We humans invest. We invest our time, energy, and money in projects, people, and plans for profit. We’re looking to get all kinds of things back from those investments, but most of us end up making a mix of good and bad investments along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how they’re going to turn out.
Lots of people invested in Jesus while he was on earth. For some of them, it was the investment of time in trying to go hear him, or just see him pass by—Zaccheus started out like that, even though he ended up much more heavily invested by the time the story was over. Some were invested in things Jesus was opposing—the religious and political elites of Jerusalem were heavily invested in the temple, and no doubt felt that investment was threatened by the way Jesus talked about the temple and acted when he came to visit it. Others were invested in different ways: Peter talked about having left everything behind to follow Jesus, and one time Jesus told him he was going to end up with a pretty good return on that investment.
But I don’t know if anybody was more invested in Jesus than John the Baptist. It seems like John could have had pretty good life following the priestly calling that he was in line for. But instead he spent most of his life in the wilderness—Luke tells us that he was living there even before he started preaching (1:80), and if anything the Bible says about John is to be believed, it was anything but a plush, cushy lifestyle. Jesus says as much here in Matthew 11—John lived the prophet’s lifestyle in the desert, far from the fine robes people would have found if they had gone looking in the palaces. He was out in the wilderness, living a life of denial, decked out in rough looking clothes, eating locusts and wild honey, and all of it was investment in the kingdom of God.
John was ready for a new king, and believed that a new king was coming, and that his work was to prepare the way for that king. Everything he did has to be read against that backdrop, from where he located himself in the wilderness on the other side of the Jordan, (a place that was home to many revolutionary movements) to his practice of calling people to repentance, and symbolically cleansing them in baptism, so that God would graciously forgive the people and send the true king to bring in the new age that Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah and the other prophets had promised. John believed that in all this work, he was preparing the people for God’s true king, the messiah—and he believed that Jesus was that messiah. With John’s prophecies against Herod, he was totally invested in God’s kingdom, but even more specifically, he was totally and fully invested in Jesus.
John went all in for the sake of the kingdom, pushing all his chips to the center of the table by calling out the current king of the land. Herod had the stamp of approval from Rome, but John proclaimed that there was a higher authority that either Herod or Caesar. Herod was living against the law, and thus against God—he was not the true king. And, believing that in Jesus the time had come for Herod to be replaced, John spoke out openly against Herod. Herod took that prophetic word for what it was—not simple moral exhortation, but a treasonous rejection of his kingly authority, which was a dangerous sort of thing for a popular prophet to be saying. And so John sat in prison in a place called Machaerus, with his execution looming ahead of him.
So, you can understand John’s confusion at this point in the story. There he is in prison, shackled by the king he believes Jesus will replace, and yet…no sign of when Jesus will make his move. Who knows what John really expected, whether to be freed by Jesus and his followers as they seized Judea, or to have his death vindicated by Jesus as he took power, or something else entirely, but there’s no question about this: John was fully invested in Jesus. He hadn’t hedged his bets, or held anything back. Either Jesus was the real deal, or John had gone way out of his way to waste his life. The ascetic lifestyle, the hard prophetic ministry, his imprisonment and impending execution—if Jesus wasn’t really the messiah, it was all a waste.
So you can understand the question. You can understand how he would want to know, and would send messengers to make the journey to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one? Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Some people don’t like this story. They think it’s awkward for John, a spirit-filled prophet if there ever was one, to have doubts about Jesus. I suppose it is a little strange. In the end though, John’s role wasn’t to know the whole story, or every detail of how things would work out, but to prepare the way for God to act. In the end, John had done the work God had given him. John had played his prophetic part, and the rest was beyond him. I suppose he was okay with that; after all, he doesn’t ask Jesus for a detailed battle plan, or a missionary prospectus. Still, he wanted to know, was it all for naught? “Are you really the one, or not?”
Jesus answers with a collection of images from Isaiah, “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.” I suppose a simple yes would have done the trick, but Jesus wants John to know that indeed, God was at work, fulfilling a plan that had been around a long time before John walked out into the desert. John may have been more invested in Jesus than anyone on earth, but God had been planning and investing in this mission for a long time.
God began investing in the mission in creation, and continued to invest after the fall. God invested in his mission of redemption when he made the covenant with Abraham, and through the lives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. God invested in his mission in Egypt at the Exodus, at Sinai, and in the same wilderness where John went to work. God had invested during the times of Joshua and the Judges, and continued to stick with his investment during the lives of Saul, David, and Solomon. God continued to invest in the kingdom by sending prophets to proclaim justice and judgment, holiness and hope. Now, in the work of Jesus, in the ministry of Jesus and of course in his eventual death and resurrection, God would become as invested as possible in the project of redeeming the world. Through the spirit at work in the church, God has continued to invest in mission, and even as we gather here this morning, God’s spirit is at work. John may have been the most invested person on earth in Jesus’s mission, but the truth is, God had been investing in that mission for a long time. Even when it feels like we have everything on the line for God’s mission, we do well to remember that God’s been investing in it a lot longer than we have, and is more deeply committed to the redemption of the world than we could ever be—even at our best.
We humans invest. And when we’ve invested in something, whether it be a project, a person, or plans for profit, we’re typically looking to get something out of it. We have investment expectations. Over the years, many have invested in God’s kingdom, and I know many of you have too, and that’s a beautiful thing, but it comes with a danger. When we invest in something, we want to have some control over it, and the more we’re invested, the more control we want to have. Sometimes, because of things that we see at work, or because we’ve gotten a good hard, honest look at a piece of scripture we hadn’t paid attention to before, we find that our expectations are at odds with God’s mission. And in that time, something very, very important happens. We have the opportunity to rethink, to revise, our understanding of God’s mission. We have the opportunity to ask, “Whose mission am I really invested in?”