John the Baptist in prison, from the 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth
(…continued) Matthew 11:1-11 tells a story about disappointed expectations. John the Baptist was disappointed in Jesus. Here is the story:
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciple to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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 fall away on account of me.” As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”
John asked of Jesus, “Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus was apparently not what John had expected. John gave his life to prepare the way for Jesus. Now, in prison and facing execution, John was having second thoughts. John had proclaimed a Messiah bringing God’s judgment and wrath and punishment. Jesus seemed to be talking too much about grace and forgiveness. John was confused, and so he asked Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we expect someone else?”
John’s expectations were different from those that I began by describing. John did not ask for much, nor was he expecting much, from life. He lived alone out in the wilderness, had a meager diet that included insects, and his wardrobe consisted of animal skins. John wasn’t expecting good times, smooth sailing, or happiness. But he did want to live his life, and give his life, for God. John had high expectations for Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of a coming Messiah, but it seemed to John that Jesus was not meeting those expectations.
The problem wasn’t that Jesus was less than John had expected. Jesus was certainly doing great things and was being followed by many. But Jesus was different from what John expected, and now John wasn’t so sure about him. And disappointed expectations are most tragic when time is running out and life is about to end, as it was for John. The next time we hear anything about John is three chapters later when we find out he was beheaded by King Herod.
When Jesus sent his reply to John, it was not a report of any new information. Matthew 11:2 tells us that John knew what Jesus was doing. But it was the way Jesus said it that would have mattered to John. Jesus replied using the words of an often repeated Old Testament prophecy of the coming Messiah (Isaiah 61:1). Jesus said, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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 was reminding John that he was doing what the Messiah was supposed to be doing. Yes, John was right too; judgment and punishment would come to all who would refuse Jesus; but not now, not yet. Jesus was telling John that now was the time for grace and for the preaching of the good news. It is still is that time of grace. Now, 2,000 years later, there is still time for the world to hear and believe in and receive Jesus. (continued…)