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Matthew 11: Have Mercy on Those Who Doubt
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 11, and while we’re passing out Bibles and everyone is flipping, I just want to say thank you. I’m not going to name names only because it was pretty much everyone doing something to encourage and support us through this time, or who picked up some task I dropped here at the church in order to spend more time with my family. Thank you.
We’ve had a lot going on; we still have a lot going on if I’m honest. Noah and Nataliah, who have been with us since easter of last year through foster care, transitioned back to living with their family, for which we are grateful and mournful, both at once. The closest feeling I’ve had to it was when a close friend of mine, whom I loved deeply, got a really great job in New Hampshire and moved, what feels like, across the globe. We miss them. It’s too quiet. Annie went into labor on Thursday, my mom took the kiddos to daycare on Friday, and their dad picked them up. Why is it that you always think you have more time with the people in your life? You tell yourself next year, next week, and you don’t even know what tomorrow will bring.
For us what tomorrow brought that day was a very dangerous delivery, where both lives were threatened, but then that day also brought a beautiful baby girl: Elizabeth Joy; Ellie, who is still in the NICU, and if you will pray for us, please pray that she can come home soon. The back and forth has been rough on all of us. So thank you, everyone. Thank you for the time, the meals, the work, the encouragement, everything. I don’t know how people go through life without community. I’m deeply grateful to the Lord for bringing us into this one.
And now, there is nothing that would give me more joy and hope in the midst of this situation than to dwell upon God’s word this morning, especially upon this passage. At its core, this passage is about doubt and expectation. Doubt and expectation; the two are tied. Doubt is the inevitable result of our expectations being bent or shattered, and rarely does Jesus do or say what we expect, if we’re honest. So doubt is a common part of Christian life. The key, it seems, is how we respond when he does break our expectations. Please go with me to Matthew, chapter 11, starting in v.1, we’re just going to read the chapter. [Matthew 11] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Doubt and expectation. Doubt looks a lot of different ways. My generation likes to use the word deconstruction. The front cover from Christianity Today a few months ago asked a single question that’s been on my mind since then. It said, “You’re not deconstructing?” I love that question, because it’s honest. Every Christian goes through seasons of doubt, and reading this passage, I’ll go so far as to say every Christian should go through seasons of doubt and questioning as a means of wrestling with God and making this faith their own.
A faith that has no questions for God on the outworking of his plans here, I would say is a young faith, and immature in its youth. I have a rule about not officiating weddings for couples who have never had a fight, and similarly, if you’ve never had any doubts about God’s will and work in the world, if you’ve never had to take a hard look at what you’ve been taught in church over your lifetime, I probably won’t invite you to preach or teach.
The Christian calling is not one that you’re meant to swallow whole. It’s one with which you’re meant to wrestle, one you’re meant to work out in fear and trembling. The word Israel means “he who wrestles with God and has prevailed,” and Paul calls Christians the true Israel. Welcome to the faith you’re meant to question. Welcome to the people who wrestle with God and prevail.
This sermon is not a sermon condemning doubt wholesale, because Jesus doesn’t do that in our passage, but there are two types of doubt in our passage, and there is a kind of doubt Jesus condemns. My hope this morning is that we will take up John’s question and make it our own. We want to know if this Jesus thing is really what was promised by all of those pastors and Sunday school teachers growing up, or if we should wait for another. Another preacher, another book, another religion altogether. Is this the joy that was promised, or should I look for another? Is this the comfort that was promised? Is this the peace? Is this the assurance of truth? And is this going to be enough, or are we still looking for another? I want us to ask these questions of Jesus and really hear his answer.
There are two different kinds of doubt in the passage: one kind represented by John’s question, and then a second kind represented in Jesus’s parable of kids playing different tunes but the same game. And as we go through this series, in the book of Matthew, whenever you see a thing split into two, it’s a comfortable assumption that the two pieces will be endemic of the two kingdoms which form the primary theme of the book. One will represent the kingdom of God, the other will represent the kingdoms of the world.
