What do you do when you try to help, and those you are helping are not sure they want that help?
What do you say when someone has a need, you propose an answer to that need, but they don’t believe that what you want to give will really do any good? How do you help people who are not sure they value the kind of help you can give?
Someone calls to see me and says he is three months’ behind on his rent and is about to be evicted. Can the church help? Well, yes, the church can help. We can advance him a little money … not three months’ rent, but a little; and we can offer him some job leads and access to a telephone; and we can offer him someone to help him study his finances and work out a budget; and we can offer a listening ear; and, most of all, we can offer prayer and can lead him to the one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills! There’s quite a lot we can do.
But that isn’t what he wants to hear. The money we have to give is small and won’t cover the need. Most of the time they say, if you can’t help me the way I want to be helped, then it isn’t help at all. It isn’t real.
It’s easier to sell freezers to Eskimos than it is to sell people help they don’t think is real. It isn’t that what Christians have to give isn’t any good; it is that it is not thought to be good enough. People want concrete, immediate help, and we can’t always give that. So they do not value what we do have to give. It doesn’t seem real.
Several months ago I was standing by the hospital bed of one of our members, since deceased. I was talking with two of her relatives. In came a nurse, who brushed past us all without a word, intent on doing whatever she had to do. One of the other visitors, however, was not content for this nurse to ignore us. She introduced herself and then her cousin to the nurse, and then gestured in my direction and said, "And this is Dr. Smith." At that the nurse snapped to attention, looked straight past the cousins and stared at me, and said, "Oh!" "Oh" as in "I didn’t know you were anybody! "Oh", as in, if you are a doctor, I need to pay attention to you! "Oh!” For about ten seconds I felt like somebody! But then the other cousin punctured my balloon; the other cousin said, "Yes, but he’s not the kind of doctor who can do you any good!" Ouch! That hurt!
Those we are trying to help do not always think we can do them any good. In the crunch they are not so sure that what we have to offer is worth very much. How do we deal with our credibility being doubted when we seek to help? How do we handle it when they are not so sure we can do anything for them?
You would never have expected John to doubt what Jesus was doing. After all, they had grown up in the same extended family, as cousins. Jesus was not exactly an unknown quantity. There by the banks of the Jordan, only a short while before, John had baptized Jesus and had witnessed the Spirit descending as a dove to authenticate Him as the Christ. John had every reason to believe in Jesus and to believe in what He was doing.
But the moment came when this extraordinary man, John known as the Baptist, let loose anxieties and sent messengers to express some doubt.
The story comes after Jesus had done a series of healings. Great and unusual things were happening for people because of Jesus. People were being helped in ways they never expected to be helped. The story also comes at a time when John is in prison; he had gotten a little too pointed about King Herod and his love life, and so was cooling his heels as a guest of the taxpayers. And so John wonders:
Jesus was helping people. But John wasn’t so sure the help was real. How did Jesus deal with the credibility problem?
First, notice that Jesus just accepted John’s doubt. He accepted the doubt. He did not criticize John, He did not try to argue the case, He did not attempt to pull the props out from under John’s concern. Jesus simply accepted John’s doubts, as they were.
Where did John’s doubt come from? Lots of places, I’m sure. One possibility seems strong: that John’s doubt came from all the disappointments and disillusionments the Jewish people had suffered in past times. Jesus was by no means the first person to come down the pike proclaiming himself as God’s gift to the human race! There had been plenty of rogues and charlatans, ambitious and crazy men, trying to get a following. How could John be sure that this was any different? Jesus could have been another one of these crippling disappointments. John has heard what Jesus is doing; but is it real? Is it real?
Jesus accepted John’s doubt. Jesus gave John room for his feelings to be his feelings. Sometimes, you know, we look at another person’s life, and we say, "I don’t see where he or she is coming from. Doesn’t make any sense to me." But the fact is that they feel the way they feel; right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s just the way they feel. And Jesus accepted John’s doubt without argument, without getting upset, without becoming defensive. John wanted to know, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" To this Jesus replied with no accusations, no defensiveness, just acceptance. He accepted John’s doubt.
