Ale & Teviot United Church

John the Baptist’s message from jail

Sunday 17 October 2010 : Matthew 11 : 1-12

Today we find one of the odder encounters in the gospels, where the followers of John the Baptist come to Jesus to ask, effectively, look, are you the real deal or not?

What’s all this about? Let’s check out the background to the story. John the Baptist is the man who, in some ways, paved the way for Jesus. He is a remarkable and colourful character of whom we read in Luke 1.41 that he did a wee praise dance in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when she heard from her cousin Mary the news of the Saviour’s impending birth. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was born!

Tradition has it that John spent some time with the Essenes, an ultra-zealous sect of the Jewish faith who lived out by the Dead Sea and had nothing to do with mainstream religion. John was an “outsider” but when he began his ministry of strong turn-or-burn preaching, and water baptism in the Jordan, he certainly attracted the crowds. He was no diplomat, memorably blasting the religious leaders as a “brood of vipers” bound for hell, and later having a run-in with King Herod over the regal domestic arrangements.

It was this contretemps with the royal household that led to him being thrown in jail to await the chop, and it was while he was on Death Row that he sent some of his people for this chat with Jesus. We may wonder why. After all, John had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. He had heard the voice of God speak from Heaven about Jesus : This is my beloved Son, with whom I am pleased. Listen to Him.

But now the sands of time were fast running out for John. He had devoted his entire life to Jesus, his whole ministry pointed toward Jesus. Faith in Jesus had never been an issue for John – and if this was a momentary wobble, it was for one reason only, just to make 110% sure that his life’s work had been well-spent, one final confirmation that he had got it right. You don’t want to be about to breathe your last, only to find out that your entire life has been built on a mistake or a misunderstanding.

There’s a saying : don’t spend your life trying to climb the ladder of success, only to find it’s leaning on the wrong wall. What wall is our ladder leaning on? Is the house of our life built on the solid rock, or on the shifting sand? As we take stock of where we’ve been so far, and where we’re heading – and most of us, it’s fair to say, probably have more years on earth behind us than we have before us – what’s it all about?

Has it been about making a living, getting promotion at work, securing the big desk with the thick carpet and the good view out of the window, the nice house, the nice car, the nice lifestyle? Listen. There’s nothing wrong with these things in themselves, it is no part of God’s will for you to be in poverty, but if they are an end in themselves, you may very well end up resenting it all. Ask King Solomon, who was notoriously loaded, but who still could find no satisfaction in life – all, he said on a very bad day, is vanity. One of the first sermons I ever heard was on Colossians 3.23 – Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.
That approach to everyday living is the antidote for drudgery and resentment, a right attitude, a servant-heart. Remember also that the love of money – not money itself, which is morally neutral and, in the hands of a born-again Spirit-filled believer is a real tool for good – love of money is the root of all evil. There are many scriptural warnings about being selfishly and greedily rich, but God’s Father-heart is that you prosper in the material realm to the extent that the maturity of your soul allows.

One day Jesus will return in glory – and if He were to do so today, are we confident that He would say to us : Well done, my good and faithful servant? Some of us have practised the art of dipping a toe in the water of Christian life, but without ever giving ourselves fully, spirit, soul and body, to Jesus. We’ve kept Him at arm’s length, not daring to draw too close in case His Holy Spirit asks awkward questions about how we think, what we feel, what attitudes we have toward other people, what our priorities are in terms of time, abilities and resources. We’ve never really known Him personally

And if that’s where you’re at today, I’ve got good news for you. Jesus is here, and He is patiently waiting for you to invite Him to come in and take charge of your life. Jesus said : I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with Him and He with me. Those words were addressed by the Risen Lord to the church at Laodicea just after He had warned them what He would do to lukewarm Christians, who had never made a real commitment – He’d spit ‘em out.

Let’s not take the risk of ending up in the divine spittoon. Let’s stop trying to paddle our own canoe, let’s give Jesus all that we are and all that we have, and let Him make us into what He wants us to be – let’s be honest, it’s likely to be an improvement!

