Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:2-6 ESV).
By this time in Matthew’s Gospel, John is imprisoned by Herod. Certainly, this is not exactly what he expected to happen when the Christ came. After all, he had prophesied that “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10), that “He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” and also that “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11b, 12).
This Jesus, meanwhile, asked to be baptized by John, a request which John at first tried to deny. This Jesus has been preaching, healing, and teaching, but where was the winnowing fork? And where was the fire? Where was the axe laid to the root of the bad trees? After all, John’s own imprisonment is the result of one of those bad trees: that Herod with his brother’s wife and an eye for his niece. Where is the axe to cut down this tree? And so, understandably in some ways, John has a moment of doubt. After all, things don’t seem to be going QUITE to plan, and he must have some notion that his life under Herod’s hand is not safe. So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John, whose whole life was one of pointing to the Christ, has a moment of wavering. “Are you the one?”
Sometimes…no, pretty much all of the time…God doesn’t act in the ways we expect Him to act, or as quickly as we expect Him to act. He doesn’t mete out the fire and the axe on those who deserve it. Sometimes, it seems like He takes that fire and that axe to us! Surely WE don’t belong under the fire and the axe? Surely WE aren’t the bad trees with the bad fruit, right? Yet, John the Baptist, the very prophet of God, is subject to the powers of this world, held in prison and eventually beheaded. Yet we, God’s own children, are struggling with health issues too big to handle, financial strain too sharp to bear, disappointment after disappointment, enemies — those bad trees with bad fruit — who ought to be cut down. Yet, our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are struggling with raging diseases and no adequate food, water, or medicine; they are cut down by militants, asked to give up their very lives to confess the name of Christ, driven from their homes, murdered. And God is NOT acting like we thought He would. And so we, with John, ask: “Are you the one? Or shall we wait for another?”
And yet, God in Christ is acting as He has promised. In the midst of the hurt, the strain, even death itself, God in Christ is acting. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” Surely God in Christ is doing all of these things, as He has promised. He is acting in unexpected ways to bring about that which is promised: through the helping hands of a neighbor in their vocation (the masks of God), through the preached Word, through water and wine and bread, God in Christ is acting according to His promises. Even in death, God in Christ is at work. The axe was laid to the root of the tree on Calvary, cutting down the only one who ever bore perfect fruit, in order that even in our trials, our weakness, our pain and our death, God in Christ could act on His promises: healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising us up to live with Him for all eternity. Does it always look as we expect it to look? No, but His promises stand, His death still saves, His reign is here. And to this we cling.
Let us Pray: Lord God, Heavenly Father, sometimes You act in unexpected ways, strengthen us in the faith so that we may see You at work in grace and mercy, withstand when faced with difficulties, and ever cling to Your promises in the name and for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.