When We Don’t Understand
Series: Encountering Jesus (in the Gospel of Luke)
Brad Bailey – April 28, 2019
Text: Luke 7:18-35 – Exchange with John the Baptist about clarifying what should have been expected
It’s so good to gather with you this morning. I appreciate the distinct places we may be at… some having formed gathering as a foundational part of a relationship with Christ…some in a process of what they believe.
No matter where we are at as we gather…I think each of us will find it helpful to consider this as we seek to know and live in relationship to God…”on whose terms” will we relate? In other words… are we unconsciously working out if God will serve or plans…or if we will join His?
As we continue in our extended series Encountering Jesus through the Gospel of Luke… we engage what may seem like a surprising point in the life which knew Jesus from the beginning…
John's disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, 19 he sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
Such a short and simple statement…but this question… reflects so much of what had been growing inside of John.
It’s a question that can reflect the conflict any of us could feel at some point when what we expect is not what we are experience.
To appreciate what this question represents for John…and for us… lets recall his position.
This John… is the one often referred to as “John the Baptist.”
Luke started his whole account of the life of Jesus with the account of John who was conceived miraculously to parents in the old age…and who was set apart from the womb to serve as the forerunner of Christ…the Messiah. And so it was that he became a prophet living in the wilderness of Judea…who came calling people to repent and turn to God again… in preparation for the Messiah who was at hand. He baptized people in the Jordan river…in a baptism…of repentance. And then as the time was right…he announced Jesus as the Messiah. He had said of Jesus many months before, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sins of the world.” — He is the one who is going to lay His righteous acts to the root of the wicked generation and fell that tree and restore righteousness in Israel and establish the kingdom of God and the servant of David was going to reign forever and ever….And thus began the ministry of Jesus.
So how could John… the very forerunner…the presenter…the insider… now seem so uncertain about whether Jesus was actually the Messiah after all?
It’s very likely that John became deeply confused by both what Jesus was doing…and what he wasn’t doing. John had come as the last of the prophets…one who was set apart…he accepted the Nazarite vow of living an austere life… drinking no alcohol… allowing him to stand in the position of an outsider when called on. No doubt life was hard…lonely… but he bore the message of repentance…to prepare for the grace God would bring.
So when Jesus the is set apart and begins declaring God’s reign was at hand… he is freely moving through the people…bearing grace… in social events and included in parties. The Savior of the world was not like any prophet before him.
And perhaps even more confusing…is what Jesus was not doing. He was not confronting the tyranny of Rome. Jesus was focused on the political freedom from Roman oppression. He was speaking about the powers of this world…and setting people free from spiritual oppression…but the kingdom he was revealing may have been hard for John to initially understand at this point.
John had stood up to the local Roman ruler… King Herod…who in turn has locked him away in prison. So John is locked away… by the local ruling tyrant — and a wicked one at that. Imagine how hard it would be to understand Jesus helping others and leaving John in a dark and miserable dungeon. After all he was the one who had prepared the way. He had been faithful in carrying out the ministry given to him, how could God allow him to remain in prison? [1a]
I think it was a hard question to ask. [1b]
It’s a question about everything that matters.
His whole life had been defined by serving this cause.
It was his identity.
He just couldn’t understand how his experience fit his expectation.
And this can lead to a type of doubt.
It’s important to recognize that there are …
Different types of doubt…
• Doubt which reflects difficulty in understanding
John has been faithful… and now he simply cannot understand…
• Doubt which reflects a defiance of will
This type of “doubt” is rooted in the heart… the will… it’s a desire not to “believe” because we do not want to submit to God. (Before we complete the text today…we will see Jesus conform this critical posture in the religious leader.)
So the truth we need to see in John… is that…
1. Sincere doubt that comes from our difficulty in understanding (rather than a defiance of will)… is neither unnatural nor unfaithful.
It’s helpful to understand that this type of doubt is a natural part of being finite creatures… living in relationship to an infinite God and infinite world.
We are finite…which simply means our nature is limited by time, space, and understanding.
So at one level…we should never expect to fully understand.
As the Scriptures attested, “We see through a glass dimly.”
What do we do with such limitations?
We live in a time in which the way we deal with doubt can be caught between two strong forces: parts of religious culture that are simply afraid of doubt and denounce all doubts as sin… and a broader culture that glorifies doubt as some sort of higher more honorable place to arrive.
