The Dilemma of John the Baptist

The Dilemma of John the Baptist

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Christmas is coming. Thank God that we Christians can celebrate Jesus’ birth once a year. Concerning Christmas, I want to ask you a question first: Do all who believe in God celebrate Christmas?

No, not all. The Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas. The reason is very simple: they don’t believe Jesus. And we celebrate Christmas is because we believe Jesus. If you know something about Judaism, then we would know that their bible is only our Old Testament, they don’t accept the New Testament as God’s word. They also don’t think Jesus is the Messiah, and they don’t believe God can become a man to save us. And of course Jesus was crucified by their ancestors. So if we say we believe Jesus, we must be different than them, and we must know why Jesus must be born for us and why only Jesus can bring hope to us? If we don’t understand, then we have no difference with the Jewish religion, and we are not celebrating Christmas, but just a secular holiday. That’s why Greg preached about John the Baptist, and today my sermon is also about John the Baptist. Because when we understand John the Baptist and his mission, we can understand the meaning of Christmas and know why Jesus must be born.

John the Baptist actually is Jesus’ cousin, he was born just half a year earlier than Jesus. They met two times in their lives, the second time was when John baptized Jesus in the Jordon river, but the first was where they were in the womb. Bible’s record here is very interesting. It is written that when Elizabeth, John’s mother, heard Mary’s voice, she said to Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Why? Because the baby inside of her was filled with the Holy Spirit. So actually John the Baptist was chosen or predestined by God, even before he was born, for one single mission, that is to prepare the way before Jesus. Before Jesus started his mission, John was the most famous wilderness prophet in Israel, everyone came to listen to his preaching about repentance, but after Jesus arrived, John gradually faded out of focus. Finally, he was put into prison, for he publicly criticize the King’s sin. Our scripture today is about an indirect dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist while he was in prison.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

Then Jesus sent back his disciples with his answer to John: Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

First, we have to know that at this moment, John the Baptist was in the jail, and he could be executed by the king anytime. Under this threatening situation, John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him a question: Are you really the Messiah we are waiting for?

This question that John asked is quite confusing for all readers, and we can have several different explanations:

First explanation: we know John baptized Jesus and announced to all that Jesus is the Messiah, but when he was put in prison and faced the death threat, he became weak and felt lonely and sad, so he started to doubt Jesus’ identity.

Another explanation: John didn’t doubt Jesus’ identity, but he didn’t understand the Messiah’s mission. He clearly knew what miracles Jesus did, but when he saw Jesus saved the others without saving himself, he tried to stimulate Jesus to save him, also bring good news to him, “if you are the Messiah, then why not save me?”

Third explanation is: he was neither weak, nor request salvation from Jesus, instead he just wanted to help his disciples who probably thought Jesus had forgotten their teacher. So John sent them to Jesus, hoping Jesus can strengthen them with more faith.

All of these explanations are very reasonable. The Bible scholars love to research this, but I must say, we read the Bible not for researching, so we don’t need to focus on the historical truth. In my opinion, all of these could be true, but it doesn’t matter, for the historical truth for Bible readers is not that important. What the Bible author, specially Matthew, really wants to express, is not the historical truth, but the spiritual truth, for the Bible is not about history, but how God tells His story.

In order to understand what he really want to express, I must read the following verses:

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Let me directly interpret Jesus’ words:

John the Baptist is a very great prophet, he is the greatest one, actually, for his mission is to welcome the Messiah. All other prophets only prophesied about the Messiah, but John the Baptist actually baptized the Messiah, so Jesus spoke highly of John, saying “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”

However even though he was great, Jesus supplemented, that John had the dilemma that he could passed over, so that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This is what the Bible author wants to express.

Who are those born of women? All of us! That the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he, is not saying there are social classes in God’s kingdom, some is big and some is small. Jesus was emphasizing that the message of John the Baptist is not sufficient to take people into heaven. Therefore, Jesus here approved John the Baptist firstly, and then also disapproved him. What does this mean?

