ADVENT: Rejoice in Messiah Matthew 11:2-11 Pastor Dan Elliott (2nd Service)
We’re in the third Sunday of Advent. I’ve got to tell you, I’m a big Christmas guy. As you can tell, I’ve been a pastor for a long time and it seems like whenever we come to the Advent season, I thought I was preaching Advent sermons, but I was really preaching Christmas sermons four times. Advent is a series of four weeks preparing ourselves for Christmas, yes, but it had a much broader perspective. It was looking forward to the Coming. Back in the day when they depended on agriculture, the harvest would have been taken in, but they would wonder if they’d taken in enough harvest to last them until Spring. So there was a sense of uncertainty, a little bit of tension. The early church instituted this season of Advent as a time for people to reflect as the days got shorter, and shorter, and shorter. To reflect that there is a Coming of One who has light that would bring more and more and more. There is hope that we have. So, we come to this third week of Advent. The days are going to get shorter. It’s cold out. This is Advent. Welcome to Advent.
As we look at this passage in Matthew, I’m asking God to make it come alive for you. He’s made it come alive for me and I don’t want to get in the way of making it alive for you. Let’s bow our heads in a word of prayer and ask God to enlighten us. Let’s pray. Father, I thank you. I thank you that you’re here. I thank you that you’re here and this is your Word—you’ve revealed yourself to us in this Word. You want us to understand it. You want us to wrestle with it. Lord, make it come alive to us. Jesus, thank you so much. Thank you so much that you entered our world, that you made all of this possible. Thank you, Spirit, that you are here right now to empower this Word to become real to us. Lord, may the words that I say not get in the way of your work. Thank you, God. I pray this in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I want to share about…..it’s probably the weirdest auction I’ve ever heard of. It’s something that happened in 1926. There was an auction at the U.S. Patent Office. It was called the Great Patent Auction of 1926. The Patent Office was opened in 1836 as “a general repository of all the inventions and improvements in machinery and manufactures, of which our country can claim the honor.” When it opened 1836, they immediately began to get overwhelmed for patents on these ideas and inventions. Forty thousand a year! After about 15-20 years of that, the Patent Office wanted to slow it down. There were a lot of harebrained ideas that once they got the patent they couldn’t get it to work. They said, “We’ve got to have a model of what you’re going to invent. When you give your idea, there’s got to be a model with it.” They put that in about the 1860s, and people started bombarding this office with more and more models until they ran out of room. Thousands and thousands……again, there were 30-40 thousand a year of these models. Finally, about 1890, they said, “Let’s stop the model business, we don’t have anymore room.” They stopped it, but they still had all these models, so, thirty years later, 1926, they came up with the idea of auctioning off all of the models. Here’s a picture of a man standing at a table with all these small models. This is only a fraction of them, because the auction was comprised of 150,000 models and it took six years to auction all of them off! There was a metal illuminated cat that was suppose to rid your house of mice. There was a device to solve your snoring problem—it looked like a trumpet that curved over the ear to the snorer’s mouth. He or she would wake themselves up! There were all of these whacky little models.
When you step back and look at this thing—150,000 models of things that never made it through the patent office process. 150,000 broken dreams. 150,000 disappointed ideas. I say that with some first-hand experienced. Not that I was born in 1926, but let me show you something. This is a little device I came up with ten years ago. I thought, “Man, this is going revolutionize exercise!” I called this the “walk gym.” I envisioned people, during lunch hour, going out walking and exercising both their upper and their lower and I thought, “This is the cat’s meow!” I had our whole retirement planned based upon the ‘walk gym.’ Someone suggested, “Dan, before you go too far, you’d better talk to a patent lawyer.” So I checked into some patent lawyers and found out they are very expensive. Then I found a friend who had a friend who was a patent lawyer so he set us up. About five days later he called me and said, “Dan, no! I’m afraid this would never make it through the patent process. You’re copying too many inventions already.” I have to admit, he saved me from probably bankruptcy. I experienced a good amount of disappointment, because I was thinking this thing was really good—I still have it hanging in my garage. Silly but I still walk with it once in a while.
