Monday, April 4, 2011

Having the Wrong Expectations

Yesterday I preached from Matthew 11:1-15 on John the Baptist and the doubts and his question as to whether Jesus was “the one who is to come.” This is a somewhat technical term for the Messiah, and harkens back to John’s own messianic reference in Matthew 3:11, “he who is coming.”

John’s doubts, best as I can tell, seemed to stem from the fact that his expectations where somewhat off. Whereas he expected the Messiah to come, winnowing fork in hand, clearing his threshining floor and burning chaff in an unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12), here was Jesus with his gracious words and his miracles of mercy for the poor and the suffering.

Now John was right to expect Messiah to come as a righteous judge. Certainly his Bible had talked about that. But that’s not all his Bible had to say about Messiah and his coming kingdom. There were passsages such as Isaiah 35:5-661:1 which cast the work of Messiah in quite a different light than John’s (and the popular) expectations.

It was to these passages that Jesus was alluding when he sent word of his activities back to John: “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5).

We often do the same thing John was doing. We tend to emphasize the parts of Scripture we like and ignore (or at least try not to think about) the parts we don’t. This is why there is such a chasm between the practices of different churches, all of which claim to find their marching orders in the Bible.

What we need to remember is that we are not called to choose between speaking the truth or speaking in love. We are called to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We need to firmly grasp both poles, shading toward neither, and try to understand what all of Scripture has to say to us.

We need to take seriously those passages of Scripture that call us to precise theological understanding and the centrality of the gospel message of Christ’s perfect life, his atoning death and his promissory resurrection. At the same time though, we need to embrace those passages that deal with mercy ministry and social justice.

A failure to do this is exactly why John missed the fact that though Jesus would indeed one day return as a righteous judge, he did not come at that time in order to condemn the world, but in order that the world mught be saved through him (John 3:17).

Jesus could have sharply rebuked John. Yet he didn’t. He instead gently refocussed John’s attention on the parts of Scripture he had been ignoring. And then he added in verse 6, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me." Not, “Blessed is the one who has perfect theology,” no matter how important sound theology is. And not, “Blessed is the one who has no doubts,” for we can always take our doubts to Jesus.

In the end, he says, blessed is the one who is not offended by me. Jesus realizes that he and his message are naturally offensive to us. It is offensive to us on the one hand because we think it’s terribly unfair that any would be excluded (except, of course, those that I define as really bad). Still others bring a self-righteous mindset to the party and are offended by this gospel paradigm that says you can do nothing to earn your way in and must trust solely in the grace of another.

But in the end, blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus. That same Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead. The one who encourages us, even in the midst of our doubts. The one who reminds us that it is neither our best moments nor our worst which define us. Rather it is his best and his worst: His best day, lived out in perfection repeatedly without exception for 33 years; and his worst day, as he bore the penalty of our sins on the cross.

Sometimes when we experience doubts, the last thing we want to do is to let them be known. As we hide them away though, they are allowed to grow and to fester instead of being lovingly and thoughtfully dealt with.

John did the right thing in bringing his questions to Jesus instead of simply keeping his doubts to himself. Let us likewise take our doubts to him, in prayer and in his Word. Let us wrestle with our doubts alongside other members of his body. Not accusing God, but seeking his wisdom and his truth, and experiencing his grace.

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