Life can seem pretty tough at times, even if you are certain you are following God’s will. In a world filled with evil, being on the front line for God can be exhausting, and exhaustion can lead to doubt and even despair.
We see it in the Old Testament in the prophet Elijah. At the height of his ministry, he overcame the priests of Baal in a battle of prayers and worship, bringing the destruction of those who were leading the Israelites astray. And yet, when faced with the evil Jezebel just a short time later, Elijah for all practical purposes ran away and collapsed in a heap in the wilderness, asking God to take his life.
We see it in our New Testament text for this third Sunday in Advent. Jesus would declare to the crowds that John the Baptist is “Elijah”—that is, John the Baptist was the prophet the people had been expecting, the one sent by God to declare the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, in the story, John the Baptist comes across as uncertain and even confused as he sat in prison.
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” he asked Jesus through messengers.
When you consider all of John the Baptist’s story, it is an astonishing question. If he was not certain, who can be certain?
To understand John the Baptist, you have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the mother of the Messiah before he has seen the world.
We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate how much time they spent together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.
When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he seemed certain enough, preaching a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to be baptized, he seemed certain enough, protesting that Jesus should baptize him and not vice-versa. In the Gospel of John, he seemed certain enough when he first saw Jesus, declaring, “Here is the Lamb of God.”
It would seem the uncertainty crept in during imprisonment, which happened after the prophet rebuked Jewish King Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own. Just as it was with Elijah, there’s no telling what caused doubt to creep in. Certainly, for a man who had lived all his life freely outdoors, eating locusts and honey and going where the Spirit drove him, being locked in a cell must have been disorienting.
Perhaps as a prophet, John the Baptist also began to sense where all of this was going. He wasn’t going to leave the cell alive. In fact, he was going to have his head delivered on a platter to a dancing girl and her spiteful mother. Had John the Baptist heard of chess, he might have begun to use the word “pawn” to describe himself, feeling like a disposable piece in God’s grand plan.
Jesus’ answer to his cousin’s question was not the obvious “Yes, I am the one,” the answer that would have provided comfort. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus told the messengers. “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.”
Here is what I hear in this response: “John, you are a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit. You know the signs; you know the answer.”
We do not know how John the Baptist received that response. The range of possibilities would run from despair to joy, I suppose.
I believe that like his Old Testament predecessor, Elijah, John the Baptist at least moved from doubt to strength. An angel of the Lord ministered to Elijah; messengers from Jesus returned to John. I think their straightforward words would have fed him spiritually, giving him a renewed faith that God’s kingdom was present through Jesus.
As I study John the Baptist, I’m also reminded how much Jesus loved his cousin, even if his reply was almost businesslike in its tone. When Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s beheading, he took to a boat to find a deserted place—he was grieving. And when the people found him, one of Jesus’ great acts of compassion occurred, the feeding of the 5,000.
When we find ourselves exhausted and doubtful, perhaps even feeling like pawns, it is good to remember we worship a God who treasures every piece in his creation. This life may not always go as we hope, but we need not doubt the joy God’s plan ultimately brings us.