“I just want an answer!”

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

 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 offence 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. 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.”
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. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

 -Matthew 11:1-15

“I just want an answer,” moaned the man at the airline’s customer service desk. The tone was uncanny: a terrible blend of demanding, pleading, and keening. Sitting in the first row of the waiting area at a crowded gate, I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation with the airline employee. He had been stuck in Charlotte for thirty-six hours. Snowstorms snarled the whole middle of the country, and this poor man found himself trapped in North Carolina. Each new itinerary the airline produced was almost immediately rendered irrelevant by worsening weather. Every flight he got on soon got cancelled. The young woman working at the desk tried to remain upbeat and helpful. But the man had no more time for her evasions and phony assurances. He was beyond anger, beyond frustration, beyond worry, beyond hope. He just wanted to get home. He just wanted an answer.

Sitting in his prison cell, John the Baptist knew he didn’t have much time left. He had defied Herod the king. Worse–much worse–he had upset Herod’s wife Herodias by calling into question the legality and morality of their marriage. (Herodias had divorced her first husband in order to marry his half-brother Herod. And you thought your family was dysfunctional…) His execution would come soon.

As a prophet and a servant of the Lord, John was not afraid of Herod’s wrath or Herodias’s spite. But before he died, John just wanted an answer. John wanted to know whether his work—his life spent as “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”—had been successful. John’s special task, a task for which he had been set apart since before his birth (before his conception, even) had been to make God’s people ready to receive the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One. When his cousin Jesus came to him at the River Jordan to be baptized, John knew that he had at last seen the One for whom the people of Israel had been waiting—the One for whom his whole life had been given in service as a forerunner, a messenger, a preparer. When his arrest and imprisonment finally came, John could embrace suffering knowing that his work was finished, that he had see the Messiah, the Christ: Jesus of Nazareth.

But now, reports about Jesus’ ministry had reached John in his cell. This man from Nazareth wasn’t behaving like a Messiah. He wasn’t acting like the Anointed King of Israel, raising an army and making ready to rid his realm of Roman occupiers. Neither was he fulfilling his role as the great prophet-priest, preaching strict repentance, as John had, and purging God’s people of the unworthy, the unready, and the unwanted. Jesus wasn’t living into the Messianic identity that John and everyone else so cherished. And so from his dank dungeon, John sent messengers with the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s time was drawing near. His ministry was already ended. He just wanted an answer.

Notice how Jesus responds to his query. He doesn’t engage in a dispute with John’s disciples, shouting at them, “You’re looking for the wrong Messiah!” Neither does he appeal to John’s own experience, relaying the sarcastic message, “Well, you were there that day at the Jordan when the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended as a dove. What do you think?”

Rather than answer John’s question with his words, Jesus responds with his works. “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.”

Jesus invites John’s disciples and John himself to set aside their expectations and notions about what a Messiah should be, and says “Look! Look and see what I am doing. I am indeed opposing the powers that oppress my people: the powers of sin and sickness—the reign of sorrow and death. I am indeed cleansing the children of Israel: purging their hearts and making ready their lives—announcing the Gospel, the Good News, to the poor and the lowly. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

What answers are you searching for this Lent? Prayerfully consider whether you are asking the right questions, or whether the strength of your own expectations has shut your eyes to God’s promises and purposes. Though even prophets ponder the meaning of his words and works, still Christ Jesus commands us in our wonder: “Let anyone with ears, listen!”