Last Thursday was election day. Here in Kent we only elected the Police Commissioner, but other parts of the country saw local councils and mayors elected.
There are many problems in our country. Always have been. Unemployment. A creaking health service. Education policies. Environmental issues. We’re always on the lookout for someone who can step in and solve our problems. Preferably fix my problems.
Some of you are too young to remember, but I remember very clearly when Tony Blair came to power in 1997. The media portrayed the mass euphoria that spread the country. And we heard New Labour’s theme song on endless repeat: Things Can Only Get Better! The same optimism surrounded David Cameron when he was elected in 2010. And when Barack Obama first entered the White House. And let’s not get side-tracked discussing Donald Trump, but it’s clear that his most passionate supporters have the same hopes for him.
In each case, the mood is the same. If only we can get this person into power. They’ll finally be the one to tackle the big issues of the day that other politicians have failed to address. Things can only get better.
The trouble is that the years pass. They always fail to deliver. And usually stories of corruption begin to emerge touching individuals very close to the government. And it’s never long before we realise this latest hero has clay feet. They’re not the saviour of the world, and we begin all over again, looking for the person who is.
That sense of yearning, for some kind of Messiah figure, is wired deep into our DNA. This is why it’s in so many fairy tales. Stories that reappear in many cultures over many centuries. We all long for our Prince Charming, come to rescue Rapunzel from her tower, or Cinderella from her sisters. Or possibly we have ideas of grandeur, and we want to be that prince. I am Prince Charming, we think.
Well, today I’ve got some good news for you. The search can stop. If we want someone who can fix our biggest problems, meet our deepest needs, we need look no further.
There’s a reason why we all long, deep down, for someone like this. The God who made us had always planned to send someone, a Messiah figure, who would be our rescuer. We’re wired to look for this. Through the centuries before Jesus, he often promised that he would.
Here’s Isaiah 61, for example: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
One day, God would send an individual like this to bring us all the rescue, the release, the deliverance we hope for.
And the good news of our passage from Matthew chapter 11, is that Jesus is that person.
Our trouble is believing it. We’re so used to disillusion and cynicism when we think we’ve found “the one”. You hear me say that Jesus really is the one, and immediately you switch off. Something defensive inside you tells you not to be fooled. Surely Jesus is no more likely to actually deliver than any of the other heroes we’ve hoped in over the years.
Well don’t drift away too quickly. The people of Jesus’ day were also somewhat sceptical. Matthew records this, because he wants us to be deeply convinced that, with Jesus, it really is true.
Let’s turn to Matthew 11. Why should we believe that Jesus really is the one? I’ve got two headings for us.
Believe it because of his miracles
Firstly, believe it because of his miracles. Believe it because of his miracles.
John the Baptist is in his prison cell. He’s heard of all that Jesus has been doing, called in verse 2 “the deeds of the Messiah”. So he sends messengers to Jesus. Verse 3: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
It’s the question we’re all asking. Here’s the reply Jesus sends back. Verse 4: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus chooses his list of miracles very carefully. They exactly match two things. Firstly, they’re exactly the list of miracles that Matthew has just recorded. I could take you back to chapters 8 and 9, that we looked at last year. Matthew has carefully documented the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the dead being raised. If you want the good news being proclaimed to the poor, that’s chapters 5 to 7, which started with Jesus announcing God’s blessing to the poor in Spirit.
But this list does not only match what Matthew has just recorded Jesus do. It also matches exactly the wonders the Old Testament told us to expect from the Messiah when he came. Look later at Isaiah chapters 35 and 61. When the Messiah comes, these are exactly the kinds of things we’ll see.
So Jesus says to John: You know the Old Testament, John. Here’s what I’ve been up to. Now join the dots. You put it together.
John knew about Jesus’ miracles. That’s why he sent messengers to Jesus to ask about them. Everyone today knows that Jesus did amazing miracles. Many people today don’t know much about Jesus, but this is the one thing that almost everyone does know even if they know nothing else: Jesus performed amazing miracles, healing the sick, walking on water, raising the dead.
In Jesus’ day, even secular historians knew that Jesus had done some amazing miracles. Josephus is the best known Jewish historian from the first century. Not a Christian by any means. In one of his carefully researched works, he says this: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.”