What Jesus approved is John’s mission. Had his mission been completed? Absolutely yes! He successfully prepared the way for Jesus, but how? He achieved this by his own way being denied. In other words, John and all who John represents, all human beings, cannot find the true way, therefore they proved that Jesus is the only way through which man can be saved. This is the dilemma of John the Baptist, his prison is the very symbol of man’s helplessness. This is why Jesus saved many but didn’t save John, for John himself had to prepare the way for Jesus into sinners’ hearts through his own miserable destiny. This is John’s mission. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” As he said. He must give the way to Jesus, making Jesus the savior, to substitute his and man’s own self-salvation.

So here the author of Bible does not want us entangle with the personal destiny of John the Baptist, but want us see the destiny of whole humankind: without Jesus, we have no hope!

That’s why Jesus said to his disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

This is not only to John the Baptist, but to all of us. Jesus directly told us, only he is the Messiah, the savior, not anyone else.So who are we? We are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor, but we don’t realize that. We don’t know we are blind, we suppose we can see, but some among us are God’s prophets. They realize that they are blind, so they are sent to tell us we all are blind. Who is happier, the blind who don’t know he is blind, or the blind who knows he is blind? That’s why no one liked the prophet, but this is the job of John the Baptist. All the prophets in Old Testament are revealed by God and know more, they are very great, but their job at best can make the blind know he is blind. When we know we cannot see the light, we cannot hear the truth, we are unclean like the leper, we can indeed have more wisdom than the others, but this cannot bring us any real change and joy.

This is the dilemma of John the Baptist, this is the dilemma of the Judaism, and this is the dilemma of humankind. If Jesus was not born, we can at best know we are sinners, but we have no way to change it. So if Jesus didn’t come, we can only have two choices, suffer with guilty feeling, or die with unfettered freedom.

Augustine wrote something about his childhood in his book Confessions:

When he was a child, in his neighbor’s backyard there was a pear tree. During every harvest season, he climbed the wall to steal their pear. But you know there was also a pear tree in his own backyard. He said that neither because he was too hungry, nor that their pear was better than his, but actually the pears in his backyard were sweeter and bigger than his neighbor’s. Just because he had stolen it, then it tasted pretty sweet. The reason he wanted to steal is just he knew this was wrong. Eating his own is just as sweet, but stealing his neighbor’s can make him feel indescribably satisfied.

So he deeply confessed before God, for he found in him a very terrible devil. Stealing is just committing sin, but the reason he wanted to commit sin is he has a sinful nature in him. He could stop committing sin, but he had no way to control that sinful nature, like you cannot lift yourself by your hands. Yes, this is just a behavior of a bad boy, but the sad thing is that all adults’ sins are committed in the same way. Augustine’s confession is like a blind who find out he cannot see. This kind of helpless feeling pushed him to find a savior who is able to open his eyes, for he was unable, so he eventually became a Christian.

The message of John the Baptist is about repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He helped people to recognize their sins, to confess their sin and sinful nature. This is very important, but this kind of message is not enough to bring real happiness and satisfaction, that’s why many Christians are not very happy. Even though they are very pious, their confession is very sincere, they have a lot of Bible knowledge, but they are not happy, and cannot make people around them happy, because they only learned the message of John the Baptist. The belief without Jesus can only make us more miserable in the end.

When we tell Jesus’ gospel or share our testimonies to the others, when we bring people to church, when we get along with other sisters and brothers in church, we must examine our words and deeds. Can we only make them learn that they are blind, or can we move them forward seeking the One who can open their eyes. These are two opposite beliefs, one is based on fear, the other one is based on hope. The fear can only force you to become a very religious person, and bring a lot of negative consequences, but the hope can transform you to become an active and free man of God.

I am not telling you to ignore the others’ problems or sins. I am just reminding you to be careful, for we are also sinners. At the aspects of judging and punishing, we are good; at the aspects of forgiving and comforting, we are not good. Everytime you want to point out the others’ sins, except for the skill and technique, you must examine yourself: do you have the love from Jesus, after his confession, to make him still believe Jesus is willing and able to forgive him and release him from the slavery of committing sin. This cannot be done by your words, you must ask, can your behaviors make him believe so. If you cannot, don’t rashly point out the other’s sin, for confessing sin is not gospel, Jesus is the gospel.

