When in Doubt... Go to Jesus
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 11:2-15.
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 11:2-15.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The first few years of his ministry had been wonderful. The members had eagerly welcomed him and his family. Weekly worship attendance rose dramatically. Long-term delinquents were returning. New members were joining almost monthly. Leaders were stepping forward. Projects and programs that had been on hold for years were moving ahead. Bible study participation was increasing. From all outward indicators, it appeared to be the perfect match of pastor and parish.
But now it seemed like everything was unraveling. Families were bickering over the most trivial things. Some were talking about transferring to the church on the other side of town. Others had fallen away from the faith completely. No one ever came to him personally with their concerns; but gossip has a way of making its rounds, and he knew there was talk about his own shortcomings. No doubt, some of the concerns had merit. None of us are perfect. But how could he address those problems if no one ever had the courage to face him directly.
To make matters worse, it was affecting his family life. To try to turn things around, he was pouring himself into his work more and more. There were always more things to do than time to do them. Now, with Christmas coming, he was really overwhelmed. His wife and children were feeling neglected and getting resentful. He’d never been so lonely in his life, and in that isolation, the doubts flooded over him. Was there something more that he could do? Was this really the place God wanted him to serve? Did he even belong in the ministry? What before had seemed so certain, was by no means clear now. He was tossed about with many conflicts, many doubts.
Doubts. We all have them. Doubts about our loved ones. Doubts about ourselves. Doubts about our vocation. Doubts about our faith. Doubts about God. Even the most mature Christians have times in their life where they struggle with uncertainty, when doubts plague them.
It might seem strange that John the Baptist could have doubts. He is the one who was moved by the Spirit to recognize Jesus as the Savior even while in the womb. He was the one who’d proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God. He was the one who’d received a special tip from God that Jesus was His beloved Son. Throughout his how life, he’d been so clear in announcing Christ; was it possible that John really was unsure about Jesus at this time?
Bible commentators disagree on the answer to this question. For many of them, the possibility of doubt on the part of any believer—especially a heroic figure like John the Baptist—is just too hard to imagine. Maybe it just hits too close to home. Maybe they’re afraid such an admission will crack the thin veneer of certainty and their own hidden doubts will be exposed.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it so hard to believe that John may have been troubled and unsure at this point. Put yourself in his place. You’re in prison for boldly preaching God’s Word. You’ve just denounced the dangerous king and his devious wife for their adulterous marriage. And Jesus’ kingdom is not coming in the way or as quickly as you had envisioned. How would you feel? What would you think? What would you do?
John sent two of his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John, in effect, asked Jesus: “Have I misunderstood God’s will? Are You the One? You know… the One whose axe is at the roots, whose winnowing fork is in His hand? If You are the One, why aren’t You taking control of the situation and powerfully establishing Your kingdom? Why are the wicked prospering while the faithful sit in prison?”
Certainly, Satan fanned the flames and threw fuel on the fire of John’s doubt. Perhaps you’ve noticed that the devil uses a similar strategy still today, particularly when we are tired or when things do not seem to be going as well as we expect. He raises questions, causes confusion, doubt, and disillusionment. He uses any means necessary to separate us from God and His Word.
As I’ve already mentioned, some people cannot accept that a man “filled with the Holy Spirit from birth” could ever doubt. That’s why they suggest that John asked this question not for himself but for his disciples. There is a large segment of conservative Protestants who hold that no true believer will ever lose his faith; he will never doubt. They claim that those who lose their faith never really had faith in the first place. “Once saved, always saved,” is their mantra.
They’re wrong! For us Christians, there is never a time when faith is very far from the edge of unbelief. Satan never leaves us alone, but each day he works harder to take us away from Christ. John was no exception. The sad reality is that neither preachers nor hearers are immune to doubt and disillusionment.
John was a courageous man of God, but he had his human weaknesses. Like each of us, John struggled with his Old Adam, his sinful flesh. The prophet Elijah, to whom the Scriptures compare John, had his weak moments, too. At one time he was convinced that his faithful ministry had been a failure and he wanted to die. Many years later, Martin Luther felt the same doubts and misgivings about himself and the Reformation he was leading as he saw the carnage of the Peasant’s War.
Do you suppose that there has ever been a man of God who hasn’t had a moment of doubt about himself and what he was teaching; and about at least some of his Lord’s promises? Would that not be expecting the impossible of anyone with a sinful human nature? To say, then, that John had his doubts about Jesus as the Messiah is not to say he rejected Jesus. Doubts may threaten faith, but they do not automatically rule it out or destroy it. Doubts test the genuineness of faith.
It is significant to note what John did about his doubts. He took them to the Lamb of God. He took them to Jesus! When doubts of any kind assail us we must not ignore them or try to cover them up. We, too, need to go to Jesus for reassurance. Jesus is the One who is the antidote to doubt and disillusionment.