Everyone knows Jesus did amazing miracles. What John wasn’t doing was joining the dots. What many people don’t do today is join the dots.
So let’s join the dots. Jesus was doing exactly the miracles that the Messiah was to do. That must mean that the new age promised for the Messiah had arrived with Jesus. It had broken in. Maybe not everything that was promised is here yet, but that must only be a matter of time.
And that was John’s problem. Not everything that was promised was here.
John announced that Messiah was coming back in chapter 3. There would be two sides to the Messiah’s arrival. He would bring God’s blessings to many. But he would also come in judgement on those who oppose God’s purposes. Looking from his prison cell, he could see the blessings of the new age. But the judgement was noticeably missing. To put it bluntly: If Jesus is the Messiah, why was John still in prison?
That’s what stopped John from joining up the dots. And it’s what stops many people today as well.
Someone’s got a member of their family, just diagnosed with cancer; they’re far too young for this to be remotely fair. Someone else has just lost their job. Redundant. Another person has been struggling with depression for many years. And someone else is exhausted, weary from a decade of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. No wonder we find it hard to believe that God’s new age has broken in. Jesus’ miracles may be very impressive. But it’s just too much to believe that he’s the one who’s going to fix all the problems.
It’s even harder for those who suffer because they are Christians. Because they identify with Jesus. The person who’s lost their job. Been passed over for promotion. Had to flee their home because of death threats. Had members of their family kidnapped or executed.
And it’s also hard for those of us who have tender hearts and who watch the news. Millions streaming to Europe, risking dangerous sea crossings.
If Jesus is the Messiah, why doesn’t he cure my nephew? Look after his own? Stop the tragedies at sea?
Jesus points John back to his miracles, and back to the prophecies of Isaiah. Those prophecies speak of the judgement as well as the blessings. The kingdom of God has broken in. His miracles show that the messianic age is here. He is the promised one, the one who is to come.
Yes, he’s not yet got to the judging part of that. He’s not yet acted to stamp out all that spoils life. He’ll get to that. In fact, there’s a very good reason for the delay, which Matthew will get to in chapter 13. But Jesus will get there. He is the one.
Believe it because of his miracles.
Believe it because of his messenger
Second, believe it because of his messenger. Believe it because of his messenger.
John has pointed us to Jesus. Now Jesus points the crowd to John.
Verse 7: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John”. John the Baptist was hugely popular. In his day, thousands had poured out to hear him preach in the desert, and to be baptised by him in the Jordan.
So Jesus asks the crowd what it was that drew them to him. He builds up to his answer. Some wrong answers first, things that the crowd will agree were not the big draw.
They didn’t go to see a reed. It wasn’t the scenic reed beds of the Jordan that drew them to him. And it wasn’t the reputation for John’s pliable character, since he was nothing of the sort.
They didn’t go to see his fine clothing either. John wore coarse, rough clothes. The crowds that streamed to him were not going to the V&A or the Ideal Home Show.
“No,” says Jesus, “you went because he was a prophet”. But then comes the punchline: John was not just any prophet. The Old Testament foretold that one final prophet would come to prepare for the imminent arrival of God himself. He’d be a rerun of one of the most famous prophets of old, the prophet Elijah.
And then John the Baptist turned up, announcing that the Messiah was coming. And he wore the distinctive clothing of Elijah. The earlier prophets announced that God would send the Messiah. John had a unique message. “Messiah is here”.
The crowds loved John. So Jesus showed them how John was the forerunner to tell them that Jesus was the Messiah. John was a really compelling way for those crowds to believe that Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for.
“Believe me because of my messenger,” says Jesus.
But I’m guessing this doesn’t work on us in quite the same way. John the Baptist is not a celebrity in our day. There’s no John the Baptist personality cult in Kemsing.
But all the same, John gives us a very compelling reason to believe Jesus. We come into the equation in verse 11: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Look at all the Old Testament figures you can think of. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Abraham. David. John the Baptist is the greatest of them all. He lived on the cusp. He got to see the Messiah. The others could say “the Messiah will come”. John got to say “the Messiah is come”.
But anyone in the New Testament era is in an even better position than that. We get to say “the Messiah did come”, “has come”.
Today, there are many voices competing for your attention. But sometimes, you hear people speaking from within God’s big story. They’re not telling you to find fulfilment and happiness in money or in yourself. They’re telling you the story that God is the one who made us, and his big plan is to send a rescuer, a saviour, a Messiah.