Today we are all trying to establish a church of grace. No matter who, when they steps into our church, they should feel accepted. They can freely be themselves. Their habits, languages, dispositions, cannot be the excuse that we judge them, for judging and criticizing cannot really make people change. Just like the woman who was caught in adultery and would be stoned, Jesus forgave first, and then said to her, “Go and leave your sin.” And then she became Jesus’ follower.

The longer we live in this world, the more we know about sin and human nature, the easier we feel disappointed toward this world, that’s no problem, but do we have more faith to believe Jesus can make the blind receive their sight, make the deaf hear, even make the dead are raised. If you really believe, this Christmas is yours!

At last, let me share one person’s life with you.

His name is Shi Tie Sheng, a writer in China, also is a Christian. His whole life has nothing to do with the happiness defined by most people. He said his illness and disability is a gift from God. All of his writings are his thinking on disability and illness in 40 years of sickness.

He was born in Beijing, graduated from high school in 1967, sent to the countryside to work in China’s Cultural Revolution in 1969, and sent back to Beijing in 1972 because his two legs were paralytic. Later he got kidney disease and then uremia. He passed away on the last day in 2010.

1971 was the second year he was sent to the countryside in west China after graduation. One day he pastured cattle for the village among the mountains, it suddenly rained very heavily and hail fell with such violence that Shi was knocked down. After he returned, he got fever and sharp pain. The local hospital could not heal him, so he was sent back to Beijing, but his illness still could not be controlled. In the beginning he walked into the hospital, but one year later his father used the wheelchair to take him home.

In his book he wrote about this period, “at the time, everyday we stared at the roof, using my eyes to write a word – death. I pray if I write for thousands of times, it can come true. So every morning when I woke up, I feel disappointed, why am I still alive?” Even though he didn’t die, after the paralysis, he gradually got  ichoremia, toxuria and renal dysfunction.

He said his body is like a airplane, two engines, the two kidneys, and two landing gears, the two legs, both fail to work. For many years he lied on the sickbed, listening to his blood flowing in the dialyzer, he said, “it sounds like the airplane is struggling in the air.” He made fun of himself, saying, “my work is to be sick, and in the spare time I write.”

He separated his writing into two parts, in the first part, he focused on the disabled man, in the second part, he started to focus on man’s disability. He found that all men are imperfect and imcomplete, the disability is just one form of that. This founding made him suddenly enlightened.

Once a journalist asked him how he saw his illness. He answered, “my illness is a respectable opponent. It’s like a chess champion asks to play chess with you. You don’t want, but you have no choice, and you cannot rage. You can only accept it, and try to find a way, maybe you can get wisdom, so even if you lose, you also win.”

An article’s comment on him says, “only when one was forced to the moment of thinking death and life, he can get rebirth in spirit. After deep desperation, Shi Tie Sheng can peacefully face life’s randomness. He rebuilt ideal on the ruins of ideality, passed over the fate in the helplessness, then he became the hero of fighting against helplessness.

But he himself didn’t think he was a hero. He said when he was just paralytic, if someone mocked his legs, he wanted to take the pack of dynamite and die together with them. He analyzed himself, “I think I have two parts, one is self-inferiority, one is greediness.

Gradually he was changed, from being angry to peaceful, from hating to forgiving.

He concluded the reason why he became a Christian, that’s because he always have fear toward this world. Because of fear, the strong desire for love and faith was born and grown in him.

I read many tough lives, many can make me sad, but when I read Shi Tie Sheng’s life, I was fully charged with the power of life. I cannot describe his life with language. I just feel when he was alive, his life is so weak, so close to death, but after he died, you still feel he is alive. Later I understand, that’s not his life, but Jesus’ life overflow from him. You can see God on him.

When this Christmas is coming, do you realize your dilemma and limitation? Do you see Jesus like a ray of light thrusts into this dark world? Imagine this: infinite God, was confined into this three-dimension universe, into this small galaxy, this small solar system, this small planet, and into a little baby, all his power was deprived, but his love and grace didn’t decrease, so he can release a strong gravity to human hearts.

Actually, John the Baptist is very great, his greatness lies on his knowing about his dilemma, but the reason our spiritual life often don’t grow is because we don’t realize our dilemma, so we feel we don’t need Jesus ver much. Christmas is coming, may Jesus be born again in our heart, give us new life to face the new year!

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