There’s not much to do in the dark solitude other than think. When the light disappears and all you have is your inner monologue, some interesting conversations can unfold. As John the Baptist tried to relax in his own cell, we are given a bit of a peak inside his mind; at least we see the results of his inner dialogue.
Jesus had an incredible reputation for performing miracles. In several places, the gospels record that when people heard he was in town they brought ALL the sick to him to be healed, and it says that he healed them ALL. From fevers to demon possession to raising the dead, Jesus was handing out miracles to everyone.
John the Baptist, (Jesus’s cousin) was in prison. He was there because he was preaching about the kingdom of God (telling King Herod that his actions were wrong)—the very thing that Jesus was demonstrating. John was in jail for Jesus in a real way. And Jesus was doing all sorts of miracles. John knew of Jesus’s reputation, the things he was doing. Here he is, sitting in a jail cell for doing God’s work. Something didn’t seem to add up. Something wasn’t quite right. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus a simple yes or no question” “Are you the one, or should we expect another?”
Up to this point John had seemed to know better than anyone who Jesus was. He had made an incredible statement about Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world when he (John) baptized him (Jesus). You could even say that John innately knew that Jesus was the Messiah—while he was in his mother’s womb he jumped for joy at the approach of the embryonic Jesus. But despite this, John sends his own disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. I can’t blame him, sometimes we need confirmation, even on things that we know.
The disciples certainly had ideas about who the Messiah was going be and what he was going to do. All Israelites seemed to have an idea of what Messiah meant. Despite John’s amazing statements about Jesus, it’s not difficult to imagine that John had his own expectations, and sitting in jail was probably not one of them.
Messiah was supposed to usher in God’s kingdom, to set things right for Israel. How am I sitting in a Gentile ruler’s prison? Others are getting their miracles. The things Jesus does sound like Messiah, but it doesn’t make sense that I’m here. If he is who I think he is, the kingdom should be coming back to Israel . . . and I won’t be sitting here in prison. Something didn’t seem to be adding up. Perhaps John’s expectations were being brutally disassembled. Perhaps he simply wondered: What’s going on? If the kingdom really is coming, why am I sitting here? Not unreasonable questions—if he shared some assumptions about the Messiah.
Despite his initial certainty about Jesus, perhaps his imprisonment was giving him doubts, at least he was confused and unsure. Here he is, sitting in a jail cell for doing God’s work, and the one bringing God’s kingdom was here! To top it off, all these others are getting what they want and need from Jesus. The kingdom seemed to be coming and everyone was getting in except him.
Jesus’s response almost seems to make things worse. “Tell John what you see, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor hear the good news” (all signs of the Messiah). Translation, The kingdom and good things are coming to everyone . . .or so it seems . . . except you.
John stayed in prison—which is even more odd when we remember that Jesus started his ministry by reading about freedom for prisoners (see Luke 4:18-20). John never got his miracle—others in the New Testament were released from prison (Peter was escorted out by an angel and an earthquake set Paul and Silas free). Not only did he stay in prison, eventually he was killed and his head offered as a gift to a young girl and her mother.
Sometimes we wait and wait for something that never comes. We may even think we deserve what we are waiting for (John may have been justified in thinking a miracle should come his way—or at least a little help), and so we expect and we wait. And the disappointment that comes from those dashed expectations can be crippling.
But that wasn’t all Jesus said. After Jesus told John’s disciples to tell their imprisoned, confused, and suffering leader that the hopes and longings of others were being fulfilled, he ended with “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
That’s an odd follow up. Why would anyone stumble because such good things were happening? But this is the part that was perhaps just for John, and may perhaps be helpful for us too when we face the disappointment of missed expectations. Maybe Jesus was telling John not to give up hope in the kingdom or the Messiah because others were experiencing the miraculous—and he wasn’t. Jesus’s encouragement was (and still is) this: Even though you don’t get what you want, it doesn’t mean I am not who I am. Don’t lose hope or faith in me. That’s a hard lesson. It’s hard to accept good things for others when we want, when we need some good to come our way too. We can become bitter, we can lose faith; we can decide that we are better on our own. But it’s a lesson we need to be careful to listen for in our own times of frustration. God is still God, even when we are confused, frustrated, disappointed, and just waiting.