Anyway, these things pale by the disappointments we’re going to see today. What we’re going to look at today is a man who had given himself to a purpose, so fully, so intensely, and then he found himself at a loss in his expectations, wondering, “Is this ever going to be the right thing?” We see in Matthew 11:2-3 — When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
This is not John the Apostle, this is John the Baptist, who Larry talked about last week. This was the man who was so fervent and strong in his proclamation. This was the man who realized, “I’ve come to prepare the way for the Messiah.” This is the man, when he saw Jesus coming, said, “This is the Lamb of God.” This is the man, when it came to baptizing Him, said, “No, I’m not worthy to baptize you, you need to baptize me.” This is the man who said to his own disciples, “That’s the man you need to follow; go after Jesus.” And now, he’s coming back and asking, “Are you really the One?” I wondered, where are we going to go with this? Yet I had to realize, wow! This is not really profound—Doubt — Don’t be discouraged, if it happened to John the Baptist, it’ll probably happen to us!
As I reflected on that statement, I probably shouldn’t put it in the future tense. It probably HAS happened to us. I think that every one of us in this room that has been walking with Jesus Christ have had times of disappointment. Times of questioning. Times of doubting. I want to tell you, that is okay! Your faith is not going to get shipwrecked by asking questions. God is not going to turn his back on you simply because you’re expressing some doubts about Him. I would tell you that when you’re questioning, and doubting, and wrestling, and struggling, God knows you’re doing that, so talk to Him about it. Don’t let the doubts fester within you.
I think, in the church, we haven’t done the best job of giving each other the freedom of being able to wrestle, to be able to question, to be able to struggle sometimes in our faith. I have a good, good friend who, about eight years ago, went through an intense struggle. At the time I said he was going through a crisis of his faith. His wife had a debilitating disease. There were a number of folks close to him that had passed away. It was a hard time in his life. He wrestled, he struggled, he asked a lot of questions. I wondered if he was ever going to come around. But you know what? Now I wouldn’t call it a crisis of his faith, I would say it’s a refinement of his faith. I believe that as we our honest enough to admit our questions, our struggles, our doubts, God comes to us and helps us to grow in the midst of that.
So back to John — When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” There’s two things that jump out at me right there. One is he’s in prison. Prison will do a job on your perspective. The other thing is he heard the deeds of the Messiah. Will touch base on that later. John is in prison. I was kind of surprised. Yes, it doesn’t tell us what prison he was put in. But there was a historian, Josephus, who said John was in a prison called Machaerus. It’s east of the Dead Sea and it was a ‘summer palace’ built by Herod the Great. After Herod the Great died, he gave his palaces to his sons, and this one went to Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas had the hots for his sister-in-law and he stole his brother’s wife. John had the audacity to speak out against that, in public, and so he was imprisoned. We first read about this imprisonment in Matthew 4. It came shortly after—in fact, it might have come during the time Jesus was being tempted for forty days in the wilderness. When you think about that….He’d been baptized by John and then it says immediately he was taken out to the wilderness for forty days. Then when he came back, he heard that John had been imprisoned, so Jesus went north to the Galilean area where it was safer. I had no idea John was imprisoned that close to the time of Jesus’s baptism.
So hear was John, sending this message from this edifice. They’ve done a lot of excavating and found a lot of ruins, but they went down to the bottom of the mountain and they found a dungeon. You walk through the door and it goes off to more rooms where people were imprisoned. I don’t see a lot of windows! I can’t imagine staying in the dark in the dungeon. It tells us that while John was there he heard about all the deeds of the Messiah. That means his disciples must have been allowed to visit him while he was imprisoned in that dungeon.
