“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3)
John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask this question of Jesus while he himself was unfairly locked behind bars. Perhaps though, even if he could have walked out on his own two feet, he still would’ve sent his disciples. I can’t quite imagine that John would have felt completely unabashed to ask this question of the man he himself had proclaimed to the whole Judean countryside—with waving arms and brutal honesty and cracking voice raised against the winds, no less—as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And, of course, to ask of it of his own kin, when his own existence was inseparable from the prophecy that heralded his cousin’s birth. No, I think that had he been free, John would very likely have sent his disciples anyway. I would have. In a way, I do. Every time I ache to hear someone else’s testimony, someone else’s story or answered prayer, or hear someone else’s tale of grief, I am in a sense asking the same question: So, have you found him to be the one, or do you think I should start looking for another?
Looking seems to be a major theme of both this passage and our modern journeys. Jesus didn’t much look like the portrait of the Messiah painted by the prophets even to the first century Jewish communities he walked among and he doesn’t much look like it now to us. One glance at the news makes me wonder if maybe the Jews are right—how can the Messiah have come if our world is still so broken? The past year alone saw a fissure dividing political parties, families and evangelical leaders alike; saw scores of women come into the open about stories of sexual abuse; saw forest fires, hurricanes, bomb cyclones and tornadoes; saw racially-charged protests in Charlottesville, and Vegas shooters at music festivals. Every time I read the news or watch a commercial aimed at an entertainment-saturated culture or listen to a friend’s story of pain, I ask John’s same question. Every time I look at myself, for that matter, and the selfishness that constantly corrodes me, I ask it. If he really is the one, why am I so little changed?
And yet I find hope in the rest of Matthew’s account, because what does Jesus say? Does he rebuke John for his lack of faith? Does he point out every prophecy he fulfills, including the one about John himself? He does neither. Rather, his answer is one rooted in looking:
“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 11:5-6)
Jesus’ reply is the opposite of theoretical and dogmatic. It is empirical in the truest sense of the word—appealing to the reality and truth of experience. Go and tell John what you have seen and heard, go and tell him… People are receiving their sight, people are receiving their hearing, those who cannot walk are walking, the dead are living. Good news has come in the form of hands and feet and eyes and a radical subversion of the traditionally hierarchical society. Do you want to see the truth, John? Look around. See by others’ new sight. Don’t you know that belief now has limbs? By all means, keep looking for another if you want to be safe, but meanwhile, keep your eyes open for all the ways I am opening people’s eyes. And blessed are you, John, if you can hear this and not be offended, because God knows I know myself to be an offensive kind of truth. Like getting a shovel in answer to a request for water; like getting new eyes when all you asked was where to look.
This passage in Matthew’s gospel gives me so much hope, almost more than I want or can stand. It causes me to come alive in response to its beauty. It anoints me with this kind of quiet, burning desire to be the answer to John’s question to somebody else. And it awakens in me a sense of almost painful gratitude to all the people—friends and pastors, poets and novelists, theologians and musicians—who are the answer to John’s question for me. What is the church? The body of Christ. Perhaps another way to say it is that the church is the restored hands and feet and eyesight and hearing that Jesus resurrected during his ministry on earth, and we are to be those limbs and senses to a world aching from amputation and sensory deprivation.
Come all ye who hunger and thirst, who yearn for meaning, who sting from suffering. Come all ye who are looking. There is good news here for you, and it is news that walks, laughs, weeps, sings.