Pastor Lincoln Winter posted this over on his blog Wild Boar from the Forest, and it brought to mind the sermon that my pastor preached that helped me understand this. This particular pericope has bothered me for most of my life — why does Jesus’ cousin John doubt whether Jesus is the Messiah? He jumped in his mother’s womb when Mary came to visit while pregnant with Jesus. He’s probably known him most of his life. I just could not wrap my mind around why he would doubt.
Here’s Pastor Winter’s take on this pericope:
Better Late than Never (link)
Pastor Lincoln Winter
I know, We’re less than 48 hours from Christmas, and now I post on Advent 3.
I’ve been chewing on this for a week or two, and I’m finally ready to comment.
Advent 3, (John sends his disciples to Jesus) is often interpreted as John, languishing in prison, beginning to doubt that Jesus is the promised one, so he sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is truly the Christ.
I have looked, and I am unable to find where this interpretation begins. It is not, in my (admittedly limited) research, in the early church fathers.
Nor is it in Luther, or for that matter Walther. However, it does appear (in subtle form) in Lenski.
But if John doubts, we have a problem.
Jesus does not condemn John’s doubt. He praises John’s steadfastness.
This takes an axe to the first Commandment. In the Large Catechism, Luther goes to great pains to point out that trust is what makes a thing a god, whether it be the True God, or a false god. Whatever we trust in, that is our God.
If John doubts, Jesus praising his steadfastness not only leaves us with no law for this Gospel reading, it totally decimates the entire concept of the law.
This is a fundamental problem.
Indeed, sermons that take the view that John doubted generally have some sort of generic law, but they all leave you with the impression that it is OK to doubt. Now, exegesis is certainly not my strong suit, but I am pretty sure that the Scriptures can be interpreted in no other way than to condemn unbelief. Jesus says, “O ye of little faith” to the disciples, and it is not an endearing term.
Yet, for some reason, Jesus here praises John for his steadfastness in the face of his (supposed) unbelief.
Indeed, Jesus words (no reed broken by the wind) almost necessitate rejecting the “doubting John” theory out of hand.
My recommendation? Go with the traditional explanation : John sent the disciples to Jesus so that they would believe. His has one last chance to point to Jesus, and he takes it.
My Pastor’s explanation of this pericope made a lot of sense to me. His basic statement was that John was expecting a Messiah much like the jewish leadership was — a leader who would immediately bring justice to the world and not let bad things happen to good people. Everything would become glorious with the arrival of God’s son. There would be heaven on earth.
It was therefore perfectly human of John to doubt — he’s been sitting for a year in this prison, looking forward to death and not the glorious life that he expected after the Messiah came. The human in any of us would get dejected and wonder if he understood correctly, and want some kind of reassurance that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.
12-12-10 3rd Sunday in Advent — Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-11, Matthew 11:2-15
“Is Jesus What You Expected?”
Rev.Mark Elliott, St John Lutheran Church, Champaign, IL