John’s two disciples found Jesus and said to him, “John the Baptist sent us to ask, ‘Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else? At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind. Then he told John’s disciples, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” Luke 7:20-23 NLT
Most of us, from time to time, have reason to give an account of ourselves. For me lately that has been part of the process of applying for various jobs. I have a curriculum vitae (CV), an outline of my working life, what I have done, where, when, and with whom. As the years have passed the list of things and places and people has grown longer, but at the beginning of the document there is a paragraph that summarises my professional life, so that those who read it can get a snapshot of who I am and what I have to offer.
This little paragraph in Luke’s gospel contains the same kind of summary for Jesus. This is what I do, Jesus says. He was answering a question of John the Baptist, but he could just as well be answering ours. Who are you Jesus? Are you the one? The answer to all my questions, the fulfilment of my hopes and dreams? Are you God? Can you save the world?
John had met Jesus, he had talked to him, he had seen something of what Jesus was up to. He had seen him perform miracles, and he had heard Jesus say that he had come to set captives free. But now John was in prison, and he was beginning to wonder. His circumstances did not measure up. He had acknowledged Jesus as “the One” and now he was facing death. How could that be?
It can be the same for us. We “meet” Jesus, we put our faith in him, then things go wrong. Things happen that shouldn’t happen. We find ourselves the victims of a world that hates God, and we wonder where Jesus went when we needed him most.
John was having second thoughts. Had he got it right? Was Jesus a fraud? He was faced with a decision. Would he continue with Jesus or not? Sometimes we are faced with the same decision, when our circumstances suggest to us that he has forgotten us. How will we respond to Jesus? Will we continue with him, or abandon him? Are we going to testify to his goodness, or grow bitter because we feel he has failed us? Will we “fall away,” as Jesus says?
Perhaps circumstances, and the feelings they bring, are the commonest reason to doubt Jesus, the most frequent reason people fall away, turning their back on him. It certainly came close to that for me, when I was 18 years old and my best friend was killed in a motorbike accident. I was angry and sad, and doubts flooded in. I had to decide. Would I continue to believe in Jesus, or would I abandon him?
How did Jesus answer John? He simply related what he had been doing: healing, raising the dead, preaching. He presented, in a sense, his CV. Then he left John to make up his own mind. He did not explain to John why he was in prison. Jesus must have known what was going through John’s mind. But he didn’t refer to that struggle. He said simply, look at me. He directed John’s attention away from his own circumstances and tried to refocus him on Jesus’ words and acts, preaching, healing, resurrecting.
Our generation is not very impressed by preaching, but healing and raising the dead never fail to impress, though reports of such in our day routinely produce a response of scepticism. But these things were happening in Israel (and even then there was no shortage of scepticism), an outpost on the periphery of the Roman Empire. The man Jesus was in the centre of it all. His extraordinary actions, and confronting teachings, were turning Israel upside down. Eventually they would turn the whole of the Empire upside down, and then the whole world.
This then was Jesus’ answer to John’s spoken question (“Are you the Messiah?”), but implicitly also to his unspoken question (“Why am I in jail?”). I feel sure that Jesus knew what John was really struggling with, just as he knows each of our struggles. I have a Christian friend for whom everything seems to have gone wrong. While discussing her situation with a mutual acquaintance, the question came up, where is God in all of this? Why do the righteous suffer? Is God real? Is Jesus really who he says he is?
Often it seems Jesus does not answer such questions directly. He says to us what he said to John: look at what I am doing, listen to what I say, and decide for yourself. At the same time he is often silent about what he is not doing, why he is not rescuing us (or others) from painful or frightening circumstances. He challenges and encourages us: “try not to fall away because of what I am not doing,” even though that may be foremost in our minds. He doesn’t say that it will be easy, but I believe it is the only way we can survive the temptation to abandon Jesus when things go wrong.
John’s response to what Jesus said is not recorded. Luke recorded Jesus’ answer to John so later generations – you and me – could make their own assessment of Jesus. What will your response be? What is mine? For those of us who were blind but can now see, who were deaf but can now hear, who were wracked by disease but are now whole, it is hard to ignore Jesus. For those of us who have allowed the “good news” of the kingdom to answer the deep longings of our hearts, our answer is clear.
But Jesus is aware that not all of us will be in places of happiness and wholeness, as he was aware of John’s suffering. Even then we are faced with a decision, how to respond to Jesus. Will we base our answer to that on our circumstances, or his actions and deeds? Our answer to that will decide whether we become people of faith, or unbelievers.
Jesus was, and is, more than just words. He was a man of action. He lived what he spoke. He showed by his actions what he claimed to be true in his teaching. Often the things he said were hard to swallow, often he didn’t do what people thought he should. The result, then and now, is that some are more offended than challenged, more indignant than amazed. Some then, and now, look at their circumstances or the circumstances of others, and decide that Jesus is not real, is not trustworthy. Jesus said however, that “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.”
What will you decide? Will you believe in him?