You can hear that perspective here week by week, and in countless other churches. And whenever you do, we’ll always be telling you that the Messiah has come. We’re not still waiting for him. We’re celebrating his arrival.
Until modern secularists tried to abolish it, the modern calendar divides into two eras. There’s “BC”, “Before Christ”. And there’s “AD”, “Anno Domini” or “The Year of our Lord”. The whole of time, the whole of human history divides into two eras. There’s a great watershed down the middle. And we don’t live in BC. We live in AD.
Which means that God is saying the same thing to us that Jesus said to these crowds. Why should we believe that Jesus is “the one”? Believe it because of his messenger, John. Believe it because of his messengers today, who tell you to look back at the Messiah, not forward to some event that’s still in the future.
Believe it because of his miracles. Believe it because of his messenger. Jesus is the one we’re all waiting for. The Messiah. The rescuer. The true Prince Charming. The one who will make everything sad go away. The one who will bring in all God’s blessings. The one who will one day crush everything bad, everything that spoils.
The question is how we will respond to him.
That’s how our Bible reading ends. We’ll see as we work our way through Matthew chapters 11 and 12 that the response to Jesus in his own day was not great. But there are some chinks of light as well.
In verses 16 to 19, Jesus describes how his own generation responded to both John and himself: “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the market-places and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
Jesus tells the story of children playing a game in the school playground. It’s something like this. Some of them have a whistle or a cheap instrument, and the others have to dance to the tune that is played. So they play a tune, and the children start moving around slowly, pretending to cry, copying what they’ve seen the professional mourners do at funerals. And the musicians laugh and jeer. That was a happy tune. They were supposed to have done a jig.
So they try again. Take 2. A different tune. And this time the dancers really get into it. They’re practicing their groovy moves and having a great time. But the musicians laugh and jeer again. That was a dirge. You should have mourned.
Children can be cruel to one another, and that’s a cruel game. The children doing the dancing bit simply cannot win.
When I was about 8 or 9, some of the children liked to ask another child if they were a PLP. It was the ultimate “Catch 22”. Say no, they’ll say: “You’re not a perfectly lovely person”. Say yes, they’ll say: “So you’re a public leaning post”, and lean against you until you all fall over. I gather that standards have slipped since I was at school, and now you’re admitting to being a “piece of lavatory paper”.
That’s pretty much the level of the children in Jesus’ little parable, and it’s what he accuses his contemporaries of doing. They look at John the Baptist and accuse him of being a bit miserable. They look at Jesus, and accuse him of liking his food too much.
Neither is actually an objection to them. It’s just an excuse to reject them. They don’t like John’s message of repentance. They don’t like Jesus’ message of good news. So they have to find something to object to, some reason why they can’t follow them.
It’s actually slightly more precise than that, though. They think John was too austere because they don’t want a prophet like that. They think Jesus socialised and partied with sinners who had repented, because they wanted a Jesus who was a bit more proper. More religious. They rejected John, they rejected Jesus, because they didn’t fit with what they thought a messenger or a rescuer should look like.
Plenty of people do the same today.
Some people don’t like the Jesus they meet in the Bible. They’ve got no intention of following him. So they come out with all kinds of reasons why they couldn’t do so. The crusades. The early church’s support for slavery. Verses in the Bible that appear violent, or unkind to women, or some other ethical stance they consider inappropriate for today. And because of that, there’s no way they could follow Jesus. Only “that” isn’t the issue. If someone sits down with them, patiently, to show them they’ve misunderstood, they aren’t desperately interested. And if they are persuaded, they simply move on to the next objection.
Other people have a preconceived idea as to what God ought to be like. “If I were God, I’d put a stop to that.” “A loving God couldn’t possibly send anyone to hell.” Or whatever it is. And then they meet Jesus, and he just doesn’t fit with what God ought to be like. So he gets kicked out.
Like children in the marketplace.
But there is another response. Have a look at verse 15. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
It’s to recognise that deep longing we have inside us, for someone to sweep us off our feet, solve life’s problems, fix everything broken in the world, take us to glory. And it’s to recognise that that deep longing is answered in the person of Jesus.
We stop searching for that person who might be our Messiah figure.
And we pin all our hopes on the one who already occupies that post.