I’ve never visited the ruins of Herod’s stronghold Machaerus and peered into the depths of the dungeon that may have held John the Baptist. Yet in Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 11:2-11), that dungeon’s contours feel strangely familiar.
I’ve never traveled to the Judean wilderness to sit under a broom tree like the first Elijah, yet somehow that too feels instantly recognizable.
The very same temptation that struck Elijah under that broom tree, and that struck the one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah in that dungeon, strikes every messenger of God’s kingdom. The centuries and names and ministry settings change. The doubt remains the same.
It is this awful thought that steals upon our hearts in moments of discouragement as being kingdom messengers turns out nothing like we had imagined: have I strived and struggled for nothing?
It’s not too hard to imagine the line of reasoning that troubled John in prison. In last week’s gospel he warned Israel’s arrogant leaders: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). He proclaimed that the coming One, the Messiah, would be busy taking charge of his threshing floor by “gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
Yet in Machaerus it was not the edge of God’s ax at Herod’s roots but Herod’s sword edging toward John’s neck! It wasn’t the unrepentant chaff being gathered for the oven, but it was the wheat feeling the flames’ heat. Perhaps from thoughts such as those this crushing doubt arose: “Could it be that I have failed in my mission by pointing to someone who is not the glory of Israel and the light for the Gentiles? Did I point to the wrong one?” Such was the temptation that troubled John’s heart as he seemed to wait in vain in that dungeon for the coming One to do what he was supposed to do!
But thank God that, amidst those troubling doubts, John used his disciples to send out a lifeline to Jesus. “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). And he who doesn’t break bruised reeds or snuff out smoldering wicks answered with perfect comfort. “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” (Matthew 11:4-5). How wonderfully Jesus answers his doubting forerunner! Through the eyes and ears of John’s own disciples Jesus points John back to the Scriptures, so that even from Machaerus’ dungeon he could hear and see Jesus doing the very things the Scriptures proclaimed the Messiah would do! In his deeds, Jesus was proving himself stronger than the presence and effects of sin. And by his words, the good news of God’s kingdom was indeed just as near as John had said it was!
And then, with Jesus’ last statement, he even pronounces the prisoner blessed! “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Matthew 11:6). He was blessed as he held on to Jesus as the true One who was to come. He was blessed even though God’s wisdom and timing was not yet sending his wholesale fire of judgment that would once for all purge his threshing floor.
Notice that Jesus’ comfort and John’s blessing does not consist in Jesus handing to John the secret kingdom of God playbook that would outline the Messiah’s every move between his first coming and his second. Instead Jesus says this to his troubled forerunner: “John, you are right to put your hope in me as the coming One. Do not stumble over what you cannot yet understand – no matter how difficult and painful it may be. Instead, cling to what you know about me. There, even in Herod’s prison, you find the eternal blessings of my kingdom. John, no earthly king with his sword can ever take that from you.”
There too is blessing waiting for us when the doubts of John’s dungeon or Elijah’s broom tree come our way. There will always be much about God’s plans and designs for his kingdom, and his messengers who serve it, that we will now not understand. Now there will always be things that grieve and perplex us. We also have no promise from Jesus that we will be handed the secret kingdom of God playbook. If we fixate on what perplexes us about how Christ’s kingdom operates, doubt will quickly become fatal stumbling.
But remember what you have learned to know. You too have received a report from the disciples of Jesus and John about what Jesus has said and done. There you hear and see his forgiving and patient compassion for the weak and doubting. There you are reminded that Jesus has by word and deed accomplished precisely what Scripture has promised the coming One would do. Chief among all his blessings to us, we have had this good news preached to us: despite all rumors to the contrary, God is at peace with us in Jesus! That has enriched us in ways that already now turn broom trees and dungeons into palaces of the blessed.
Yes, there will remain much we cannot understand in our lives and in our ministries about how God carries out his kingdom work. But when the day of eternity comes, and dungeons and broom trees are no more, all will be clear. Until then, even in dungeons or under broom trees, we can still claim his promised blessing as we wait!
You shall and must at last prevail.
God’s own you are; you cannot fail.
To God forever sing your praise
With joy and patience all your days.
(Martin Luther, To Shepherds as They Watched by Night, CW 53:6)