I Trust You, But…. Destiny 2, Requesting Reassurance and The Final Days of John the Baptist (Matthew 11)

The inevitable has occurred… After months of expansions and updates Destiny is finally receiving a proper sequel in the form of Destiny 2 this September.  And with that announcement comes all the trailers, marketing, and other forms of hype to whet our appetites for more exploring, grinding, and loot gathering for our Guardian of choice.  So how awesome will this title be and can it possibly live up to the expectations?  For me, there are certain publishers and game developers that receive carte blanche from me because of their continued excellence in delivering the goods each time they release a game.  I will reserve for Bungie the right to make whatever they want without pre-judgement because they have rarely let me down. Maybe Destiny took a while to work out all of the bugs, but Destiny 2 will receive the benefit of the doubt until proven unworthy.  Nintendo has nearly unlimited goodwill built up with me, and I will gladly stand in line for whatever mad science they conjure up next.  And if Bethesda says they want to make a cart-racing game, I’ll be their huckleberry.  Sign me up.  But as much as I would like to say I trust these developers implicitly, it simply isn’t so.  For every triumphant breakthrough like Bioshock there is a much less exhilarating Bioshock 2. Sometimes you get the excellence of Metroid Prime, and other times you get the muddled mess that was Metroid Other M.

The fact is that even the very best developers release a clunker every now and then, and a lengthy run of dependability is not a guarantee that disappointment isn’t waiting around the corner.  So as gamers, we search for reassurance that a game is on track during the months and sometimes years prior to release.  We see screenshots dribble out and dissect them for proof the game will live up to the hype.  We listen intently to press conferences for the right details to validate our hopes and dreams.  And many times before making the purchase we will turn to critics and reviewers for their final say before we finally plunk down our hard-earned cash to form our own opinion.

It is natural to seek something concrete to bind your faith to when times get tough or when you are unsure about the future.  Some of the greatest people of faith found in the Word of God have had their limits tested and sought reassurance from the Lord.  But don’t take my word for it… let’s go to the man who Jesus Christ Himself called the greatest man ever born of a woman.  His name?  John the Baptist.  And underneath the camel’s hide clothing and locust diet was a beating heart just like yours and mine that reached out for reassurance when things didn’t go the way he thought they would.

John the Baptist certainly casts an interesting shadow in his short time in the New Testament.  He came out of left field (literally) preaching a message that ran counter to the organized religion of the day and despite his rustic appearance and direct style amassed a tremendous following of converts.  His church was the desert, his baptismal was an open river, and with his simple message of repentance he swung the door wide open for the ministry of Jesus to begin.  When He received the honor of baptizing the Messiah, he informed his loyal disciples that He was in fact the Christ they were looking for, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  And he showed a tremendous amount of humility by informing them that as Christ’s ministry grew his would diminish with the phrase, “He must become greater, and I must become less and less”.

It seems that John’s definition of “less and less” did not include his arrest and imprisonment by Herod, but that’s exactly where we find him in Matthew 11.  Keeping this in context, it is important to remember that in John 1:29-35 we find John the Baptist quite clearly explaining to his followers that he understood Jesus was in fact the Messiah and that when he baptized Jesus he saw the Spirit of God descend on him.  This is significant because in verse 33 he explains that he did not know Jesus was the Son of God until this specific event, which was a fulfillment of a sign he was given by the Father Himself.  In other words, God told John this is how he would identify who the Messiah was, and it happened just as predicted.

So what happened between John 1, where we find the Baptist thoroughly convinced that Jesus is the Christ, and Matthew 11, where he is not as convinced?  In Matthew 11:2 we read that John had heard about the miracles and ministry of Jesus while in prison, and his response was to send two of his loyal followers to see Jesus and ask Him a very straight-forward question, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”.  That is almost the polar opposite of what John professed in John 1:34 when he said, “I have seen and I testify this is the Chosen One”.  It has been said that prison changes a man, but I believe this goes even deeper than that and speaks to a universal truth that we all grapple with at some point in our lives.

My assumption is that if you are reading this you are a flesh-and-blood human being, but if you are currently following along in a non-corporeal state more power to you, my friend.  As physical beings we interpret all of the events that unfold in our lives through our five senses, and since these forms of interaction are also purely physical they are capable of manipulation.  For example, it is nearly impossible to enjoy a perfectly seared steak while sitting next to an open sewage system.  It would be incredibly difficult to relax and absorb a deep back massage while someone rubs jalapeño peppers on your eyes.  Consider how easy it is to deceive someone’s sense of touch when they are deprived of the ability to see as evidenced in the classic school experiments where children place their hands inside darkened boxes to guess what is inside using only touch.  The fact is conflicting stimuli wreaks havoc on our ability to process information, and the result can be falsely interpreting an excellent meal as disgusting because of the odors you are near or failing to recognize a pleasing sensation because of an opposing unpleasant feeling applied elsewhere.

