A Question for Jesus
December 19, 2004
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If you could have any gift you wanted for Christmas, what would you ask for? That’s not an easy question to answer if you start to think about it. Some of us would ask for things.
A new car.
A new house.
A nice blouse.
A train set.
A new bike.
A new computer.
Some of us would ask for health. Perhaps you’ve been struggling all year with various physical ailments, and all you want for Christmas is to feel better. Perhaps a loved one is suffering from a serious illness, and your Christmas wish would be for them to get better.
Or you might ask for better relationships. Christmas has a way of bringing all the relational fractures out into the open. Perhaps you’re estranged from friends or family members. Maybe you’ve said or done things you regret, and you’d like to heal the breach if possible.
Some of us would like to have our questions answered. I know lots of people whose deepest desire is to have the answer to one simple question: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” Many people seek guidance and would be perfectly happy this Christmas if the Lord would answer that question for them. Or your questions might be more basic: “Lord, why did this happen? Why me? Why now? Why this?”
John the Baptist had a question that goes right to the heart of Christmas. Matthew 11:1-6 sets the scene:
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
While he was in prison, John sent his disciples to Jesus with a penetrating question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Amazing as it may seem, John the Baptist had his doubts. The older commentators struggled mightily with this text because they could not reconcile John’s doubts with his previous confession of faith. After all, he was one who called Jesus “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And when he baptized Jesus, he saw the dove (signifying the Holy Spirit) descending from heaven to rest on Jesus, and he heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). How could a man who knew so much somehow begin to doubt the truth? There are two reasons:
How Could He Doubt?
First, consider his circumstances. John is in prison, put there by a King Herod, a wicked, corrupt, licentious man. Although John does not know it, soon he will be beheaded. Certainly he had no hope of ever being released. Prison does strange things to people. If you talk to men who have been in prison, they call it the worst place in the world. It sucks the life and hope out of even the best of men. Though he was a good and strong man, John was not immune to bouts of discouragement and depression.
Second, consider his outlook. John had burst on the scene like a meteor streaking across the sky. Out of nowhere (or so it seemed) he had galvanized the nation with his strange apparel, his ascetic appearance, and his call for radical repentance. He preached that the corrupt rulers of the nation must get right with God. He spoke of laying the axe at the root of the tree and of a baptism of fire. John believed that the Messiah, whose coming he announced, would turn the world upside down. But that’s not what happened when Jesus began his ministry. And so John grew impatient. He expected the Messiah to publicly challenge the corrupt leadership in Jerusalem and ultimately break the Roman hold on Israel. Neither of those two things seemed to be happening, or at least they weren’t happening fast enough to suit John. So in prison, suffering in gloomy, hopeless circumstances, he begins to wonder, “Was I wrong about Jesus? What if he’s not the one we were expecting?”
His question has a very modern ring to it. Change it slightly and it looks like this:
If Christ has really been born, why is the world so messed up?
Why aren’t things better by now?
He came to save the world. Why is the world largely unsaved?
Two thousand years have come and gone. Why aren’t things better?
Last night I checked Google News to read the latest headlines. This was first on the list: Baby found alive after being cut from womb; mother left to die. What sort of world do we live in where a woman can strangle a pregnant mother, rip open her uterus, and take her unborn baby? The crime is hideous beyond belief. What does it say about humanity? Why do these things happen?
John’s question is honest. He’s basically saying, “Things haven’t worked as I expected. So maybe I was wrong.” He is struggling with one of the oldest philosophical questions—the problem of evil. Why is there evil in the world? Why does God allow it? Why are there suicide bombers who blow up mess halls in Iraq? If God truly has the power, why doesn’t he stop it? If he doesn’t have the power, how can he be God? Recently Anthony Flew made headlines by proclaiming that he is no longer an atheist. After decades of being recognized as the world’s leading philosophical atheist, the 81-year-old Flew now calls himself a deist. He doesn’t believe in a personal God, but he does believe in what we might call an “Intelligent Designer.” He changed because he concluded that time and chance could not have produced the universe as we know it. Why doesn’t he take a further step and believe in the personal God of the Bible? In an interview with Gary Habermas, he cited the problem of evil as the chief stumbling block. In that he certainly has good company. Evil is a problem for all of us because evil is not only loose in the world, evil often seems to rule the world. Where is God in the midst of so much pain, sickness, sin and suffering? It’s a fair question, and one that the most devout believers wonder about. And that’s what is happening in John’s heart. Though he knows intellectually who Jesus is, the realities of his situation and his own misplaced expectations have caused him to doubt what he otherwise knows to be true.