I went back through Matthew and went through Matthew 4, after he was imprisoned, and tried to see what were the things Jesus did. He goes up into Galilee and teaches. Then it says he healed all kinds of diseases. (Mt. 4:23) In chapters 5, 6, and 7, you have the Sermon on the Mount, which a number of people believe is a template for what Jesus preached in many different places. Then you come to chapter 8. He healed a person of leprosy. He healed a person of paralysis and reshaped their leg so they could walk again. He exorcised a person of demons. He calmed a storm. That’s a huge one, I think. I believe all of that was reported to John. Chapter 9 — There was a paralytic that he healed. He raised a girl from the dead. He cleansed a person of blindness and leprosy.
I believe all those things were reported back to John, so I asked the question, “John, that’s a good resumé. Why the questions? Why the doubts?” He still sent that question, “Are you the one to come or shall we expect someone else?” I went back to Matthew 3:7-12, and let me remind you what John was preaching. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near. … Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. … The ax is already at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not produce good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. …. Someone’s coming after me who is so powerful I can’t carry his sandals, but he’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. …. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn, burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. That’s the message John had been preaching months and months in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, who he recognized as Jesus. Then he hears what Jesus is doing. Doesn’t hear a lot about winnowing forks. He hears about healing. He hears about forgiveness. He hears about mercy. John’s disciples go to Jesus and say, “How come you guys don’t fast like the rest of us do?” I bet you when they went, they might have heard this statement: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. That’s an expectation that I don’t think John had. I don’t think Jesus quite fit what John anticipated he was suppose to do. Often our expectations of how God should work can cause us to miss the work He’s actually doing.
As I wrote that I was trying to think, okay, what in my life….because when you preach you’re suppose to have an illustration. Frankly, as I was trying to think and process I went, hey, Kerry and I have had a pretty good life. I can’t complain about anything. I asked Kerry if she could think of any expectations we had of God that may have caused us to kind of miss what He was doing. She said, “I can’t believe you’re even asking that question! Dan, don’t you remember? We wanted to have kids. We thought God was going to give us children.” Instead, we got cancer. That shot me back to thirty years ago. When we got married, we had all the dreams of many young married couples. We thought we’d have kids to pour our lives into, and nurture them, and watch them grow. We thought they’d grow and have kids and we’d be grandparents. We looks so forward to that. Then we discovered the word ‘infertility.’ We were trying one thing after another after another—different fertility drugs. All of a sudden, Kerry gets diagnosed with cancer. Now we were in a fight for her life. I can remember nights going to God and saying, “Are you for real?” When I asked that, it wasn’t so much questioning the realness of God, it was questioning the type of God I expected him to be. I found myself saying, “I’m not sure if you’re so good.” I’m not sure if you’re so loving, because this is hard. I didn’t expect this. Those expectations that many times we camp on for God cause us to miss the work that He’s actually doing.
John sends the disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” There’s another thing that pops out to me in that verse. John sends his disciples to Jesus. He was stuck in that dungeon, yes. He had to take second-hand reports, but John did not sit on his unfulfilled expectations, but he brought them about before God, before Jesus. He went to the source of his frustration. He asks Jesus directly. I would encourage us to do that. Like I said earlier, God already knows that we’ve got the questions. God already knows that we may be wrestling with doubt. He already knows that we’re wrestling with disappointment. Probably He’s waiting for us to have the courage to come to Him and explain that to Him. You might think that’s crazy if He already knows it, but He wants to hear from his children. He’s not going to abandon you. Just like Jesus did not abandon John. Jesus instead says, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” All those things I found in earlier chapters of Matthew…that’s what Jesus is saying. Tell John those things. Report back to John that.
One observation I make of that — John asked the question, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus never answered him. Jesus never said “Yes” or “No.” Instead He gave him evidence and told John to figure it out. John would have to decide where he stood with Jesus. Jesus says the same thing to us: Where do we stand with Jesus? I believe that as John received this message: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear… I believe that might have jogged in John’s mind a little bit as he though back to a referenced in the Old Testament to a prophet named Isaiah who said some very similar things about the Messianic time that was coming, the kingdom that was going to come (Isaiah 35:5-6). Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy. Sounds very similar to what Jesus is doing. We may say, “John, why didn’t you catch on?” Well, let’s look at the verse right before this (Isaiah 35:4) — Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.”