Today you and I have to learn to accept the skepticism of the world around us. You and I, if we are going to help people at all, must know that most of the world thinks we Christians are at best well-intentioned amateurs and at worst selfish deceivers. The church doesn’t have a very good reputation. And with good reason. With good reason.
Let us admit that some Christians have made wild and extravagant claims. Let us confess that some people who bear the name of Christ have promised too much, and are not credible. Let us agree that some churches are rip-offs, some preachers are incompetents, and some Christians do not live in the real world. We have misled people. We have said, "Just walk down this aisle, and all your problems will melt away." Some have pretended, "If you’ll just tithe, you’ll get everything you want." We promise too much! Let us admit to all of that, and understand why people doubt whether we can help them. If we are going to help somebody, we must recognize that very often we start with their only half believing we can do them any good at all. We’re just not seen as real.
But, you see, doubt is the mask for faith. Doubt carries in it the seeds of faith. John, in expressing his doubt, is also expressing at least a little faith. Look. He does not say to Jesus, "You are not the one who is to come". He asks, "Are you the one …?" He does not flatly deny Jesus; he just wonders. And that suggests at least a little faith. When they ask us for help, they may not be so sure of the help we can give, but they do still hope we can help a little. The world still believes in Christians at least a little bit. Novelist John Updike says of one his characters, "He hated their Sunday School mustiness, their prayers, creaky hymns; he hated everything about them except the promises they made." So we do not crush that litt1e faith in the promises we make; we accept it and go from there.
If you’re trying to help somebody, accept their doubts as at least the beginning of faith.
Incidentally, I do think we had better be very sure to deliver on the kind of help we promise. If you agree to go counsel someone, then do it. Do it right away. If you say you are going to pray for someone, then set aside every distraction and pray for them. It is blasphemy to promise to pray and then forget all about it! If you want to help, watch your own credibility!
Jesus accepted John’s doubt. John’s feelings were John’s feelings. Just a part of what Jesus had to work with. If you want to help, accept the folks who need your help, doubts and all.
Now once Jesus accepted John’s doubt, notice that His response was one which affirmed John’s dignity. Jesus knew that you do not help people by putting them down, making them feel small; so Jesus replied to John and all his anxieties in a way which preserved John’s dignity.
"Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered … ’Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.’"
Go and tell. Go and tell what you have seen and heard. He does not say, go and tell John what a great guy I am. He does not say, go and tell John to get off my case. He does not say, go and tell John he’d better believe or else plan to taste the fires of hell. He simply says, go and tell what you have seen and heard.
You see, Jesus operated out of personal security. Jesus did not make His own feelings the issue. He just pointed to God’s power.
Jesus did not defend His ideas, His theories, or His own ego. He simply pointed to changed lives.
Many of us, however, when we are challenged, jump to protect ourselves. When we are questioned, what are we tempted to do? We are tempted to put people down, to accuse them of faithlessness; we want to argue with them. We make ourselves the issue. And so what have we done? We have stripped those who challenge us of their dignity.
You see, it’s difficult to help others without letting our own egos get into the equation. We need to win. We need to feel successful. We should be pointing to the power of Christ; but instead we get worried about our own reputations, and end up stripping others of their dignity.
Let me try to illustrate how we mess up when our own egos get hooked. Obviously I think preaching is a helping activity. I wouldn’t spend so much time and effort and energy on it if I didn’t think so. Probably twenty to twenty-five percent of my time goes into planning and preparing to preach. That tells you I believe preaching is a worthy, helpful thing to do.
But my constant spiritual struggle is to keep my own ego out of the preaching moment. My incessant battle is with my own need to be thought successful. If a few folks at the door, after the service, can manage to say, "I enjoyed the message", I’m all right. But let there be one, just one " critical word; let there be one, just one, disagreement. Worst of all, let there be one, just one, harsh word coming in over the transom. Do you know what I mean by "coming in over the transom?" Words that come through somebody else; words delivered by somebody who says, "I’m not supposed to tell you this, but so-and-so feels that what you did last Sunday was awful." Let that happen, and I am a basket case, I get defensive, and, worst, I feel negative things about the folks who express negative opinions. I feel negative things not about the opinions, but the people who have them.
