Down with the rats and the darkness, the stench and the cold. Alone, hungry, and awaiting death.
How did he end up here?
John had devoted his life to God. He believed he was preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah.
He had baptized Jesus and had seen the dove, he had seen the heavens opening and heard the voice of God. How could he find himself now in prison?
Matthew writes that, while in prison, John had been hearing stories of Jesus’ deeds. Perhaps he had heard of the band of misfits and sinners Jesus had gathered to be his disciples- fisherman, zealots and a tax collector! He might have heard the story of Jesus helping the centurion’s daughter - a centurion….a member of the ruling oppressors. Or he might have heard of just a few healings but no true mighty acts.
This might have seemed strange for John.
John had prophesied repentance and the coming judgement, wrath and fire. Where was Jesus’ winnowing fork? Where was the deliverance of Israel? For John, Jesus’ ministry was not what John was expecting.
And so, based on these stories he was hearing, John sent a message from prison to Jesus, “Are You the One Who was to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:19).
Jesus’ response is equally unexpected.
Jesus was not ready to publicly declare himself the Christ. And so he turns around and cures people with sickness, delivers people from evil spirits, and gives sight to the blind. And then tells John’s disciples the following message:
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Luke 7:21-23)
Jesus turns John’s eyes back to scripture.
John would have known that these healings were fulfillments of Isaiah and the Psalms. And so by these acts Jesus shows John that he is indeed the Messiah without having to declare it publicly.
But then Jesus does something that just drips with grace and mercy. He adds at the end, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Luke 7:23)
Why does he say this? Why does he add that at the end?
I think Jesus adds that last statement to respond to the question behind John’s question. The question John isn’t asking.
John is definitely interested in the whether or not Jesus is the Christ. But, I can’t help but think that John is also wondering “If you are the Messiah, why am I in prison? Have I wasted my life and followed the wrong man"?”
Jesus could see that John was desperate for confirmation that his life had not been a waste. He could see John was wondering why Jesus’ ministry looked so different from what was expected. He saw his discouragement and frustration with the timeline of Jesus’ Kingdom.
With the addition of the “blessed” statement at the end of the message I hear Jesus saying:
“Blessed are you John, if you don’t give up just because I am different than what you expected. Blessed are you John, if you stay the course even if your circumstances look different than what you believed you were promised. Blessed are you because my gospel has not been popular with the authorities, with Herod. Blessed are you if you do not give up because you are in prison. “
“Don’t give up John. Stay the course, my good and faithful servant. “
Jesus not only provides signs that he is the Messiah but he gives John what he truly needs - an answer that will help him to face the difficulties that lay ahead.
Jesus is compassionate.
We can be so guilty of placing our worldly expectations on Jesus. We are so quick to try and mould Jesus into what we want him to be about or form him into our own causes. We want Jesus to have said other things. We want him to have done other things.
So often we can look at our circumstances and wonder if Jesus is worth following, if the cost is too great, if the inconvenience of Jesus’ truth is too uncomfortable for us. The life of a Christian stands more and more in contrast with the Western world these days. And when you find yourself on the outside, ostracized by the popular opinions, we can wonder if we have followed the wrong person.
Prisons can take many forms.
We can find ourselves in prisons and wonder if any of the experiences we have had with Jesus were true. We can wonder if everything we knew was actually a lie. We can be like John - the greatest man ever born of woman - sitting in prison wondering if we have wasted our lives.
And what we see here, in the story of John the Baptist, is that Jesus understands the difficulty.
This isn’t the only time Jesus mentioned those who believe in him will be blessed. Many times he reminds people to count the cost, refers to The Way as being narrow and tells Thomas that those who have not seen him but believe will be blessed.
Jesus understood that his time on earth would be confusing. That his words and his actions would be difficult for a people who value prestige and wealth, mighty acts and deeds, conformity and comfortability. That his Kingdom would be offensive to some.
He knew that following his way would involve sacrifice and rejection, that people would hate his followers. He knew his Kingdom would not fit into a political system, social ideology or social norms. He knew this because he lived it. He knew this because he paid a price much greater than any of us, much greater than John.
In a few weeks we will observe Advent, the actual celebration of this truth. Jesus has compassion for us because he lived through it all. This is worth celebrating.
In the face of the difficult Jesus tells us to keep going. He tells us we will not be disappointed by Him. He tells us we will be blessed.
Jesus’s saw John and he sees you and me.
Turn your eyes back to the promises of God and do not give up just because you find yourself in prison. He is not who we might expect but he is so much more than we could have expected, so much better than we might have imagined. And in him, we are truly free. Free from the bigger prisons of our sin and misaligned desires, free from the things that rob of us our joy. Free from death, free from hopelessness.
Be encouraged that Jesus sees you where you are and is more than ready to lend an ear of compassion and kindness because he truly understands. He lived it. Will you allow yourself to be seen by him and hear his words?