We usually aren’t as honest as John with our doubts. We don’t walk up to Jesus and ask him the question. Instead, we’re awkward with our doubts, we place our faith at an arm’s distance. We stop going to church, or we go, but we don’t really want to get in too deep, we feel dry. We tell ourselves that we’re just fed up with all the church people and all of their mess. Or the pastor isn’t really doing it for us.
Or, different tune same game, we become self-assured. We create sides and start throwing blame on others for whatever the bad situation is. Or we become kind of mystical, which is another kind of control, removing doubt from the equation by hearing directly from God. Even those of us who have been in church our whole lives, we start looking for some extra-Biblical guidance, you know, put out a fleece, because surely this cannot be all of what the Bible says about my current situation and decision; this is not what was promised, let’s look for another.
What we’re afraid to admit when we do these things is that we’re doubting. If not doubting God altogether, we’re doubting his relevance to our lives. Or doubting that he loves us enough to really take our cause; doubting his sufficiency. I know this both because I’ve seen it and because I’ve lived it—we’ve got the bread and wine already in our bags, but we’re going to bring some granola bars, too, just in case. Following Christ just isn’t what we thought it would be, and we’re looking for reasons. We feel like we aren’t receiving what was promised, and should we maybe look for another?
Even though Jesus welcomes it, this question, from John, has barbs in it. John had been promised a messiah, son of David, the righteous branch, the prophet king. He was raised on stories of David’s mighty men and the holy men of old, marrying prostitutes, condemning kings to their faces, and going buck naked in Jerusalem for over a year. The sea covering the invading army—that’s what John had been promised, and he was convinced Jesus was the fulfillment, somehow, of all of those things. He would be the priest and the king, the fire and the flood.
You have to realize, John is facing his own death, he’s executed shortly after this moment. This message to Jesus is essentially, are you going to come save me? If you are my savior, shouldn’t my life look a little more “saved” than this? And you can’t blame him. Jesus certainly doesn’t. When you hear that God, himself, is on your side, you think all of your problems will be in the past tense. You don’t think he’ll let you go to jail, and when you get thrown in some king’s furnace, you expect to come out unscathed.
For my own part, the reason I was glad to spend all week dwelling on this passage, is because my family has been through some hardship recently. When I hear God is the watcher on my wall, I kind of expected him to watch out for things like what’s been happening over the past few weeks. I prefer miraculous healing to longsuffering, just as I prefer power to forgiveness, and success to humility, but our God rarely does exactly what we would expect, and so we doubt him.
Doubt and expectation. We always expect a warrior, not a nurse. We want a king, not a teacher. We want to buy one of his painting, but all he’ll give us is a brush and a lifetime of careful lessons. We want healing, not someone willing to mourn with us. Mourning is almost always about expectation. We expect to be a success in life, and instead we’re obscure. We expect another weekend with those people we love, and there they go. We expect another day with him, and one day he’s just gone. It is, as one author writes, “The new, real future which replaces the imaginary,” and that new real future causes doubt. God, is this really what you had planned for me, or should I look for another?
Two kinds of doubt. The first kind, John’s kind of doubt is a doubt that asks questions and waits for, hopes for an answer. Can we, together, recognize the incredible humility of Jesus’ response to John? He gives John’s messenger what he needs to know—he quotes Isaiah and Daniel, he says, essentially, I am the messiah. You’ll know me by my works. Then he says, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me, who doesn’t fall away on account of me.” Instead of condemnation for this man who just publicly questioned him in the deepest possible terms, he responds by giving him what he would need to believe again, and offering understanding of all the reasons he doubted in the first place.