As John reads those verses, he’s probably thinking, “Come on, it talks about vengeance. It talks about retribution. I’m stuck in a dungeon because I spoke up about that. I spoke up about the king’s unrighteousness and now I’m stuck in a dungeon.” You know what? There’s many times we feel we’re in a dungeon. There’s many times we feel we’re stuck. I identify with this. I love being a pastor, don’t get me wrong. There are some days you just want to throw out. There are some days…..at the end of the day you’re exhausted. There was a day, recently, that began with a request from someone. It broke my heart because their infant had been born so very prematurely, and it was a daily struggle to keep this guy alive. Then there was a message that a friend was diagnosed with cancer. Then there was a benevolence case that ate away at me as I tried to work on this and solve this and I was so frustrated that we could not come to grips and correct this. Then there was someone who had to be rushed into emergency surgery and wanted to have prayer. I wanted all those things fixed. I so much wanted to be able to say, “Hey, I can correct that because God’s here.” I’ve been on lots of healing sessions. I don’t mean to say I don’t believe in healing….I do! I tell you, the majority of those healing sessions haven’t healed. Maybe there’s something wrong with my faith? I think it’s more the reality of where we live now.
I think John’s expectations of Jesus….he was expecting this wide, wide repentance and brokenness that was going to cover the land. I think my expectations of Jesus, many times, is He’s going to solve all the problems. I think sometimes if we expect only the exceptional, we will miss the miracles of everyday. The kingdom that God has established has entered the life of each and every one of us in an everyday way. I would even say in the mundane, because I think there’s many miracles in the mundane.
Kerry and I still don’t have kids. God may still do some ‘Abraham and Sarah’ thing—that would be exceptional. I’m not expecting it. But if I camped in that, I would miss what God has done the last thirty years of our lives. I’ve seen a miracle happening in my wife….and myself, but I think especially in Kerry. Yes, we still grieve the fact that we don’t have kids. We grieve the fact that we’ll never have grandkids. But you know what? It forces us to evaluate what our lives are going to be about. As Kerry wrestled with that, she said, “Well, I want to pass on a legacy to kids.” That revolutionized her teaching. She became one of the best elementary school teachers I have ever seen. I used to love to watch her working with the kids in her classroom. She brought hope and structure and all kinds of wisdom into their lives. I loved it! I don’t know if that would have necessarily happened if we were totally focused on the kids we expected God to give us. He had other plans for us. People have told me I’ve got a lot of kids. Ehh! Kerry had 25 a year, I don’t know if I’ve had that many. But I had to realize, I have been able to influence people, and for that, I’m grateful. I think many times we expect that the Kingdom of God comes into this setting and is going to come in with exceptional power and is going to correct all the wrongs, and yet, we wrestle with the fact that I still struggle with anxiety. I still have fears about the future. I have friends who are still blind. People who are getting older and won’t be raised from the dead. That brings me to rest in the fact of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus said he ushered in.
There’s a theologian—I remember this from seminary—who said, “The Kingdom of God is here, it’s now, it’s already, but it’s not yet.” By that he meant yes, the influence of the kingdom is here, but the fullness of the kingdom is not here yet. I had a very good friend explain this—The kingdom influence is right here and now, but the day is going to come when the kingdom will have no more competition, and it will have all the freedom just to flow. The power Jesus talked about is going to be so real. The power’s here now, but we’re in a broken world.
Jesus goes on to say—Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me. A loose paraphrase may be—Blessed is the one who believes in me in spite of what he expected me to be like. I don’t think He’s saying this word to John, necessarily. It could be a challenge to John, but I think it’s a challenge to all that crowd that’s around Him. What are you going to do with me? I think it’s a challenge to all of us who are sitting here today. What are we going to do with Jesus?
