SCRIPTURES: Job 20, 21; Matthew 11
Matthew 11:2 When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Gather around everybody. Make room for all. Get as close to the table as you can. Join me in this CSI-like investigation. Take a close look at the subject before us. I know the sight makes you want to hold back and gasp. Before us lays the headless corpse of a man in his prime of life. At first glance we might think that he had probably been scraped up from the pavement of some back alley. We’ll begin this partial autopsy by attempting to see beyond just a mere headless corpse; we’ll begin by examining his heart.
My hand shakes as I lift the scalpel. My throat tightens as I’m told that our victim was no ordinary subject. I share with you his name. John. John the Baptist. You gasp too. We have all heard about him. Perhaps you have even seen his haloed face ensconced on some cathedral window. Maybe you have seen his name on some church sign, “SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST.”
This nervousness I feel is drawn from all that I know about John. How dare I attempt to add to or take away from the life of John the Baptist?
We’ll begin by drawing a few safe conclusions about John. We know this for sure that
- He was born with a purpose, that being the forerunner of Jesus Christ.
- He did his job well.
- He came out of the wilderness preaching a message of repentance.
- Hundreds responded as he blazed his message naming their sins.
- Without apology, he was able to say, it is not about me. It is about him. The real crux of John’s message was; “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandal I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John was born to play “second fiddle,” the most difficult position in the orchestra. He played it well.
What is it that happens in life? We begin in the full bloom of idealism knowing where we are headed and then, life happens. Disappointment emerges. In our attempt to raise the perfect family, we become aware of the gaping flaws in our own life. The marriage that was supposed to meet our every emotional need is headed south. The economy robs us of any future security. All of a sudden, the face in the mirror is lined with the ruts of reality.
And now back to John the Baptist. His body has been emaciated by his recent months in prison. He was placed there when the morality of his character couldn’t keep him from speaking out against the immorality around him even in high places. He was sentenced to death row to await execution.
John, we all forgive you for your moments of doubt when from your jail cell you sent that message to Jesus, “Are you the one or should I look for another?” You were an honest mentor for us all.
More than forty years ago, I met Frank Sanders. Just out of high school, Frank was a budding hockey star and captain of the WCHA champion Minnesota Gophers. I met him through our children in the Sunday school department. He was a lifetime member of the church my family attended. Earlier that morning the local sports page might have focused on him with a smash mouth fight on the ice from a game the night before.
Frank’s rise to fame was meteoric and he was selected to represent the US Olympic hockey team in 1972. They brought home the silver.
Upon his return, he was immediately signed by the Fighting Saints playing in his home town of St. Paul, Mn. As Frank’s reputation continued to grow, his former relationship with his Lord was pushed farther into the background. By his own admission, big money and notoriety pushed God to a lesser place in his life. Being courted, by the “bigs” in professional hockey temporarily blinded him. But God saw him. Each home game opened with their fight song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
With a fat contract in hand and more money than he knew what to do with, memories of a boyhood commitment to Christ began to emerge. In his autobiography, From Silver to Gold, he recalls how he often escaped from his bedroom in the middle of a sleepless night to bury his face in the living room carpet where again the “still small voice” was heard. That spiritual turbulence caused Frank to leave professional sports after only one year to opt for training for the ministry. That decision cost him his fine home and opulent lifestyle and brought great financial pressure on his growing family.
Early in his ministry, I invited Frank to the church we pastored. A happier guy you could never meet.
The last chapter of Frank’s book is entitled, “A New Challenge,” and told of his diagnosis a year ago of pancreatic cancer. This past year I have been following his daughter’s postings through an internet blog (Caring Bridge/Frank Sanders). They are honest postings detailing his hopes and belief in a miracle and his struggle with the reality of a weakening body. Reading them reminds me of the situation John the Baptist found himself in–remembering the dreams, yet jailed and helpless to control the future. And so he directs his question to Jesus.
What about us who stand around this table, looking into the heart of John? Each of us have experienced both joys and disappointments in our lives. Some of us bear the lines of deep disappointment. For others, life has been smoother.
And so our autopsy ends. The findings are written and officially signed when Jesus responds. “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.”