In Matthew chapter 11 we find John again sending his disciples out (as he did in Matt. 9) to get a little scouting report on Jesus. This time John is in prison because, as is the case with most prophets, some angry words for the current political regime had been exchanged and King Herods feelings got a little hurt. See John had been condemning the fact that Herod had taken his brother Philips wife as his own (Matt. 14:1-12). (Preachers Jobs have always been interesting). And that not going over all that great landed John in the dungeon of the royal palace and ultimately it cost him his head.
John was a radical herald, a messenger of The Truth not unlike many early Quakers. A blistery preacher who ate only what he could forage, its not surprising that the first place we find him is out in the wild and the last place is in a dungeon. In Scripture, Gods messengers rarely get CEO desk jobs and a company car. And because he was blistery, like many of the apostles, and saints, and Friends, since he paid a dear price. John was the first martyr for the Jesus movement. John was clearly all in with his faith there is no doubt about that, his only doubt was that he wanted to be sure he had the right Messiah.
Given all this, I think Johns question in Matt 11:3 comes more into perspective.
John’s Query is simple — Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (Christmas is about asking this question, and if we look close enough, we get the answer. You can bet the answer is never beat over our heads.)
It could be taken as a hostile question. John might be asking: Are you the one or not? Stop with the Tom Foolery and lets get this show on the road. But I dont think thats what it is. I think that it is more of a question of uncertainty. Its closer to a Quaker query which is meant to be open-ended and unsure of the answer.
After his disciples came back with some reports about what the Messiah or Christ was doing, John needed to find out who this is who he was preparing the way for. You can imagine theres a little desperation in his question, especially as he now sits in prison.
Was this all for loss?
The things Jesus was doing were clearly not what most people anticipated the coming Messiah to engage in. For many, the Messiah would be a righteous and just King like David of the Old Testament. The Messiah would build an army and reclaim his throne in Jerusalem. For others the Messiah could have been more of a holy figure, one who like the Pharisees stressed right-religion, and kept all the purity codes.
Jesus easily failed to meet up to these and other expectations.
And so the question is what was it that John really expected? What was John looking for?
One NT writer speculates:
What was Jesus doing? Puzzling things from Johns viewpoint: preaching, healing and driving out demons. And what is his message of the kingdom? Beatitudes, parables of the gracious rule of God, prospects of feasting in the kingdom of God. Where was the thunder of judgment? Where was the rebuke of the wicked? Why this use of power over demons but not over evil men? Why did Jesus consort with them in their feasting? Why did he allow the prophet of Gods righteous wrath against sin to sit and rot in Herods jail without a word of protest? Could this possibly be the Messiah? (Beasley-Murray).
It seems John, given his own baptist-like message, wasnt a fan of Jesus free-attitude. If they had been in a preaching class together in seminary John probably would have commented on Jesus preaching style not being firey enough. Hey Jesus, You need to turn up the heat a little. Let me see you sweat! Here, want to borrow my hanky to wipe your forehead?!
John was looking for a messiah figure that would be more powerful, more judgemental, more well, traditionally messianic.
And when he looked at Jesus actions and heard his message he scratched his head and asked, what does it mean?”
You see this one thing, but it doesnt connect with reality. You begin wondering what is behind all this?
And so Jesus responds to John tenderly, like a good Sunday School teacher whose done her Godly Play trainings.
He says, Go and tell John what you hear and see. What is it that you have seen? What stands out to you here? What do you notice?
Subtly Jesus is actually doing a little Hebrew Bible study with John by quoting a mixture of prophecies from Isaiah 35 and 61.
See our expectations, what we are looking for in something, really shapes the way we approach that thing. For John, it was no different. When I was a kid I really really really wanted an Omnibot 2000. I had pictures of it in my room. One was stuck to my desk so I could look at it every day.
Everytime I heard the commercial on, Id dash to the living to watch it. I thought if I wanted it enough, and told my parents about it enough, I was sure to get exactly what I was looking for. I was sorely disappointed that Christmas. Maybe more that year than ever and it was because I had these expectations that my parents were unable to meet. I missed a lot of other good things that year (like the great generosity of my parents who had very little money) because I had worked myself up so much around this robot.
My expectations around the omnibot had a lot of power over how I experienced that Christmas.
I think this was true for John as well.
His question betrays his own expectations about the messiah and the fact that Jesus wasn’t meeting them.
What are our expectations around a thing, a person, a day, etc? How do they shape our experience of those things? And how might those expectations be changed and challenged in a way that Christ might be able to say to us “Go and tell so and so what you hear and see…” and we would be open to that?