Jesus goes on to talk about John a little bit. He says to this crowd, “What did you go out to hear when you went out in the wilderness? Did you go out to see a blade of reed grass waving in the wind?” (Matt. 11:7-11) It was interesting reading about this reed grass. Jesus was up in the Galilean area; I read that hillsides of reed grass are there in Galilee. When the wind blows, they all go the same way. They’re all blown by the wind. It’s kind of like the picture of a teacher who’s teaching whatever’s popular at the moment; whatever’s going to tickle the ears of the people. Did you go out into the wilderness to hear John just tickle your ears? No, you didn’t. It’s a rhetorical question. Did you go out to see a man dressed in fine clothes? Well, you didn’t find him, because he had camel skin. No, fine clothes are found in the royal palaces. John’s in a royal palace but he’s in the dungeon of that palace. No, you didn’t go there to see somebody with sophistication. No. Did you go to see a prophet? Yes, and guess what? We haven’t had a prophet in 400 years, and you went to hear the prophet that God has risen. And he’s not a prophet like any other prophets. He surpasses all the prophets. John was the one who was coming to prepare the way for the Messiah. John’s the one who’s coming to announce His coming. John is unique. John is the greatest of all prophets. As far as men born of women, John is the best.
I believe, as I picture John in that dungeon, as I see him wrestling with the answer Jesus sent to him, as I see him going back to revisit that passage in Isaiah, I see him going down farther into that passage and he comes to this phrase: And a highway will be there……but only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35:8,10) I read those verses and it’s so easy for me to say, oh, that’s something in the future. But Jesus said no, the kingdom is now. Those verses I’m reading are NOW! We come to this place….singing….in God’s presence. I love how Aaron leads us in worship, but that’s because of Jesus Christ. He opened the way so we could worship in His presence. We come with everlasting joy crowning our heads. Did you know everyone of you that’s given your life to Jesus Christ is an eternal being right now?! Yeah, you’re in a body that’s dying, some of us more so than others, but you’re an eternal being, everlasting joy is upon your head. Gladness and joy will overtake, sorrow and sighing will flee away. I know that we will have sorrow. I know there are going to be days we sigh, but let me tell you, Jesus promises us it’s going to flee….eventually it’s going to go away. There’s hope. There’s joy. Because of this man Jesus. Blessed is the one who believes in me in spite of what he expected me to be like.
There’s one last thing Jesus said when he was talking to this crowd and that’s these words: Whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he . And Jesus just said John’s the greatest of any man that was born of women, but then he says he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Yeah, the kingdom does not erase the problems, the issues, that we face, but I’ll tell you something, I believe very much that when John received that word, we know he wasn’t freed from prison, but I believe he was freed IN prison. He was freed in a way that he could face whatever they threw at him….and that was execution. I believe that the kingdom of God enters into our world and frees us within the circumstances we find ourselves.
That word ‘blessed’—Blessed is the man who does not stumble on account of me. Makarios means it has the internal strength, that gladness, that joy, that circumstances can’t change, that we have for eternity crowning our heads with joy. That takes me back to a verse that’s very popular right now, a verse that’s attributed to an angel talking to some shepherds on a hill —- Do not be afraid! I bring good news of great joy that will be for all people! (Luke 2:10) It doesn’t mean you have to have your act together. It doesn’t mean you have to have all your doubts and questions taken care of. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have disappointments again. It means that we will walk in the joy and the strength of knowing that Jesus is the one who has made the difference, and he asks us today, “What are you going to do with Me?” Will I be your Savior, your Messiah or are you going to look for somebody else? You know what? John wrestled with that; I think it’s a good wrestle.
Let’s all stand and sing “Joy to the world the Lord has come.” Jesus is here! We’ve got an everlasting crown of glory on our heads.