Summary: Now when John in prison heard about the activities of Christ, he sent a message by his disciples and asked him, "Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for someone else?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and observe: the blind see,
We’re in Matthew Chapter 11 this morning - a scene taken from the final days of the life of John the Baptist, and a bizarre scene it is!
John has been sent to prison, though he probably did not realise at this stage that he was not going to be released - indeed, that he was about to be put to death (possibly within a few days of the conversation here recorded) and have his head served on a platter as a gift to the step-daughter of the king.
This is, as I say, a bizarre story to have laid before us in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s not very ’Christmassy’, is it? The Baptist is in prison, and he is depressed. He is apparently having doubts about Jesus, about His ministry, and about whether he got the whole Messiah-thing right in the first place. It’s a funny scene to be contemplating this close to Christmas!
I remember years ago hearing an African-American preacher preaching on this passage, and he started by saying, "The Baptist is having doubts, and if the Baptist is having doubts, we’ve all got a problem." His reasoning was that if the Baptist is having doubts - if he’s not sure if he’s got Jesus right or not - who are we to think that we’ve got him right? If a great man of God like John the Baptist can’t work it out, what hope have we got?
Perhaps John was clinically depressed? That’s certainly plausible. I suspect that many of the great prophets and preachers and leaders that we read about in the Scriptures would be classified as suffering from bi-polar disorder by today’s diagnostic standards. And it makes sense to me to see in John a man who struggled at times with his sense of God’s calling upon his life, and who often wrestled with what it was that God wanted him to do. And we know full well that when he’d started in ministry, he sensed that he was laying the groundwork for some greater work of God that was going to eclipse his own efforts, but that he really had no idea at that stage exactly who or what it was that God had planned.
And yet he had come to the realisation that it was his own cousin, Jesus bar Joseph, who was the one he had been preparing the way for. And we don’t know if this realisation came to him slowly over time or whether it just struck him one day like a lightening bolt out of the blue, but what we do know is that well prior to his arrest he had quite explicitly recognised Jesus as being the fulfilment of his own ministry. But now ... he wasn’t so sure.
Was it just that things weren’t progressing as quickly as John had expected? Was it the arrest itself that had thrown him? Had he not expected that? Was it Jesus , not quite living up to the fiery character that John had envisaged: winnowing fork in hand, clearing his threshing floor, baptising with fire! Or was it just the normal effects of imprisonment taking their toll on John’s psyche (as my friend Morde Vanunu said, after eleven and half years in solitary, "prison is not a place to make a man more religious").
We don’t know for sure why John was depressed or why he was having doubts, but we do know what he did about it. He took his concerns to Jesus, and he got a response he probably didn’t expect: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them."