Matthew 11:2-11 – Third Sunday of Advent
We have covered a lot of ground between John’s first proclamation of Jesus’ coming (and baptism) and this text today.
As mentioned last week, each of the Gospel writers have to address John in some way because it must be a question of the time. “What is the relationship between these two communities? Should followers of John also follow Jesus? Who is the true prophet? Who is the true Messiah?”
And so, Matthew takes a little more time here to break down this justification for why the communities should come together. This is also the first time that Matthew has given John greater status other “the Baptist.” In Mark he is referenced as the forerunner in the second verse of the entire gospel (Mark 1:2 referencing Malachi 3:1). And in Luke he is prophesied to be “with the spirit and power of Elijah…” (Luke 1:17). Matthew intentionally leaves that escalated role out until this moment where he names John as “more than a prophet” and in v14 equates John with Elijah. Now that Jesus has proven his authority and power through the Sermon on the Mount, some healings, a few exorcisms, and additional teachings, there will not be any problem in lifting John up to this elevated status. Now it gives even more weight to the transition of authority from John to Jesus.
But to just write off this section as more justification about Jesus’ authority over John would miss the depth of what Matthew is doing and would miss so much more preaching opportunity.
We get this question from John, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” To this point in Matthew, John and Jesus have talked quite a lot about the repentance of the world and the coming judgment. And yet, Jesus has mostly taught and healed. There hasn’t been “judgment” in the sense of fire and brimstone. In many ways, Jesus’ work has been almost all mercy. So, as we get this question, is John questioning Jesus because there hasn’t been enough judgment and condemnation? In Matthew, the judgment of the world does not come until the end times. Jesus’ purpose in this incarnational visit is not to deliver judgment, but to continue the prophetic tradition and inspire right living through God’s presence among God’s people. The proclamation of a day of judgment is a warning and a call for repentance so that God’s people might turn back towards God and caring for one another, but judgment is not God’s desire. While Jesus does warn us of the judgment throughout the Gospel, he also continually offers justice, mercy, and faith (cf. Matthew 23:23) as a way to turn the people of God back toward God and their neighbors. So, this text may be an opportunity to preach about God’s actions being different from our expectations.
However, we can also address the topic of doubt in this text, too. For an unspecified reason, John is expressing some doubt about Jesus’ ministry. It very well could be for the reason above (Jesus showing mercy rather than judgment), but we don’t know that for certain. So, is Matthew trying to teach us something about times of doubt? In this example, even the most faithful person, John the Baptist, is doubting. But Jesus does not condemn this or turn away from John. Rather when Jesus is asked this question he responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” Jesus’ response to this question of doubt is witness.
John is in prison, unable to preach and share the good news himself. He is probably emotionally and spiritually spent. He is probably frustrated, angry, and scared. The Roman Empire still oppresses Israel, and nothing seems to be changing. It is completely understandable that doubt would creep into his mind. And to this question Jesus answers with witness. He tells the disciples to, “Go and tell everything that you have seen. Remind John that not all is the same. Remind John how God is working in this world. Help him remember God’s presence and promise. Help him to see God in this world and to see that change is possible.”
It is always helpful to remind ourselves that God’s ways are not our ways. We expect and anticipate things to go according to our plans and yet very rarely are our plans perfect and best for everyone else. In this time of Advent, when we want everything to be just so, how can we leave room in our expectations for God’s plans and God’s actions to be seen and see how God is present and acting in this world now?
As the world feels more and more chaotic, it becomes easier and easier to lose hope and doubt God’s presence and action in this world. But Jesus reminds us to bear witness to what we have experienced. By remembering how God has acted in our lives, it gives us hope and vision to see God still working in our lives. By sharing how God is acting in our lives, we may just help someone who is doubting feel the presence of God around them again as well. Remember and witness all that God has done for you and share that with others to give them hope as well.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 212.