Summary: This is about John the Baptist and his doubts about who Jesus was. This sermon gives permission to doubt as long as the believer goes to look for answers.
Luke 7:18-23 – Room for Doubt and Room for Growth
Today we are looking at a story not mentioned very much in sermons. The problem with the story is that it paints a hero of the faith with a quality that we aren’t comfortable with him having. The hero is John the Baptist, and that quality is doubt. Let’s read Luke 7:18-23.
Now, I can see why this has not been an often-preached message. Christians are generally uncomfortable with doubt. We are so obsessed with labels: Are you in, or are you out? Are you saved? Is that person over there saved? Well, if they do this, they must not be saved. So when doubts arise, we’re afraid of being labelled by other Christians as backslidden or carnal or just plain “out”. We often don’t want people to know that we are having doubts because we don’t want them to worry about our salvation. We don’t want them to think we are giving up on God, just because we have unanswered questions.
And we hear things like this quote from J.F. Clarke: “All the strength and force of man comes from his faith in things unseen; He who believes is strong; he who doubts is weak. Strong convictions precede great actions.” Did you catch that: “He who doubts is weak”? Well, who wants to be weak? Who wants to be known by other Christians as the weak one? So, what happens is that we hide or bury or deny our doubts. We pretend like everything is simple, like everything has an easy answer, and we know what that answer is.
But if having doubts makes someone weak, then I guess there’s not much room for most of us. John the Baptist, of all people, had doubts. Jesus said this about John: “No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer.” John the Baptist, miraculous birth, set apart by God, following in the spirit of an OT prophet, divine messenger to the Messiah, John the Baptist, had doubts.
He was in prison at the time of this story. He was there because he had told the king, Herod, that he should not have had his brother’s wife. Herod himself did not care to put John in prison, but Herodias, Herod’s wife, had John put in prison. John eventually lost his life, with his head being presented to Herodias on a platter at a dinner party. That was the end of a good life.
But at this point, John is only in prison. And he sends his followers to ask Jesus the question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” That is, are you the Messiah, or is someone else going to come? Are you the one we should be looking for, or should we be looking for someone else?
So what happened? The one asking if Jesus was the Messiah is the same one who had said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, `A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” He was convinced that Jesus was the Savior, but now he’s not so sure.
I think that if you were to point to one reason why John has grown some doubts, I think it would be “expectations.” V20 asks: “Should we expect someone else?” That is, what Jesus turned out to be wasn’t exactly what they were expecting. That’s not a bad thing, but it certainly matters. But the rest of the passage, all the way to v35, people over and over had the wrong expectations.
In v24 Jesus asks the people about John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the desert to see?” He asks them, “What did you expect? Did you expect a wishy-washy guy with no convictions? Did you expect a rich guy, one who looks as if he has everything he needs? Did you expect a prophet, an in-your-face individual? What did you expect of John the Baptist?” Again, expectations of what someone thinks someone else should be.
The passage goes on to see Jesus asking the question: “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?” Jesus goes on to quote a common saying at the time: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.” The NLT puts it this way: “We played wedding songs, and you weren’t happy, so we played funeral songs, but you weren’t sad.” In other words, no matter what we do, you’re not happy. Nothing we do for you makes you happy.
That makes sense when Jesus describes people’s attitudes towards Himself and towards John the Baptist. The NLT puts it this way: “For John the Baptist didn’t drink wine and he often fasted, and you say, ‘He’s demon possessed.’ And I, the Son of Man, feast and drink, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of the worst sort of sinners!’”