All right, let’s see how Jesus responded to John the Baptist’s last request. If you take a look at Luke 7.21, the parallel story there, you’ll see that at that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind, then He told John’s disciples to go home and tell their boss what they’d seen – as we see in v.5 : the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.

How true indeed what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4.20 that the Kingdom of God isn’t just talk, but action. Jesus does the business, and that is the evidence these men were to take back to John the Baptist to set his mind at rest. John, being a man steeped in God’s Word, would recognise that Jesus was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy here.

Isaiah 61 : The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Isaiah 35 : 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. It was the Word becoming flesh that John would recognise and be assured by.
One symptom of the lukewarm attitude to Jesus that He warns against in Revelation 3 is a lukewarm attitude to the Word of God. Well, I know what the Bible says, but the church really does need to come up to date. In some respects, I agree. The way we expressed our faith in the buttoned-up stern-faced Scotland of the Victorian era is not appropriate today – but be aware that the actual content of God’s Word hasn’t changed and is not up for negotiation. What Jesus said 2,000 years ago is still bang up-to-date.

Everything is negotiable except God’s Word. The words and deeds of Jesus, fulfilling the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament, and the commentary on Jesus of the New Testament writers such as Paul, must be the absolute bedrock of our faith and our life. It’s when we wander away from the Word of God, when we compromise on the Word to tie in with what our secular pluralist politically-correct society preaches, when we allow the traditions of men to make God’s Word ineffective, that the church loses the plot and God’s people end up settling for a pale shadow of true life in Christ.

The last word Jesus speaks to John’s disciples as they head for the bus stop has a wee sting in the tail : Oh, and blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me. The Amplified Bible translates Matthew 11.6 : Blessed (happy, fortunate, and to be envied) is he who takes no offense at Me and finds no cause for stumbling in or through Me and is not hindered from seeing the Truth.

There are people who are offended at Jesus. I believe, indeed, there may be people here today who are offended at Jesus. Offended, perhaps, because they didn’t get a prayer answered – maybe someone wasn’t healed when you asked and, because we’ve been told for centuries that God is sovereign and omnipotent, therefore it’s God’s fault the prayer didn’t work, and layer upon layer of festering resentment bubbles and stews within them against this Jesus in whose name you prayed but he didn’t deliver.

I would say to anyone who thinks that way, I’m glad you’re here, because the offence in your heart is almost certainly based on wrong teaching you have received, and I am privileged to be able to offer a corrective. The Bible teaches that when Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, forgiveness was released for every sin, healing for every disease, every curse was broken.- and all these things entirely by God’s grace, now available freely and unconditionally to anyone who truly believes and receives.

If a prayer was not answered, the problem is not at God’s end. That is far too big and complex a topic to cover in two minutes this morning, but keep coming, and over the next weeks and months we will unpack various roadblocks to answered prayer.

Another reason people may be offended at Jesus is that our human opinions don’t tie in with what He says in His Word. We may like to believe there are many paths to Heaven, and my spending time out on the hills, or the football park, or the golf course, or whatever, is as good as going to church. That may sound attractive, but there’s a problem with it. Jesus said, in John 14.6 : I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except by me. Only Jesus has paid for our ticket to eternal life.
Or there is someone that, not to put too fine a point on it, we just can’t stand, and we console ourselves by thinking God couldn’t possibly expect us to forgive that person after they hurt us so badly. Again, that view will get a lot of support and sympathy from other people, but not from Jesus. He says – look, if you don’t forgive others, you block your own forgiveness. And that comes right after He teaches the Lord’s Prayer.

With our human thinking, we convince ourselves one way. Then Jesus comes along and flat out contradicts it, so we end up with our nose in a sling, in the cream puff with the One who gave His life to save us. Anyone spot something wrong with that picture?
I’ll give you a clue. Proverbs 14.12, and again in 16.25 : There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. All right, final word for today.
If the Saviour if the whole world says one thing, but I say something different, only one of us can be right. No prizes for guessing which. So let’s pick up our lip, get over it, agree with the only One who has power to save us, and get on with enjoying His gift of abundant life His way – because guess what? There is no other way. Jesus is always right, because Jesus never says or does anything but what God says or does, and how blessed are those who don’t take a petted lip because of His faithfulness.

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