In Luke chapter 7, Luke tells the story of John the Baptist sending his disciples to ask Jesus a question that burned inside him.
John had spent years proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. He’d heard about Jesus and the miracles He’d been performing. He knew Jesus personally. But now he was in prison and that was very difficult to reconcile with his ideas of what Jesus’s coming was supposed to mean.
He wanted to know if this was it. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19)
There seem to be several other questions wrapped up in what John was asking:
Is the Kingdom of God really coming? Is it really near?
Now that you’re here, Jesus, are you really making all things new?
Are you really reconciling all things to yourself?
Sometimes I feel like John in prison.
The world still seems so incredibly broken, so unredeemed, so worn and tattered and heading inexorably towards death, not life. I can understand that I wouldn’t see God’s final, perfected work right now, but this hardly feels like new creation at all.
Like John, I’ve felt, seen, and even proclaimed Jesus’s coming in the past, but it can be terribly hard to believe.
But Jesus’s response to John’s followers was telling. In that hour, He healed sicknesses and handicaps. He chased out demons, and He told the messengers to go and tell John what they had seen:
“The blind see. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised up. The poor hear the good news. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
What did John think when he received that news? We don’t know. It seems that Jesus wanted him to notice that the signs of the Kingdom of God were bursting into bloom all around Jesus.
It seems to be a way of saying, “No, John, you’re not wrong. See the evidence that God’s Kingdom comes in my wake.”
I think the reason John was wondering in the first place was that he didn’t see transformation on that larger scale that he expected—and likely in particular in his own personal predicament of being imprisoned. I can understand his sentiment.
How did John receive the response of his followers? Did he understand? Was he encouraged? Did he have more peace and faith in the days that followed in his prison cell?
Nothing ever really did change for him on a personal level. He never got out of prison. In fact, he was killed.
Still, Jesus seemed to be telling him, “John, have faith. Trust me. All things are not yet made new, but there are signs.
There are in-breakings. There are first fruits, seals, down payments, promises of a bigger thing to come. Let the signs give their witness and hang in there.”
Can I do that?
Is trust enough?
The funny thing is that where I work in Burundi, every day is quite similar to Jesus’ testimony.
Here, because of God, blind people see, the lame walk, and people with terrible medical conditions (including the occasional leper) are healed. People who are all but dead are seemingly resurrected (the French call intensive care “reanimation”).
The poor hear and see the good news that God is near—offering life, both eternal and abundant, offering forgiveness, offering adoption into His family.
It’s easy to imagine someone coming to visit and saying “See the signs! It’s real!”
But I see all the unhealed, as well.
I see a 14-year-old suddenly on the brink of dying. A lame man who had a terrible stroke and is likely to remain lame just to go home and get bedsores and die. Blindness from meningitis that is not getting better. Poor patients suffering and dying because they are poor in a poor country.
Broken systems with decisions that impede even the little that we can do. Fractured relationships in families and friends. Misplaced hope and desire leading to depression. Broken connections to God, to ourselves, to each other, to our work, to the earth. Sin.
The “signs” don’t feel like enough. The promise seems way too big for the signs to be adequately convincing.
“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” “…who doesn’t lose faith because of me.” “…who doesn’t stumble on account of me.”
Why did Jesus end His message with that? How does one get offended by this?
Sometimes we might say, “Look, what I’m about to say to you is hard. Please, don’t get offended. I know it’s hard, but don’t close your heart at the tough words. Hear me out. Don’t lose faith. Don’t fall. Hang in there.”
I guess it’s like that. Jesus is admitting that it’s hard to trust Him with this, but He gives us an admonition to persevere.
I keep coming back to Paul Miller’s description that we live in the desert created by the distance between our hopes (or promises) and the reality in which we find ourselves.
We can give up on the hope—and thus, despair. We can give up on the reality—and become delusional. Or we can dwell in the desert between the two, with one arm on each, feeling the tension pulling us apart at every moment.
The good news according to the Bible is that God always seems to be showing up in the desert.
Maybe Jesus’s message to John can help us as we feel this tension –
“Have patience, John. Trust. Let the signs encourage you, if they will. Maybe they won’t. But the promises are true. Live in the desert for now. Do what you can where you are.
The Kingdom of God is coming. I am coming soon.”