Notice how Jesus reassured John. He did not just say, “Yes, I am the One.” Jesus directed John and his disciples to God’s Word, the divine promises spoken first by the ancient prophets and written down in sacred Scriptures. For believers, the Bible testifies to Jesus. He is One who comes, the Messiah. His ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection all fulfill God’s plan revealed in the Scriptures.
Now the main question for you this day is this: do you look at Christ in the same way John taught his disciples—as the One who comes as our Savior?
“What a terrible question to ask,” you might be thinking. “Why would we be here today if we weren’t Christians? Don’t we recognize Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior? Don’t we believe that He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Don’t we believe that He is the One who comes with forgiveness, life, and salvation?”
Yes, by God’s grace. But do you not also recognize your Old Adam? Your sinful nature will not believe. Your Old Adam will doubt. Your sinful nature will be offended and fall away. He will remain contrary to the Gospel. He will always lift up his wretched reason over his knowledge of Christ. He will always look to his own works of righteousness rather than the merit of Christ, which alone saves.
Do not underestimate your Old Adam. Your sinful nature is not something that can be ignored, for it is always with you and continually works against the baptized believer. That’s why it is oh, so vital, that we follow the example of John and his disciples and go where we may see and hear Jesus.
But it’s been a long time since Jesus walked this world with His disciples. How can we hear Jesus today and witness His works ourselves?
In His Word! In the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus to us. He reveals Christ to us in the Old Testament, where the prophets foretold of the One who was to come. He is revealed in the Gospels, where we have His actual words uttered and deeds rendered while He was in the flesh and dwelt among us. He is revealed in the epistles and the Revelation, where the Holy Spirit, by means of the apostles, tells us about the One who will come again to judge the living and the dead. And it is the Holy Spirit Himself who grants you the faith and trust to believe the Word of Scripture and receive it as the truth of God.
This seems too basic and primitive. The sinful flesh asks, “Isn’t there something more spectacular to look for? Shouldn’t we be looking for a sign, a burning in our bosom, an emotional connection, a more successful life, or maybe even a miracle, to show us that this is the truth?”
Once again, beware of your Old Adam, who, with the world around you, considers the Gospel foolishness and rather seeks signs and wonders. For the sinful, unbelieving heart rejects the simple, yet all-important message of the cross. Yes, Jesus performed miracles. He restored sight and hearing to the blind and deaf; He healed the lame and raised the dead. But this was not His primary ministry. He did these things to show the people that He was the One who came into the world to live, die, and rise again. Jesus’ miracles are not what put to death the Old Adam in the sinner and raise the believer to newness of life; it is His sacrificial death and His victorious resurrection that do.
In just ten day we will reflect on the Nativity of our Lord—how the eternal Son of God took on our flesh and blood and in the fullness of time was born of a humble virgin. It’s a beautiful story of peace on earth, good will to men. Yet the little Child wrapped in swaddling clothes is the One who would eventually be nailed naked to the cross. The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay that the shepherds come to see is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus was the coming One. He is the coming One. He will be the coming One, and we should be expecting no other. But remember, Jesus seldom comes in exactly the way that we might expect. Our Savior came to His people through the Old Testament Scriptures, in the promise of the One who would crush the head of the serpent. He would be called Immanuel—God with us. He would be named Jesus, for He would save His people from their sins. And when the fullness of time had come, He came in the flesh, born of Mary at Bethlehem. He walked the earth as one of us, He performed miracles to fulfill what had been foretold, and He went to the cross to die for the sins of the world.
But this was not the end. He rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven with the promise that He would be with His people to the end of the age. He has come to His people for twenty centuries now, through His Word and in His Sacraments, to bring sinners to faith, to wash them from their sins, and to keep them steadfast in the one true faith until He returns.
But even this is not the end. Christ will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead. The graves will be opened and the living and the dead will stand before Him. And how do you know these things? We know and wholeheartedly believe it because of the way Christ continues to come to us—through His precious Word of Scripture that makes us wise unto salvation.
Be comforted to know that your Savior comes to you through His Word, for His Word does not change any more than He does. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the Lord when you receive Him with enthusiasm and zeal, as did the witnesses to His miracles. But He is also the Lord when you face hardship and doubt, as John the Baptist did while he languished in prison and awaited death. Regardless of your fluctuating feelings or circumstances, the same truth is proclaimed every day: Christ Jesus died to save sinners like you and me.
We celebrate the coming of our Savior in the manger at Bethlehem because it is through Him that your sins are forgiven and the gates of heaven are opened. Through His atoning death He conquered your death, and raises you to a new life. By faith granted through the Holy Spirit, you now have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He came to His people, He now comes to you, who are His people by faith, and He will come again to bring you home. Don’t doubt it!
But when in doubt… go to Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, your sin, including that sin of doubt. Indeed, for His sake you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.