Now listen to that issue. The problem is not the negative opinion. The problem is not those who have the opinions. The problem is my spirit. The issue is not discordant views. The issue is how I view those who disagree! If I am not spiritually secure, then I am defensive, and I will strip away the dignity of others. If I am not hearing the good news myself, then I will not communicate good news to others. If my own ego is involved, and I have not let Christ change my life, then I will only communicate put-downs and judgment to others.
But if we can point to Christ; if we can witness to what He has done in our lives and in the lives of others; if we can keep our own need to succeed out of the picture, then those who need help are not put down. They are not dehumanized and disrespected. They keep their dignity.
Jesus let John keep his dignity. Jesus called him no names, made no accusations, nothing. Jesus simply pointed to what had been done and asked John’s messengers to witness to what they had experienced, first-hand. John kept his dignity.
So review with me. Doubt. Jesus accepted doubt. When John doubted whether Jesus was authentic, Jesus recognized that he had to let John feel whatever John felt. Jesus accepted doubt.
And dignity. Jesus affirmed dignity. It was not necessary for Jesus to feel successful that he put John down. He simply and quietly pointed to what God was doing and let John draw his own conclusions. Jesus affirmed the dignity of the doubter.
Which leads us to Jesus’ great invitation to everyone. Whoever it is, His invitation is always the same. It is to discover grace and forgiveness, to discover power and healing, through Himself. Whoever it is, whoever you are, He spreads wide the invitation to discovery. "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
The good news of the Christian faith is either the most stupendous miracle the world has ever witnessed, or it is the most awful fable ever perpetrated on superstitious minds.
Either the good news is the best news ever heard, that there really is help in the things that may not look like help, things like prayer and faith and trust ... either it is the best news ever heard, or else it is the most cruel hoax ever pushed on to humanity.
How to know the difference? How to find out whether your life can be helped by Christ? This He invites you to discover for yourself. This he invites you to find out, personally. "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." Happy is anyone who trusts Him completely and discovers His help.
Oh, friends, I know there are hurting people here this morning. I well know that there are in this congregation some of us just like those surrounding Jesus. Somebody is here who can’t see; oh, your eyes work, but you can’t see where your life is going. Somebody is here who can’t walk; it’s not your legs, it’s your will, and you wander into habits that leave you staggering. Somebody is here who is a leper; it’s not a skin disease. It’s a feeling of low self-esteem, it’s a feeling of being nobody. Somebody is here who just needs to hear some good news for a change. And you just don’t know whether it will ever come. You doubt it. You’re here and you hope so, but you don’t know if it’s real.
I want you to know that we hear your doubts, and we accept them. I want you to know that it’s all right to voice doubts and fears and anxieties. We just point you to the Christ we know. Some of us have been where you are. We have sat where you sit. We have walked in your moccasins. Some of us have been the blind and the lame and the leprous. But into our lives came one who made a difference, and we invite you to discover Him. We invite you to the greatest and most fantastic voyage of discovery the human spirit has known. We invite you to discover Jesus the Christ.
Here is what we have seen and heard. With the patriarch Job we cry, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes sees thee." Come and see and hear, discover for yourself.
With the songwriter we sing, "Shackled by a heavy burden, ’Neath a loan of guilt and shame, Then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same." Come and see, discover for yourself. "He touched me, 0 He touched me, And 0 the joy that floods my soul; Something happened, and now I know, He touched me and made me whole."
Come and see, discover.
Come and see, discover. For we are here to go and tell what we have seen and heard. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed … blessed ... blessed is anyone who take no offense at Christ."
"And it’s real, it’s real, O I know it’s real. Praise God, the doubts are settled, for I know, I know it’s real."