This is exactly the way Jesus responds to Thomas when he doubts the resurrection, and I would put forward, this is just the way Jesus responds to honest doubt, the questioning kind of doubt. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied,” Matthew writes, and Jude, v.22 says explicitly, “Have mercy on those who doubt.” Jesus’ answer is filled with sympathy. John’s doubt makes sense. If it were any of us in the same position, we would have the same doubts. Is this the plan? Are you still watching on the wall, because the enemy is walking through the gate. I wish this were the way we as his church would respond to honest doubt the questioning kind, by admitting that it makes sense and then trying to give the person whatever it is he needs to believe again. It makes sense to doubt that Jesus is the one who is going to bring us peace and joy, the place where we will find satisfaction at last when the place we find ourselves is anything but.
Again, in today’s church, we tend to be quiet about our doubts. We don’t bring them up in church; we’re afraid of the response, because, I would say, the church’s response to doubt is often nothing like Jesus’ response to it. It’s popular today to be sure of oneself and never doubt, never change our minds. Doubt feels too much like compromise. And our expectations of Jesus tend to go unchallenged. We are a society of people who find Jesus exactly as we expected to find him, exactly where we expected to find him, and he’s almost always saying exactly what we expected him to say, which brings us to the next part of the chapter, when Jesus turns away from John’s messenger and begins addressing the crowd. Because if the first kind of doubt we see in the passage looks a lot like humility, the second kind of doubt looks a lot like self-assurance.
Wouldn’t this be a wonderfully positive and encouraging chapter if we just read the beginning and the end? You know, John doubts, Jesus forgives him, even says all this nice stuff about him, Jesus’s burden is light. That would be so nice, but also so inaccurate both to the passage and to our lived experience.
Looking back at the text, when Jesus starts talking to the crowd again, he opens with a joke, as is his usual, but then goes straight to the point. “What did you go out into the desert to see? The foliage?” Pause for a laugh. Do you get it? If I explain it, it stops being funny. It would be funnier if we were actually there—never mind. “No?” he says, “Not the plants? A king, then?” No laughs that time, because that hits a little too close to what people were actually going to see in the desert, but if they admit that, then they are liable for execution under Rome. With that line, the crowd gets tense. We aren’t fully understanding this passage because, we most of us, don’t know what it means to long for revolution. Not really. Sure, we gripe whenever the mayor or the president isn’t whom we’d like, but four years later, we get our wish, usually.
These are people who are conquered. They’re not even considered citizens. They went into the desert to see a king, the one they would want to be king, not the puppets Rome put in place. Someone completely out of that stream, someone who ate locusts and wore animal skins. Luke tells us they thought John was the Christ until he pointed them to Jesus. They were sick of all the kings in the palaces with the soft clothes, robes given to them by the foreign power they despised. They want to see John in charge, or someone like him. John, who was in prison for speaking truth to power. John, who had told everyone he could tell that Jesus was really the one they were waiting for.
But now, is this person the one who will actually change the world? Going back to John’s question, if you’ve been waiting generations for change to come, it takes on new meaning. John asks, essentially, are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or should we keep waiting? Are you the dream realized or the dream deferred? John asks, are you really going to make us keep waiting? When you can cause change, when it’s within your power?
As we read on, Jesus begins pronouncing woes upon entire cities for not repenting and believing in him; he’s promising judgement, and if that part was the most offensive thing in this passage to you, you may have misunderstood the parable about the kids in the market.
After Jesus compares John to Elijah, he compares the entire generation of religious teachers to children in the market playing games. He says, one group of children is playing wedding, the other group of children is playing funeral, and they’re shouting at each other because stubbornly they are both refusing to play the other’s game, when, ironically, they’re both kind of playing the same game. Weddings and funerals were the two big parties kids would have been invited into, probably the only traveling kids in this era would have done.
The parable would be funny, except for the part about the violent bearing away the kingdom of God. Because the true prophets of the age aren’t playing one game or the other, Jesus says the children of Jerusalem have gotten together to kill the prophets, violently. This parable is a harsh indictment of the religious leaders of his day. And our day. We’re still creating sides, playing games, and killing the prophets refusing to play along.