Doubt Isn’t a Sin
With that as background, consider these three facts about doubt:
1) All of us doubt sooner or later.
2) Doubt by itself is not a sin.
3) Doubt is less often caused by intellectual issues, and more often fueled by disappoint-ment caused by wrong expectations.
One writer called doubts the “ants in the pants of faith.” Doubt can be a stimulus to great spiritual growth. And if you never doubt at all (which I tend to think is highly unlikely), how will your faith ever be put to the test? And if it is never tested, how do you know it is genuine? John’s problem is the same as our problem today: God doesn’t do what we think he should do. God routinely does things we wouldn’t do if we were God, and he seems to neglect things that we would do if we were in his place. John had heard that Christ had been going from village to village throughout Galilee, healing and teaching and pointing people to God. That’s not what John expected the Messiah to do. He through the Messiah would overthrow worldly government, upset the corrupt applecart, and usher in the Kingdom. That wasn’t happening, or at least it wasn’t happening very fast. Meanwhile, John languishes in prison. What if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah? What if John had somehow gotten it all wrong? What if Jesus was a true prophet of God, but not the Messiah sent from heaven? That would be a huge mistake. If you trace it back to the source, John was disappointed because Jesus wasn’t moving fast enough. We all feel that way from time to time. In our desperation or our fear or our anger or our confusion, we may feel that God is moving too slow. Impatience leads to doubt and sometimes to despair.
How apt we are to allow our own distresses to taint our view of God. In times of trouble or discouragement or weakness, we may begin to think that God isn’t there or doesn’t care or has somehow forgotten about us. We may even conclude that he has turned against us. Hard times make us doubt what once was clear to us. When we are not used of God, we may think that God is doing nothing at all. When those times come, and come they do to all believers sooner or later, we must recall that God’s ways and our ways are two different ways. He is not bound by our expectations. “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3 NASB).
A Saint Facing Death
A week ago Friday, Marlene and I went to West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park to visit Catherine Faires. For over a year she has battled ovarian cancer. She had been released from Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago and sent home, but her condition worsened and she was rushed to West Suburban for treatment. When we got to her room, she was awake and alert. She smiled weakly when she saw us, and soon we were chatting about various things. Eventually we prayed and left. That day she was transferred back to Rush Presbyterian. Over the weekend her condition deteriorated. Last Monday when we went to see her, she was on heavy pain medication but could still talk to us. We talked openly about the prospect of dying and what happens at the moment of death for a believer in Christ. I read the last part of Romans 8, we prayed together, and I asked God that Catherine might glorify him through her life and her death, and that her family might come to faith in Christ. When I finished, MaryAnn Spiegel, Catherine’s good friend who was with her so much during the last week, said, “Good praying.” On Friday afternoon we went back to see her. By this time it was evident that she had only a few hours to live. Catherine was on so much pain medication that she could not speak or even move her hands. But her eyes were partly open and she could move her head in response to what I was saying. I read Revelation 21-22 and we rejoiced over its promises of a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more death, no more sickness, and no more tears. It seemed to build our faith as we read those magnificent closing chapters of the Bible to a saint facing death. When I told Catherine, “We love you,” she moved her lips and tried to say, “I love you,” in return. As we left, I told Catherine that my final words would not be “Goodbye,” but “We’ll see you again.” And we will, by the grace of God.
Catherine passed into the presence of the Lord about 11:30 PM on Friday night. Tomorrow we will hold her funeral in our sanctuary. While we have no doubts about where she is, her friends and loved ones no doubt have many questions. Catherine was not yet 40 years old. She had so much to do, so much to offer this needy world. She had dreams that were not fulfilled, and many who prayed for her would say, “O Lord, why did this happen? Why Catherine? Why now?” And even though we know those questions will not be answered this side of heaven, still the heart cries out and asks them anyway.
