Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
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Dealing with Doubt

Matthew 11:2-15

 One of the curiosities of the Gospels is that John the Baptist, the man who had the unique privilege of announcing the coming of Messiah, went on to have doubts as to whether or not Jesus really was the Messiah.  That doesn’t seem to fit.

 Well, let’s start with what Jesus had to say about John:

 “Who was this man in the wilderness you went out to see?  Was he a reed swayed by the wind?”  A reed swayed by the wind was a picture of a weak and vacillating person, someone with no spine, someone who would say whatever people wanted to hear.  Someone like a politician speaking to a special interest group.  He knows what people want to hear, and he’s going to say it, gosh darn it! 

 “Was he a man dressed in fine clothes?”  The expression “fine clothes” is a reference to a king’s court.  Prophets were seldom welcomed into the halls of power.  Their messages offended the rich, the powerful, and the complacent.  Now King David had prophets of God in his court, but he was the exception to the rule, the “man after God’s own heart.”  In most of Israel’s history, the only prophets welcomed in the king’s court were those who said what the king wanted to hear.

 “No, John was a prophet.”  A prophet is someone with the spiritual sensitivity to be able to hear from God and with the courage to speak God’s message, even when it was difficult or unpopular to hear.  

 “But John was more than a prophet.”  He was the herald of Messiah.  When a king traveled, he sent his heralds ahead of him to announce that he was coming, so people could make preparations.  That was John’s role.  He was the one who had the unique privilege of announcing the coming of God in the flesh to his people.  

 “Of all those who have ever lived, none is greater than John.”  Praise doesn’t get much higher than that!  “But even the least in the Kingdom of God is greater.”  Now I don’t think that Jesus was putting John down at all.  Instead I think he was elevating his followers because we have something John did not:  We have the fullness of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus.  John saw it coming, but he never got to see the fullness of it.  He never saw the cross.  He never understood the fullness of God’s love and grace.  In a way, John was like Moses.  Moses led people to the very edge of the Promised Land, but he himself never went into it.  Joshua led the people in.  John was like that.  He led

people to the edge of the Kingdom of God, but it was Jesus who led them in.  Coincidentally, the Hebrew name Joshua and the Greek name Jesus are one and the same.

 “He is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come.”  This is a reference to Malachi 4:5, the very last words of the Old Testament:  “Look, I am sending the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives.”  I don’t think Jesus literally meant that John was Elijah, but rather that John was like Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  

 That’s who John was.  What became of him?  Not good things.

 John wouldn’t hold back or soften the truth.  He spoke out against Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, who had an affair with his brother’s wife and then divorced his own wife to be with her.  For that criticism, John was put in jail, and eventually put to death.  In jail, he began to have his doubts about Jesus.

 John was, we believe, part of a group of Jews called the Essenes.  They were devoted to ritual purity.  They separated themselves from society to avoid being defiled.  They ate food they grew or collected from the wilderness to avoid defilement.   And Jesus openly defied the rules of purity.  He touched the untouchables.  He had contact with prostitutes and tax collectors and other notorious sinners.  He healed on the Sabbath.  Perhaps this offended John’s religious sensibilities.  

 Also, John preached a message of sudden and imminent judgment.  Jesus seemed to be in no hurry.  

 Some have suggested John only asked his question, “Are you really the Messiah or should we look for someone else?” for the sake of his followers.  He knew he was going to die, so he wanted them to go follow Jesus, in other words.  I don’t think so.  I think he was really struggling with doubt.  I suspect jail had begun to wear down his resolve and cause him to question things he once held tightly.  Prisons do that.  Prisons wear down our resolve.  And not just literal prisons.  Any prison will wear down our resolve.  

 Jesus answers John’s disciples by telling them to go back and report what they have seen and heard:  “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.”  All the signs of the Messianic

Age that the prophet Isaiah spoke of in the Scripture we used for this morning’s call to worship.  The fruits of Jesus’ ministry were undeniable to anyone who had eyes to see and ears to hear.  Jesus may have touched the untouchables, something that offended John’s religious sensibilities, but look at the results of those touches!  

 Let’s make an aside here:  Do miracles still happen?  Are people still miraculously healed?  Do impossible things still happen through God’s power?  Are evil spirits still driven out?  

 There are four views among believers today.  The first is that those things never happened.  This is the view of those who want to see everything as natural, nothing as supernatural.  Evil spirits were just mental illness.  Physical healings were not really healings, just natural things we can’t always understand.  The second view is that those things did happen, but now they have stopped happening, the so-called cessationist view.  The third view is that miracles still happen in the Church, but only in certain circumstances, like in spiritual revivals. And the fourth view is that yes, those things still happen all the time in the Church today.  

 My opinion is, mostly, number four.  Sometimes I lean more toward number three.  But mostly I think miracles still happen.  Some might ask, “Why don’t we see them more often?”  Well, that’s a question for another sermon, I do believe.

 Jesus goes on, “God blesses those who are not offended by me.”  There will be times when we doubt God.  We will struggle to keep faith.  It’s just arrogant for us to think otherwise.  We might doubt because of circumstances, like John did in jail.  We might struggle with unmet expectations.  God’s work might not look like we think it should.  

When we say that Jesus is the the Messiah, we are not only saying something about the nature of Jesus, we are also saying something about the nature of Messiah.  Messiah is defined by Jesus as much as Jesus is defined by Messiah.  God’s work will not always be in the form we expect.  

 There are no guarantees when it comes to keeping faith.  Our salvation is not a possession that we can lock up in a safe and keep it secure.  It is the nature of faith that it must constantly be renewed.  

 In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Not all people who sound religious are really godly.  They may call me ‘Lord,’ but they still won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The decisive issue is whether they obey my Father in heaven.  On judgment day, many will say, “Lord, we prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and did miracles in your name.’  But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.’”  Our past experiences with Jesus, even if they were real and powerful, will not save us unless we keep faith and keep obeying God.  Our faith in the past is no guarantee of keeping faith.  Questions will arise.  Doubts will creep in.  They are inevitable.  

 The challenge is to hold onto Christ in the midst of the wrestling.  In the book of Genesis, Jacob holds on to the angel of God at the ford of the Yabbok River.  Likewise, we must hold onto Christ and settle for nothing less than the blessing of being his.  Struggle with the questions and doubts, but don’t let go of Jesus.

 One last thing about this morning’s text, and I think it has something to say about holding onto Jesus no matter what.  In verse 12, Jesus says something along the lines of “The Kingdom of God is forcefully advancing and violent people attack it.”  A similar saying of Jesus appears in Luke 16:16.  This is one of those cases where we are not 100% sure how best to translate that passage from Greek.  You might have a footnote in your Bible that says something like, “Could also be translated as zealous people are pressing into it.”  The word that could mean violent can also mean zealous, eager, intense.  And the word that means attack can also mean pushing into, forcing one’s way in.  

 In this case, I think the alternate translation is better.  It is better read as, “Zealous people are pressing their way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”  It tells us that entering God’s Kingdom requires single-minded devotion and commitment.  Wrestle with the doubts and the questions, but keep hold of faith and never let go of Jesus.

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