In matters of faith our feelings and physical observations should be irrelevant, but as we see in John’s case there is still a battle to be fought in even the most significant prophet’s heart.  His previous experience prior to prison confirmed to him that Jesus was the One who was promised, but his prison experience had allowed him to openly question what he knew to be true only a short time prior.  We don’t know exactly how long Herod had held John in prison, but based on the duration of Christ’s earthly ministry it could have ranged from a matter of months to three years.  Wherever his stay fell within those parameters, we do know that the remaining days of his life were spent there.  I can’t speak for what John was feeling, but if it was me I have to confess that I would probably be confused and feeling a little bitter and perhaps even forgotten in that setting.  After living a life of dedication and chaste obedience as a lone voice crying out against sin, wasting away hopelessly in prison seems like a tough pill to swallow.  And after humbly passing the baton to Christ, it is hard to see John’s humility and acceptance repaid in this way.  So it really shouldn’t be so surprising that John reaches out from his broken state and holds a hand out for the reassurance that what was clearly true in the daylight is still true in the darkest night.

What does John’s question really represent?  This goes far deeper than simply asking Jesus if He is the Messiah.  This is, at its heart, a need for John’s life of sacrifice to be validated.  Think about this… John was a man sent from God with one mission.  To prepare the way of the Lord.  If Jesus was not the Christ, John had either misheard God or failed in his purpose.  He had ONE job, to prepare the Earth for the coming of the Son of God.  And if he was wrong about Jesus, then honestly he had just wasted his life.  Sitting in the cell that he would never escape from, John wasn’t only questioning Jesus but he was questioning himself.  Did I get it wrong?  Did I tell my disciples to follow you when they should have been watching for someone else?  My faith told me you were the one, but my circumstances are making it hard to know for sure and now I have to consider if my entire life’s work was in vain.
So how does Jesus respond to this potentially offensive question?  It is very important that we dissect this, because we have all either been there or will be there at various points throughout our walk.  And His response to the question of His identity as well as to whether John had been successful in his mission is, as always, quite reassuring.  Interestingly, the first words out of His mouth is for the messengers to, “Go and tell John the things you see and hear “.  And as Christ lists the very physical and tangible proofs that are a fulfillment of Scripture it is almost as if He pulls back the cloudy sky just enough to show the sun is still present behind the clouds.  He didn’t have to do that.  He could have criticized his lack of faith.  Or He could have simply ignored the challenge and rebuked the idea that He was anything less than deity.  But he cared enough to reassure John using the physical proofs of His ministry to show that He was who He said He was and the work that John had started was continuing and growing as it was intended to.

It is His last sentence to John, and what was likely the final interaction between Jesus and John on this earth that should stick with us.  Final words usually carry the most meaning, and Jesus is well aware of what the future holds for his cousin.  And knowing not only his current inner turmoil but also the path that remained to be trod Jesus simply says, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me”.  The Greek word translated here as “offended” (skandalisthe) is one Christ used quite often and is more accurately described as “being the cause of falling away”, such as when Jesus warned against your eye offending you and giving instruction to cut it out.  It is the image of being a stumbling block or something that creates a snare that would result in a fall.  So when Jesus applies this word to Himself it is an open admission that John the Baptist will continue to face the challenge of reconciling who he believes Jesus is with what is being allowed to transpire in his circumstances.

In some ways it seems like Jesus did not answer the question, at least not as directly as one would hope.  But as He did so many times throughout His ministry and still does to this day, He let who He is and what He does define Him so we can all come to our own conclusions. When asked for His name by Moses in the Old Testament He simply answered, “I am that I am”.  When asked by John if He was indeed the Messiah He let His actions do the talking without saying yes or no.  And when dealing with His disciples He pushed the question to them, “Who do men say that I am?  Who do YOU say that I am?”

In 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 we see the duality of Christ demonstrated as Paul describes the message of the cross as both a stumbling block (there’s that phrase again) and the power and wisdom of God.  How can it be both things simultaneously?  As John found out, the same Christ who was setting others free was allowing him to sit in chains.  The same message that brings liberation to those who believe delivers condemnation to those who don’t.  It is what we choose to believe that is at the heart of the situation.  Jesus did not tell John whether he should keep looking for someone else or not.  That was up to John, as it is to each of us.  He is not for the easily offended, and His message was frequently criticized as hard and difficult to accept by those who wanted Him to fit into their pre-conceived “Messiah in a Box” instruction manual, just add water from the Jordan river.  The truth is many of His followers did some of their best work while in prison or exile…. ask Joseph, Samson, Paul, or John the apostle.  And while we don’t know what John the Baptist accomplished during his dungeon days, we do know that he refused to compromise his message to the day that his head was severed from his shoulders.

As we wrap up, it becomes clear that the way God reassures us is not by granting our every desire so we can constantly feel Him there.  He allows who He is and the evidence that is ever-present around us to confirm what our heart already knows to be true even while our mind challenges it.  And just like He did with John, He reminds us that it is how we respond to the obstacles and stumbling blocks on our path that prove we truly believe in Him.  It is not for Him that we endure these challenges… He already knows who He is.  It is for US.  He couldn’t answer John’s question because it was a question John had to answer for himself.  And as believers, we will face that choice more than just at our moment of conversion.  Every time a family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness, each day that your living situation becomes more hopeless, and when that sky just won’t seem to clear up He reminds us, “Blessed are those who don’t allow this to make them take offense and fall away”.  He reaches out and reassures, not with answers we want but the answers we need right now.

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