He Came to Christ With His Doubts
Let’s take a closer look at John the Baptist for a moment. Consider the man who doubted Jesus. He was …
A good man,
A godly man,
A righteous man,
A wise man,
A courageous man,
A privileged man.
Yet despite his goodness, his godliness, his wisdom, his knowledge, his courage, and despite the great privilege of knowing Jesus personally, still he doubted.
So do not be so hard on yourself if you doubt from time to time. It happens to the best and strongest believers.
Consider how John handled his doubt
A) He admitted it.
B) He sought help for it.
C) He turned to Christ for an answer.
Let John’s course be yours as well. Don’t be afraid to admit that you have doubts. And don’t keep them to yourself. Share your struggles with a friend who can help you. And most of all, come to Christ and seek his aid.
I am struck by Jesus’ answer to John’s question in verses 4-6. His answer points to his own method of working. He starts in human hearts. That is where the proof of his deity may be clearly seen. If someone says, “Lord, you are too slow,” the answer comes, “I work at my own speed.” He goes from heart to heart to heart. He touches one life and that one life touches another and then another. Though his work may seem slow, he moves with heavenly speed from one open heart to another.
This is my favorite part of this story. John asked a very straightforward question: “Are you the one?” Notice that Jesus does not answer yes or no. He doesn’t put John down or make him look back. He doesn’t mention all the Old Testament prophecies of his birth. He doesn’t say, “You baptized me. You ought to know the answer.” Instead he challenges John to look again at the very things that have caused him to doubt. “Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard.” Look again!
The Seed of Faith
My whole sermon comes down to the next sentence. If you struggle with doubt, this sentence could save your life. Here it is: In your doubt is the seed of faith! Doubt and faith are allies, not enemies. Go back and study what caused your doubt and soon you will begin to believe. John’s mind needs enlarging. His thinking must get bigger in order for his faith to get stronger. You’ve heard of the book, Your God is Too Small. Someone needs to write a book called, Your Jesus is Too Small. That was John’s problem. He had a narrow view of who Jesus is and why he came to the earth. And that’s why he doubted in the moment of personal crisis.
If we look at Jesus rightly, we will believe more fervently. Seen properly, stumbling blocks become steppingstones. Jesus’ answer shows that what Christ does is the best answer to who he is. Changed lives are the ultimate apologetic …
The blind see.
The lame walk.
The lepers are healed.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The poor have the gospel preached to them.
A Fight on Your Hands
The passage comes to a powerful conclusion with the beatitude in verse 6: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). Some Christians may read that and wonder, “Who would ever be offended by Jesus?” It helps to remember that he said some very unusual things. He called himself the Son of Man. He claimed to be in heaven while on the earth. He said he was one with the Father, and called himself the ransom for the sins of the world. He told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. He called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. He said he would dwell in them and they in him. He even promised to raise them to eternal life. No wonder some people stumbled over Jesus. He did say some incredible things.
What is it about Jesus and Christianity that mortifies people today? It is the exclusivity of its claims. Tell someone that you believe in Jesus, and they will smile with approval. Say that you believe he is the Son of God, and they will say, “That’s wonderful.” Tell them that you believe he was born in Bethlehem and almost everyone will agree. Say that you are born again, and you aren’t likely to start a fight. But try saying that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Tell people there is no hope of heaven outside of Christ. You’ll have a fight on your hands soon enough. Millions stumble over John 14:6 because they don’t believe that Jesus is the only way to God.
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
Blessed are they who do not stumble over Jesus. If ever we will see Jesus clearly, we will believe more fervently. The way past our doubts is to get a better glimpse of the Savior. Rest your eyes on him and all will be well. On Friday afternoon, just before we left the hospital room for the final time, MaryAnn Spiegel said that people from the church had been singing to Catherine all week long. She asked if we would sing “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” It was just Marlene and MaryAnn and me. So with Catherine listening but not able to join us, Marlene began to sing and MaryAnn and I joined in:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.