I want to suggest that both are rooted in fear. One fears losing God… one fears finding God.
The good news is that God works much more dynamically with our human finiteness. Consider…
• the contentions of Job…
• the complaints and questions of the Psalmist…
• and even the cry of Jesus from the cross…in the limitations of the humanity he was bearing he cries out, “Father why have you forsaken me?’
None seem to prove fatal to their faith.
What seems to become clear is that…
The nature of doubt is defined by whether we are embracing it as a posture or a process… a refusal to relate to God or a part of relating.
• Job threw his questions at God… but he ultimately stayed in the conversation.
• The Psalms are filled with strong questions raised to God…but then confess their own limitations
• Even Jesus on the cross cries out Father, why have you forsaken me…but then commits his spirit to him.
Three ways we can relate to what we don’t understand…
• We avoid or simplify what we don’t understand… to fit what we do understand. (Out of fear… we might accept some simplistic ideas to try to explain the conflict. EX – building process)
• We use what we don’t understand to avoid what we do understand. (“God isn’t providing like he should… my own way must be acceptable.”)
• We trust what we don’t understand based on what we do understand.
John is an example of this. He still shows trust… in fact his position reflects that he understands that he is the one who may need to gain perspective.
And this reflects that…
Doubt can be a natural part of growth.
As Peter Enns expresses ,
Doubt is not a sign of weakness but a sign of growth.
Doubting God is painful and frightening because we think we are leaving God behind, but we are only leaving behind the idea of God we like to surround ourselves with—the small God, the God we control, the God who agrees with us.
Doubt forces us to look at who we think God is.
It is so very easy to slip into this idea that we have arrived—that we really think we’ve got all the answers and that we almost possess God.
We know what church he goes to, what Bible translation he reads, we know how he votes, we know what movies he watches and books he reads. We know the kinds of people he approves of.
And then we seem to experience something that doesn’t ft those expectations.
At the root of doubt, we will generally find expectations…. or more accurately…unmet expectations.
There is something that does not fit what we expect. God is allowing…or doing thing that does not fit our understanding…or not doing something that we expect he should.
This is precisely what we hear John is faced with.
He has certain expectations which Jesus does not seem to fit. [2b]
It’s helpful to see how John was fulfilling God’s call…he was faithful… but even he had certain presumptions that were off.
Expectations are like a compass … that sets our direction… if it is off… we will be looking in the wrong direction.
John was shaped by the increasing idea that Israel’s national oppression was the center of what God would set right…and therefore the Messiah would confront the rule of the Roman empire. We can understand that when God’s people are now being ruled by a pagan empire… it was natural they would begin to see the Hollywood superhero movie version justice. It’s Avenger’s time. It reflects human nature… one human force destroys another.
John could see no evidence that Jesus was using His miraculous power to strike a blow for freedom. John did not expect the Messiah simply to go around teaching people to love!
If we reflect on the type of expectations that can be difficult for us… we can identify how they can raise doubts of understanding for us.
Do you expect Christians around you to be better people? It may not be so simple
And what about our expectation for fairness? We know that God is just…so we may naturally expect bad people won’t get earthly rewards and if you’re a good person, bad things won’t happen to you…life won’t be so hard?
Beneath the confusion…the doubt…lies an expectation.
So what does John do?
He brings his expectations to Jesus.
That is the essence of his question.
Should I expect another. Did I misunderstand? Have I got it wrong in some way?
SO here is another valuable truth…
2. Sincere doubt can lead to a deeper faith when we identify and evaluate our unmet expectations.
This can be a vital part of moving forward in life.
It has been said: “Unmet expectations are the source of all unhappiness.”
We should be willing to re-evaluate our expectations…our understanding.
As Os Guinness says …
"The person who has the courage to go back when necessary is the one who goes on in the end."
Going back and reexamining faith guards against coasting through life on the basis of a faith that, though once vital, has grown inauthentic due to it being taken for granted.
Don’t rely on what you think you know the Bible says about it – it’s possible you have a misunderstanding that is the source of the problem. Sit down and really study what the Bible says about it.
….How does Jesus respond?
When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'" 21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 23 Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
Jesus takes from what is actually at work…and refers back to the very prophecies that had described this.
Jesus points to his deeds and to the scriptures that speak of those deeds. The words that Jesus speaks allude to very words of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus knows that John knew the Scriptures well…and that referring to the words Isaiah the prophet…John would begin to recall that those section spoke about the coming Messiah…and that indeed this IS what he should have expected. 
