“I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:18-28)
The world’s measure of greatness and God’s measure of greatness are two completely different things. The world measures greatness in terms of power, prestige, influence, celebrity, fame, fortune. As we come to the end of the calendar year, we will get the inevitable greatest lists: the sexiest men, the sexiest women, the most influential people, the richest people, the most powerful people. The movers, the shakers. That’s who the world labels with the word “greatness.”
Even in the religious world, who are the great ones? The ones with a following, of course! The ones with the multi-million dollar books deals who appear on Oprah. The celebrity preachers who draw thousands to hear them on a Sunday morning, who have built not simply a congregation but an empire. Pastors who are invited to the White House and the state house, who advise politicians and are asked to pray for major state functions. That’s greatness.
Jesus applies to the word to a different sort – John the Baptizer. And not John at the “peak of his game,” but John down in the dumps, the depths of Herod’s prison, on death row facing a certain death, and doubting. Questioning the mission. Doubting his own preaching. Wondering aloud through his disciples, “Do we have the right one in Jesus? Was I wrong when I pointed to Him and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?’ Did I misread the signs from heaven?” “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Wow! Is this the same John we heard last week? The John who called the religious leaders of Israel a “brood of vipers?” The John who called an entire nation to repentance? The John who demanded that repentance be not only in word but also in deed, bearing the fruits of repentance? The John who stood resolutely in the water of the Jordan and pointed confidently to Jesus saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”?
Yes. This is the same man, now under much different circumstances. John is in prison. He got thrown in prison for publicly criticizing Herod for taking his brother Philip’s estranged wife as his own. And now the forerunner to the Messiah sits in a dungeon awaiting his death. And the doubts begin to settle in. Have you ever harbored doubts in your mind, when circumstances took an ugly turn, when your expectations, hopes, dreams were dashed to pieces? Have you doubted God’s wisdom, His plan, His goodness, His promise? Have you ever grown impatient with God, wanting Him to act now rather than later, wanting Him to do something instead of just talk, wanting to break through the silence and the numinous curtain that hides God from our sight as the world mocks us for praying to our “invisible, silent Friend in heaven.”
Doubt and faith go together. We believe what we cannot see or prove, what we cannot know by our reason and our senses. And so there will always be doubts, from whether God actually exists or not to whether we are actually justified by God’s grace through faith for Christ’s sake alone. It is all taken on faith, on God’s Word, and is therefore always open to doubt as our eye overrules the Word.
“Are you the One who is to come or shall we look for another?” John sends his disciples to Jesus with the doubting question. But notice, John sends to to Jesus. He would have gone himself, if he could have. He brings his doubts to Jesus and lays them at his feet. Luke says at the very hour that doubting question was put on the lips of John’s disciples, Jesus healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and the blind were healed. These were the messianic signs, the signals that the kingdom of God had come, that the Day of the Lord had dawned. The prophet Isaiah spoke most clearly of it:
“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your god will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then shall the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35)
Those were the visible signs of the coming age of Messiah, and Jesus sends the two back with this report. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor hear the good news preached to them. “And blessed is the one who is not offended, who does not stumble, over me.”
Those signs are signs for us too. The signs point us to the resurrection that comes with Jesus’ resurrection, to the coming dawning day when we will rise with new creation bodies, free of defect and disease, free of devil and demons, free of sin and all its effects. We can’t really imagine such a world and a life now. But the signs give us a little taste. We call the “miracles,” but that doesn’t do justice. These aren’t suspensions of “natural laws” or little divine parlor tricks to get our attention. They are little pieces of visible evidence that the kingdom of God was breaking through and into this world.
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty One who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by His love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
Jesus doesn’t chastise John for his doubts, nor you for yours. Instead, He extols John. He calls him “great,” even “the greatest to be born of woman.” Not greatness in the way of the world though. Greatness in the way of the kingdom of God. Not a reed bending in the winds of public opinion, like so many religious figures of John’s day and our own, who are willing to bend and mold the Word of God like putty to suit the fashions of the day. Not a man dressed in expensive suits and silk ties with matching handkerchief who looked more at home in a king’s palace than the wilderness.
John’s greatness was a greatness that comes with a cross. Prophetic greatness. The greatness of anonymity, of being nothing more than a Voice and a Messenger for another. The greatness of laboring without ever seeing the tangible results of your work. The greatness of living by faith and not by sight. John’s greatness is unrecognized by the world. There is no Nobel Peace Prize given out for this sort of greatness, no Medal of Honor. The headlines ignore him, the tabloids have nothing to say about him. John would not be welcome at state dinners and White House receptions.
John’s greatness fits perfectly in Advent, that dark humble season that everyone pretty much ignores. Waiting in the darkness for the kingdom of God to dawn. That’s John in all his greatness. Waiting in a cold, dark prison for the kingdom of God to come. Hoping, believing, and yes, even doubting. Even the great ones doubt. Especially the great ones.
Today is Gaudete Sunday, the “pink candle Sunday” for Advent wreaths with a pink third candle. The Sunday of rejoicing in the midst of gloom and darkness. John in prison is the perfect image. Jesus would say to John and to each of us here today, “Rejoice. Rejoice in the midst of your sorrow and pain. Rejoice for this reason alone: I am near and coming soon.” Perhaps you feel imprisoned. Whether by the circumstances of your life, your doubts, your sins, diseases, the deaths of your own expectations of how God should operate. This Sunday bids you rejoice not in spite of those thing, but in the midst of those things. The cross of Jesus brings a sublime joy to the darkest of dungeons.
The joy of Jesus is the joy of your salvation, for which He endured the darkness and death of the cross. That joy is yours, my friends, a joy that endures among the sorrows of this life, a joy that surpasses every fleeting joy that this world has to offer, a joy that endures forever. That joy is in Jesus. Blessed are you when you are not offended by Jesus’ apparent weakness as He appears crucified to this world, but when you apprehend with John what it means to die and rise in Jesus.
Jesus called John great, yet He calls you, His baptized believer, even greater than John! Imagine that. You probably didn’t think of yourself as great. But even the least little one of faith in the kingdom of God is greater than John in all his prophetic greatness.
You! You are considered great in the kingdom of God. Not for what you have done or accomplished. Not for the awards you have collected, but simply because you are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and bear His name.
That’s greatness in the kingdom of God. And reason to rejoice.
In the name of Jesus,