What he’s condemning, I said it looks like assurance. Looks like, meaning it’s not assurance. This second kind of doubt I would call self-assurance, and there is a chasm between assurance and self-assurance. Assurance is trust. Trust that God will be who he says he will be and will do what he says he will do. When God does something you don’t expect, or you don’t want him to do, you start asking questions, seeking assurance. Are you the one who is to come? Can we really trust you, God? Are your plans really for my good? Doubt asking questions of God hoping for answers.
The kind of doubt Jesus is condemning, is that of the religious teachers of his day, the children playing wedding and funeral. They, just like John, doubt that Jesus is the messiah, but they are so sure they are right, that they don’t need to ask. They’ve talked about it among themselves and have settled the matter. When Jesus breaks their expectations, they don’t ask if they’re expectations need to change, they think instead about how they are going to control the situation.
And I’ve been talking in the clouds, I want to come down now and get very practical. I want to make a plea, really, a plea to ask questions and hope for answers. I said this passage is about doubt and expectation. If you decide to follow after Jesus, your expectations, at some point, of what that looks like, are going to be shattered. Maybe you think Christianity is a path into an exciting kind of life, and when you find yourself in a position of humble service to your community, you start to question whether or not you are really living out your faith. Or maybe you think Christianity will fit well into your belief systems and party platforms, but instead the other Christians in your life keep challenging you.
Or maybe you think following after Christ will lead you into a life of blessing after blessing, and that part is true, but the blessings won’t be what you expect. Sometimes the blessing is to be humbled, to be in need, to spend a lifetime spent raising kids with special needs, or teaching them, or whatever, we could list all kinds of specific circumstances. What I’m saying, though is this: at some point, your expectation of who God is in your life, and what he is doing in your life are going to be shattered, and when that happens, you’ll be faced with doubt. John is the best of us—if it happens to him, it will happen to you. You can do one of two things.
You can bring your doubt to God and seek understanding, or you can use your doubt to try to control the situation. Bringing doubt to God looks like John in our passage. Seek him out where he can be found. In church, usually. Or around the coffee tables and dinner tables of the people who love him and love you. The questioning kind of doubt that hopes for good answers asks questions of people who may actually know and sits quietly to listen to the answers. This kind of doubt doesn’t offer you any kind of control or any way to improve your situation, but it is good. What it offers is relationship.
The other kind of doubt that seeks to control the situation looks like the religious leaders in Jesus’ parable. It looks like maybe a different tune but the same game, and condemnation on both sides for not playing along. It looks like asking rhetorical questions to people who probably agree with you or who might be swayed if you say it loudly enough and in the right context. Proof texts like sledge hammers meant to destroy whatever structures your enemies have managed to build. Doubts which see through and debunk beliefs, not like seeing through a window to see some beautiful garden beyond, but seeing through the garden, too, and the earth, until you’re seeing through so many things that your beliefs structures are really just air, with nothing of beauty or substance.
I would encourage you, when Jesus breaks your expectations, to doubt the way John doubts. To question him hoping for a response. To know, in your bones, that even if what Jesus says wildly offends you, he has the words of eternal life. If we were people who doubted like that our deconstructing would be the first step in building a faith structure on the rock, a shelter from the storm. Our doubting would be the first step into a deeper trust of God. We would be people, quoting Chesterton, who open our minds in the same way we open our mouths when the feast table is laid, in hopes of closing them again upon something good to nourish us.
I would invite you this morning into a faith that is allowed to ask questions, but I would invite you to ask hoping for real answers. Stop trying to be a change agent in the world for a moment and ask yourself how you most need to change in your words, in your beliefs, and in your actions. In the places where Jesus has broken your expectations, be honest, but don’t seek control, seek understanding. But most of all, seek him first. Everything else will be given in good time.