Jesus helps John re-align his expectations.
…But then listen to what he goes on to say about John…
After John's messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written: "'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' 28 I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
What does He do in verses 24 to 28? He begins to brag on John.
He turns to the crowd and says, “What exactly was it that you were going out to see in the wilderness - something flimsy like a reed shaken in the wind? Oh no, that's not John. John was a man who showed the strength of character to stand form…unbending…unchanging.
Were you looking for one wearing pampered clothing? No… of course not…you were looking for one who denied such comforts for the sake of serving God’s truth…and John was just that.
He is not only truly a prophet… He is the greatest prophet that ever lived. He is the One that Isaiah and Malachi and Moses and all the other prophets said would prepare the way for the visitation of the Lord God Himself to Israel.
This should strike our hearts.
Jesus knows that John is feeling that everything he had given his life to serve…and serve faithfully… is lost. And he probably feels that even raising this question to Jesus negates his own faithfulness.
And Jesus is publicly declaring John’s greatness. This man clearly is God's man and what Jesus has said about him is right. 
John’s moment of doubt did not negate his years of ministry.
This is a truth that we may find speaks to us….
3. Sincere doubt does not negate one’s integrity of heart and character.
…But finally we see a different posture …which Jesus calls out.
(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)
And Luke tells us the reaction of the crowd to it. They cheer what Jesus says about John because they respect John. They had acknowledged this call to repentance… and were glad to hear Jesus affirm the one raised that calling.
And why were the religious leaders so unhappy?
The text actually explains…
“But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.”
Being baptized by John wasn’t about the ritual…it was about repentance… a willingness to identify with the unfaithfulness shared with others. They hadn't repented. They hadn't seen that they were the problem; they hadn't seen that it was their sin that needed to be judged.
And that is what the Pharisees and religious leaders were not willing to do.
And Jesus now speaks further to what kind of posture they reflect.
"To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: "'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.' 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."' 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children."
And having set that straight…Jesus calls out the religious leaders.
He describes their posture.
The essence of what he is saying is that they have a very different dynamic… a doubt that is essentially a defiance of the will…they just don’t like how God is working around them.
He says they’re like children who are upset because others won’t dance to the music they play …upset that others won’t dance to the flute or weep to a song of mourning. The religious leaders refused to receive John the Baptist for his call to repentance…and they refuse Jesus with his offer of grace.
(Whether they play a light tune on flute or a funeral dirge these men are not satisfied. They did not like the severe style of John, saying that he was demon possessed. Yet when Jesus came on the scene in an open effort to reach sinners they said he was a glutton and they did not like the people he hung out with.)
God does not have to work by our expectations.
This brings home a final truth which can serve us…
4. Sincere doubt will guard ourselves from the pride that presumes God should do things the way we think he should.
It’s not always easy to know if we are just struggling with understanding … or with defiance of will.
Pride is not something we may be quick to accept.
But one question which may serve us well…is this…
“Do I WANT this to be true?”... or “Why might I not WANT this to be true?
That can help us to consider what is not simply a matter of understanding…but of heart.
The challenge to these religious leaders reflects what the call of what true faith involves.
They had formed a world they could be in control of… it provided at least a form of security…of significance. It was all very proper… even if ultimately just a façade of their true selves.
But God was not bound by their boundaries. He was working through lives that didn’t stay within their script.
Therein lies the choice we will each have to face.
In 1975, the Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh, went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer to some spiritual struggles. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.
He answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”
When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” Mother Teresa laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
Clarity itself is great…but when we cling to it for control… we can never truly know God as God.
Today…some of us need to face the difference between wanting to understand…and clinging to our understanding as a vain demand. Some of us may need to let go of a vain security that we find in understanding… some a vain presumption that the ways of God are bound within our understanding.
Resources for further processing our experience with doubt:
Some Recommended Books now available in the Westside Vineyard Book Nook:
Doubting Toward Faith: The Journey to Confident Christianity” by Pastor Bobby Conway
God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt by Os Guinness (1996)
When Faith Fails: Finding God in the Shadow of Doubt by Dominic Done
More expansive perspective on doubt from previous messages:
Dealing with Doubt - Brad Bailey – May 8, 2011 (Series: A Journey with Jesus through the Gospel of John)
When We Hit the Wall Brad Bailey, February 12, 2012 (Series: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality)
Resources for sermon: In shaping general approach towards this section of Luke, I drew some parallel points of focus from John Hamby “When Life Is Just Not Fair.” And valued thoughts from Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III (“Are You Sure About Jesus?”)
