Bible Text: Matthew 11:2-11 | Preacher: Pastor Christian Preus
John the Baptist was no reed shaking in the wind, but he was grass, and the wind blows and the grass withers and the flower fades. He was a great preacher, a great prophet, more than a prophet, the One who prepared the way for the Lord, but the greatest man who ever lived is still a poor, miserable sinner who doubts and falters despite the strong confession he makes.
St. John the Baptist was the greatest of those born of women. Jesus says “those born of women” not because this was common speech back then, like everyone used this turn of phrase, “of those born of women George is the handsomest,” or “of those born of women Peter is the best fisherman.” No, it’s not normal talk, not in English, not in Greek, not then, not now. Normal speech is to say, John the Baptist was the greatest man who ever lived. But Jesus doesn’t say that. He purposely says, “Of those born of women,” because what is born of flesh is flesh, but what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. John as a man, in all that he did, was a hero incomparable. The man gave everything for his Lord. He gave up the prospect of getting married and having children, he gave up all comforts, he lived out in the wilderness, he dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts, he never touched a glass of wine; he devoted his life to prepare the way of the Lord and he fulfilled his task to the end, which was a dungeon where he waited his death from beheading. But all these great deeds of the greatest man who ever lived didn’t compare to being born again, to being baptized, to being born not of woman, not of flesh, but of God. John knew this, by the way. He said it to Jesus. I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? John knew that the greatest work of the greatest man would be to baptize the Lord Jesus, it was to fulfill all righteousness, and John got to do it, but this work couldn’t compare to doing nothing at all and instead to have God work on him, being born again, becoming even one of the least in the kingdom of heaven.
People assume that because preachers preach with confidence they are never racked with the same doubts and anxieties and temptations as “normal” Christians. But John comes in a long line of preachers who prove that assumption false. John dresses like Elijah and Jesus calls him “Elijah who is to come,” and it is Elijah who after his most impressive preaching against the prophets of Baal, when fire comes from heaven and consumes the sacrifice on Mount Carmel, it’s Elijah who runs in fear from Jezebel and then complains to God in a display of doubt and anxiety. “I have been very zealous for the Lord of hosts,” he says and yet at the very same time he is worn down and needs the Lord of hosts to whisper assurance to Him. It doesn’t matter how great the prophet or preacher is, all flesh is grass: this is what the preacher preaches and it is what any decent preacher feels.
Martin Luther once had a young pastor come to him despairing of whether he could be a pastor anymore. He told Luther that he’d preach and be so confident in the pulpit, but then he’d go home and doubt everything he just preached. And Luther told him, Thank God, I thought I was the only one.
So John the Baptist sends to Jesus and asks, “Are you the Christ, or do we wait for another?” Was he broken? Was he depressed and anxious in that dungeon? Was he doubting and needing to hear a word of comfort from Jesus? There have been many throughout the history of the Church who’ve said that this was John’s last great act as a preacher, that he sent his disciples to Jesus so that they could see and hear for themselves that Jesus was the Christ. And this is no doubt true – he does say, “do WE expect another,” he includes his disciples. And John had already sent many of his disciples away to follow Jesus, James and John, Andrew and with him Peter, they left John to follow Jesus and John was happy for it. He said of Jesus, He must increase and I must decrease. He pointed to Him and said, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s what a good preacher does, he points to Jesus and says, “Find there your righteousness, your salvation, the forgiveness of your sins, the God in whom you can trust, the Word that is sure.” So he sends his disciples to Jesus.
But John is very obviously doubting. And that’s not a guess. John’s a sinner and sin is at root unbelief, a lack of trust in God. The sinful condition on this earth with which every Christian struggles is unbelief. John doubted. The extent of it really isn’t important. Whether it’s the only reason he sent to Jesus isn’t important either. What matters is that John needs to hear what Jesus has to say and Jesus tells him the Gospel.
The amazing thing about John’s situation is that it is a lot like yours and mine. He doesn’t get to see any of Jesus’ miracles. He’s in the dark. Literally, in a dark dungeon, and he’s been there since before Jesus did any miracles. He hasn’t seen any. He’s only heard, as our Gospel says, “When John heard the deeds of Christ.” But his disciples get to see it. Again, amazing. Because when they ask Jesus are you the Christ or do we wait for another, Jesus says, Look around you. Because it’s that obvious. This is what Isaiah prophesies, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” It’s visible. As long as you know what you’re looking for. And Jesus tells them what they’re looking for. It was Isaiah again who foretold it, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing… the LORD has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” So now the disciples of John become apostles of Christ, and they go and tell what their own eyes have seen and their own ears have heard. And that’s exactly what we have, and more, in the apostolic Scriptures, in the witness of ex-disciples of John, Peter and Andrew and James and John, who witnessed not just Jesus’ giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, but his sufferings and his death and his cry to His Father, My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me, and his resurrection and his glory, who heard the words spoken from His mouth once all sin was paid for and death defeated and the devil silenced, “Peace be with you,” and, “I am with you always even to the end of the age,” and He is in His body and in His blood.
Jesus says the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. This isn’t to exclude John at all. It is to say that when John hears the words that come back from those disciples, when he hears that Jesus is the Christ, that Isaiah’s words came to life before their eyes, then Jesus is preaching the Gospel to poor John, and John takes his seat among the least in Christ’s Kingdom, and this is far greater than anything he has ever done as the greatest of those born of women.
I need to remember this myself. And you do too. The Gospel is everything. You can have the greatest ambitions in God’s Kingdom, wonderful ambitions, not sinful ones, God-given ones, like John. He put all his energy into fulfilling his task. And you should too. You won’t be the greatest, but you can be great. You can be a great Christian mother or father and put all your energy into raising Christian children, you can be a great and faithful worker who serves not as a man-pleaser but as if everything you do is done for the Lord, because it is. You can devote your life to God’s work and sacrifice for it. You can go beyond expectation and help build a college or a new church or plant congregations in foreign countries. But none of this striving will be as great a work as simply stopping everything and listening to the good news of Jesus.
Because all flesh is grass and all its glory as the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. That is what John preached. And like every good preacher, he listened to his own preaching. He needed a Savior. The axe was already at the root of the trees, and he could feel its sharp edge. All the great works of the greatest man who ever lived couldn’t still God’s wrath or divert the fire of His judgment. But now Jesus comes and preaches good news to the poor. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, takes on Himself also John’s sin, and His resurrection will be John’s resurrection, and His life will be John’s life, and there will be no weeping in all God’s holy mountain. John’s warfare is ended, and his iniquity is pardoned, and the Lord pays double for all his sins. Comfort, comfort, is what John preached, and now that comfort comes to him, and his little dungeon becomes a paradise.
So Jesus sends His word to every Christian. The answer to all doubt and sadness and fear of death. To you who fear His name, the sun of Righteousness rises with healing in His wings. He does for you what no exertion of yours could ever gain. Even if you were the greatest of those born of women. He gives you a new birth, a new name, as a child of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He pays double for all your sins. He ends the warfare and enmity with God. He establishes peace and makes you know the love of your Creator. He becomes your Shepherd who makes you graze on His body and blood. He turns death into the portal of everlasting life with God. He fulfils every promise and He ends all sadness and He makes you see the glory of being the least in His Kingdom. For the glory of the Lord now o’er earth is shed abroad, and all flesh shall see the token, that His Word is never broken.