Then Marlene sang one of the verses and MaryAnn and I joined in on the chorus. Marlene and I have been visiting the sick for almost 30 years, but that’s the first time we’ve sung together like that in a hospital room. You could see peace in her face as Catherine sang along in her heart. Soon those words would come true for her.
John Wesley said of the early Methodists, “Our people die well.” Dying well was a major topic of concern for the Puritans. They wrote books and preached sermons to teach Christians how to die with their faith strong to the very end. Catherine Faires died well. She has gone to heaven. And by God’s grace and according to his promise, we will see her again. How do we know this? Is this just wishful thinking? Is there any basis in fact beyond the sadness we feel when a loved one dies? The answer is, we know this because we know Jesus Christ and he is the Rock of our salvation. Catherine is not in heaven because of anything she said or did, and not even because of her faith in Christ (which was strong to the end). She is in heaven because of Jesus Christ. He makes all the difference between heaven and hell.
Lamb Over Me
Last Wednesday night we ate supper with Timothy and Beatrice Fung. For 35 years Timothy pastored the Chinese Bible Church of Oak Park. When I came to Calvary in 1989, he befriended me and we have been good friends ever since. I call Timothy the “dean” of all Oak Park pastors because he has served his church longer than any other Oak Park pastor. When he heard (through Don and Karen Hane, their next-door neighbors) that we are going to China in January to visit our oldest son Josh (who is teaching English at a private school in Beijing), he and Beatrice invited us over for supper. So it was the Fungs, the Pritchards and the Hanes enjoying a wonderful Chinese meal. (Yes, I ate with chopsticks for most of it. Not with much skill, but I did the best I could.) Beatrice showed us some lovely wall hangings with Scripture verses in elegant Chinese writing. After the meal, Timothy took out some sheets of thin paper with Chinese symbols on them. Then he got out brushes with bristles made of wolves’ hair. We dipped the brushes in black ink and practiced drawing different Chinese words. I was faster but Marlene was neater. Then Pastor Timothy said, “Did you know that certain Chinese words contain biblical truth?” So taking a clean sheet of paper, he began to draw the symbols for various words. For instance, the Chinese word for “ship” is made up of the symbols for “boat” plus “eight” plus “people.” A boat with eight people = a ship = Noah’s Ark. Greed = two trees plus a woman = Eve in the Garden of Eden. Sacrifice = meat plus hand plus God = a hand offering the meat to God. My favorite was the Chinese word for righteousness. It’s the symbol for a lamb over the symbol for “me.” Righteousness = lamb over me.
What did John the Baptist call Jesus? The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
When God looks at me by myself, all he sees is my sin. And what I call righteousness, he calls filthy rags. I have nothing in myself that will pass for righteousness in his eyes. But when I place my trust in Jesus Christ—the great Lamb of God—then when God looks down from heaven, he sees “the Lamb over me” and declares me righteous in his eyes. How do these great blessings come to me? By faith! Not by works. Not by the law! Not by anything I could ever do, but simply and only by faith in the crucified Lamb of God. All that I wanted but could never have, I find when I come to Jesus Christ. All that I wanted but could never achieve is provided for me by faith in the Son of God. What I lacked, he provided. What I wanted most, he supplied. What I needed, he freely gave.
“Lamb over me.” This is why Catherine Faires is in heaven. She believed in Jesus Christ and placed the Lamb of God over her life. This is our only hope of heaven. And God now offers the Lamb to the whole world. His blood can wash away all your sin.
John the Baptist asked Jesus, “Are you the one?”
He asked the right question.
He asked the right person.
He got the right answer.
William C. Dix was a successful insurance salesman in Glasgow, Scotland. Born in 1837, He was stricken with a sudden serious illness in his late 20s. Confined to bed for an extended period, he suffered deep depression until he called out to God and “met Him in a new and real way.” Out of his personal experience of suffering came many songs and hymns, including a beloved Christmas carol written in 1865 that asks a question the awe-struck shepherds must have asked. Here is the answer to John the Baptist’s question:
What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
God grant us faith to rejoice in Christ and to believe in him. May that be your experience during this Christmas season. Amen.