reaction. Jesus gives John’s disciples the evidence of who he is and ends with a call (23) for John to trust him. As Jesus gives the answer he does so with the background of a collage of Old Testament references. He directs John to the evidence in God’s word that he is the one who was to come. Just as the question is asked twice so the evidence is given twice, with John’s disciples there (21) “Jesus cured many who had diseases, illnesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.” Then he tells them “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: 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.”
Jesus is using the same terms he used when he launched his ministry in Luke 4:18-19 as he uses Isaiah to define his mission. He is saying 'John, I am the one and I am doing what the Old Testament said I would so believe in me. I am the servant of the Lord, the one who comes from the wilderness, the perfect Son.'
That little phrase in (23) isn’t Jesus rebuking John for his question, it is Jesus calling on John not to fall, not to abandon belief, because he is the one. Are you struggling with your faith this morning? Jesus says ask questions, find out the answers but don’t abandon faith. Maybe like Theophilus the question is can I be certain, maybe like the early church the cause is persecution, or maybe like John the problem is the tension between the now and the not yet.
Jesus then warns the crowd with the ‘parable of the brats’ (31-35). It’s nice to see children haven’t changed in two thousand years. You are like children, says Jesus, who will not listen to people who do not fit in with your ideas and ways of doing things. So John and his warning is rejected because he is too austere, too odd. But Jesus is rejected because he eats and drinks and is not austere/religious enough.
There is a warning here that we need to read the Bible and understand who it says Jesus is, not try to fit him into a little box of what we want our Messiah to look like and refuse to accept anything else. In contrast there are those who accept who Jesus is; the wise. The surprise is who they are, it is not the religious people it is the Tax Collectors (20), the Centurion (1-10) and the sinful woman (38). But Jesus welcomes them. The Kingdom is composed of those who recognise they need Jesus.
Jesus does not fit nicely into our boxes - religious, good man. He will not be domesticated or fitted in. He stands as the Son of God and demands that we accept him on his terms and follow him, and when we do we find life and joy.