1a. Regarding WHY John may have become uncertain, the following are various commentaries…
“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
This was a surprising question coming from John the Baptist.
It’s unclear exactly when John first consciously knew that Jesus was the Son of God, whose way he had come to prepare. The Apostle John quotes him as saying, “I myself did not know him” (John 1:31) around the time he baptized Jesus.
This is remarkable because John’s mother, Elizabeth, had known. She knew because John announced it to her in utero by leaping when she heard Mary’s voice. Was she not allowed to tell him? We don’t know. Regardless, John had known even before he knew.
What is clear is that when the revelation came it was an overwhelming experience for John. That day, when Jesus approached him at the Jordan near Bethany, John couldn’t contain the shout: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” With awe and trembling hands he had baptized his Lord. And then saw the Spirit descend and remain on him.
That day had also marked the beginning of the end of his ministry. From that point he had joyfully directed people away from himself to follow Jesus. And they had.
Now he sat in Antipas’ filthy prison. He had expected this. Prophets who rebuke sinful kings usually do not fare well. Unfortunately, he had not been an exception. Herodias wanted him dead. John could see no reason why she would be denied her wish.
What he hadn’t expected was to be tormented by such oppressive doubts and fears. Since the Jordan, John had not doubted that Jesus was the Christ. But stuck alone in this putrid cell he was assaulted by horrible, accusing thoughts.
What if he had been wrong? There had been many false prophets in Israel. What made him so sure that he wasn’t one? What if he had led thousands astray?
There had been false messiahs. What if Jesus was just another? So far Jesus’ ministry wasn’t exactly what John had always imagined the Messiah’s would look like. Could this imprisonment be God’s judgment?
It felt as if God had left him and the devil himself had taken his place. He tried to recall all the prophecies and signs that had seemed so clear to him before. But it was difficult to think straight. Comfort just wouldn’t stick to his soul. Doubts buzzed around his brain like the flies around his face.
The thought of being executed for the sake of righteousness and justice he could bear. But he could not bear the thought that he might have been wrong about Jesus. His one task was to prepare the way of the Lord. If he had gotten that wrong, his ministry, his life, was in vain.
But even with his doubts, there remained in John a deep, unshakable trust in Jesus. Jesus would tell him the truth. He just needed to hear from him again.
Got Questions responds…
There are two key points to remember. First, John the Baptist had been thrown in prison by Herod (Matthew 11:2; Luke 3:20). John had perhaps been in prison for over a year when he asked his question. He likely knew that he would eventually be executed, which he was shortly after he sent the message to Jesus (Matthew 14:1–12). Second, Jesus was not being received as the Messiah by the majority of Israelites. Jesus was being strongly rejected by the leaders of Israel: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin. Amid these circumstances, it is understandable that John the Baptist would have some doubts.DAVE ARMSTRONG notes:
It’s called depression; it’s called despair, or sometimes, the “dark night of the soul.” It may have been only momentary or short-lived, for all we know, and it could have been caused by food and/or sleep deprivation in prison. It shows that John — though a prophet and great biblical figure — was a human being like the rest of us, with the whole range of emotions. In any event, most of us mere mortals have experienced it (even Bob, I would venture to guess). I had a horrific, six-month experience of despairing clinical depression in 1977, at age 18. Blessedly, it has never returned since. But I know of it firsthand. And I was in a nice suburban home, not a horrible prison, like John was.
It may also have had to do (partially or wholly) with the dual Jewish notions of the Messiah: the Suffering Servant and the Triumphant King. John (like many Jews then, and Jews to this day) may have been expecting the latter. We Christians expect the latter, too, and call it the Second Coming.
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers states, regarding Matthew 11:3:
The sickness of deferred hope turns the full assurance of faith into something like despair. So of old Jeremiah had complained, in the bitterness of his spirit, that Jehovah had deceived him (Jeremiah 20:7). So now the Baptist, as week after week passed without the appearance of the kingdom as he expected it to appear, felt as if the King was deserting the forerunner and herald of His kingdom. The very wonders of which he heard made the feeling more grievous, for they seemed to give proof of the power, and to leave him to the conclusion that the will was wanting.
Expositor’s Greek Testament takes the second view:
The effect of confinement on John’s prophetic temper, the general tenor of this chapter which obviously aims at exhibiting the moral isolation of Jesus, above all the wide difference between the two men, . . . Jesus, it had now become evident, was a very different sort of Messiah from what the Baptist had predicted and desiderated (vide remarks on chap. Matthew 3:11-15). Where were the axe and fan and the holy wind and fire of judgment? Too much patience, tolerance, gentleness, sympathy, geniality, mild wisdom in this Christ for his taste.
Jesus gives the reason for the question John asked--the fickle nation had rejected John and Jesus (16-19). Had the nation received the message of John and the message of Jesus, John might not have been imprisoned at all. But the rejection brought all kinds of questions about the plan of God.
1b. Os Guinness writes, “Underneath everything lies dependency and trust. From a baby and it’ mother, to friendships of children, to neighbors in community, to agreement among nations, life depends on trust Counting on people is trust. Enjoying people is trust. Trust is the shared silence, the exchanged look, the expressing touch. Crying for help is trust; shaking hands is trust; a kiss is trust. The highest reaches of love and life depend on trust. Are there ant questions more important to each of us than, Whom do I trust? How can I be sure?
We can devise a thousand strategies – such as law – to help us flee from trust. We can summon up scores of reasons – such as suspicion – to protect us from vulnerability to trust.
God is no only a person, he is the supreme person on whom all personhood depends, not to speak of life itself and our entire existence. That is why to know him is to trust him , and to trust him is to begin to know ourselves. It is why doubting God is so devastating… when trust and dependence turn int doubt it is as if the sun is eclipsed, the compass needle waivers without a north, and the very earth that was so solid moves as in an earthquake.” (From God in the Dark by Os Guinness, pp 11-12)
2. Why It’s Good to Doubt God - Pete Enns https://peteenns.com/why-its-good-to-doubt-god/
2b. “John did not mind being number two in the kingdom. He had said, “One mightier than I is coming whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.” But John must have been concerned that Jesus did not conform to his concept of the Messiah.
First of all, he had a hard time believing that someone committed to serving God could be so joyful. Second, he expected the Messiah to deal harshly with all the evildoers. Certainly John had. He had spoken out against the king and called the Pharisees a generation of vipers. That was the game plan, according to John, and I’m sure he believed that the one coming after him would drive the Romans out of the land, convert all the hypocritical Pharisees, shake the foundations, and clean the place up.
Instead, Jesus came celebrating life. He went to parties, He enjoyed people, He drank wine. Beyond that, He taught that we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. No wonder John thought he might have baptized the wrong person.” - Larson, B., & Ogilvie, L. J. (1983). Luke (Vol. 26, p. 135). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc
3. From God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt by Os Guinness
4. He starts quoting Isaiah 35:5 and Isaiah 61:1. Jesus knew even in quoting that little section from Isaiah 35:5, that John was going to start thinking about Isaiah 35:4-10, that whole passage. And you know what it's about? It's about what the Messiah is going to be like when He comes. And He quotes Isaiah 61:1, and He knows that John is going to think of not just Isaiah 61:1, but Isaiah 61:1-3 and maybe more. And you know what that passage is about? It's about what the Messiah is going to be like when He comes. And guess what? Those two passages say that when the Messiah comes, He's going to do all the things Jesus just did in front of John's disciples. – Adapted from Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III (“Are You Sure About Jesus?”)
5. What they found was a prophet who was willing to give the stern message of repentance to a people who had lost their way. John the Baptist was the bridge from the Old Testament age to the New Testament age. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets and John had the privilege of being the messenger charged with introducing the Messiah to Israel. At the time of his birth, John was the greatest man yet born. Yet John’s greatness is nothing compared to those who are able to enjoy the blessing of living in the age of grace. Jesus did not mean that the average believer today is greater than John the Baptist in power and character. He meant that those living in the new age of grace have greater advantages than John possessed.
As for his plight, John spoke the hard truth to Herod, one of the four rulers over Palestine. When Herod had taken Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, to become his own, John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”(Matthew 14:4). It had bothered Herod so much that he had John imprisoned, he wanted to kill him but was afraid of the people because so many considered him to be a great prophet. But on his birthday celebration, in response to a promise he had given to the daughter of Herodias, John’s life was tragically ended. “Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist’” (Matthew 14:8)