15 Dec 2019 by William Tibben in: Sermons

Matthew 11:2-11 

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’[b]

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.




Have you ever woken up in the early hours of the morning and found yourself filled with doubts and fears that later, when you re-awake at daybreak, are no longer there? Those early hours of the morning are when our natural rhythms are at their lowest level and we are most vulnerable emotionally and spiritually. It’s the time when many people find their faith most sorely tested.

Well, if you know what that’s like, you might feel some sympathy for John the Baptist in the incident we read this morning, which, incidentally, is the reading traditionally set for the third week of advent. On the surface it seems a strange reading for the day when we light the candle signifying joy. But there’s a profound spiritual truth here – that the deepest joy often grows out of struggle.

John sent his followers to Jesus to ask Jesus a question: ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’

It seems a strange question coming from this fearless preacher, who had baptized Jesus and had seen the Holy Spirit come upon him like a dove, and had heard the voice from Heaven saying, ‘This is my beloved Son.’ It seems as though he had lost his faith.

Some people explain this by saying that John thought that by getting his disciples to ask Jesus that question it would cause them to see for themselves that Jesus was the Messiah. Others think it was John’s way of telling Jesus to get on with his job of bringing judgement, as the Old Testament prophets said the Messiah would. 

But my feeling is that John was going through what we have come to know as ‘the dark night of the soul’; those times in life when, for whatever reason, we are just hanging on by our finger nails, and we find it very hard to express jubilant faith.

John, you see, had been bold enough to publicly condemn Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for having stolen his brother’s wife. He’d spoken out too fearlessly for his own good and had ended up in a dungeon in the fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea.

That would have been a dreadful fate for anyone, but for John, whose life had been spent in the open desert, to be confined in an underground dungeon would have been unbearable. It’s the classic environment for breaking the spirit of even the strongest – isolation, making the prisoner feels totally helpless and vulnerable.

During my time as an Army chaplain I used to talk to soldiers about the international laws of armed conflict and things like the treatment of prisoners. Yet even the way we do it can be very traumatic – deliberately creating a sense of fear and disorientation.

When I was based in Brisbane, the Intelligence Company attached to the Divisional Head Quarters put on a training exercise in capturing and interrogating prisoners. It just so happened that the personnel they selected for capture were five Navy clearance divers – very fit, highly trained young men – and three chaplains 

One chaplain was seized in his office, and though it was a shock, he realized it was an exercise. The second had just returned to barracks from walking the Kokoda Track. He also realized what was happening. The third one, a rough and tumble, rugby playing chaplain, got snatched while walking along Roma Street in Brisbane. A van pulled up alongside him, half a dozen men, their faces covered with balaclavas, jumped out, grabbed him, threw him into the back of the van where they bound his hands, gagged and blindfolded him, and then drove to the old Bogga Road Gaol.

When he got there, he was kept blindfolded and isolated from the others, stripped naked to increase the sense of vulnerability, and then subjected to fourteen hours of interrogation by a variety of male and female interrogators whom he couldn’t see. However, the first voice he heard did tell him that this was an exercise and he was free to bail out at any time by holding up his left hand.

The interesting thing is that only the three chaplains lasted the whole fourteen hours. The young, fit Navy clearance divers all found the experience too traumatic; and this in an environment they knew was not real and was conducted according to international law with no physical brutality used.

It was that third chaplain, the one snatched in Roma St, who first described the whole thing to me. At the time I was preparing the program for our annual chaplains’ seminar, and one of the themes was related to combat stress, so I asked him if he would be prepared to talk about his experience. It surprised me when he told me that he couldn’t talk about it, it was too traumatic.

What he did tell me was that as he lay there, tied up in the back of that van, trying to work out what was going on, he soon realized this was an exercise. But by that time the damage had been done; the adrenaline had kicked in so hard that he could no longer react calmly. He lost all sense of time and, on release, could not believe that it had been only 14 hours. He’d tried to calm himself by prayer but was so traumatized he couldn’t remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and all he could was keep saying the name of Jesus.

Well, that helps me understand a little of what it must have been like for John the Baptist in that underground dungeon, and how even his faith could have been pushed to almost to breaking point.

But the wonderful thing is that Jesus understood. When John’s followers came to him with the question: ‘Are you really he who was to come, or have we been mistaken and should look for someone else?’ Jesus replied: ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.’

Jesus was saying: ‘Tell John that even though he expected to see the wrath of God, what you are seeing in me is the mercy and love of God; and that is the proof that I am the one who was to come.’

And I believe that for all of us who may, for whatever reason, like John, are experiencing our ‘dark night of the soul,’ that’s exactly what Jesus wants to say to us. ‘Look beyond your own present doubts and depression and remember what you’ve seen me do.

There’s a saying my wife has taught me that I’ve often reflected on during those times when faith is flagging and doubt looms large; ‘Remember in the darkness what you knew in the light.’ When you find yourself in that pit of depression, feeling lost and alone, think back to those times when you have known the certainty of God’s love and presence, and remind yourself that you will know it again.

Those heart wrenching moments of doubt can often become the building blocks of true faith. It’s only as we confront our doubts that we do really hear the ‘still, small voice’ speaking to our innermost being saying: ‘When you walk through the fire, I will be with you, and through the floods, they will not overwhelm you.’ We must always remember in the darkness what we knew in the light.

Speaking of this in relation to the season of joy makes me think of the worst Christmas of my life. It was about six weeks after my first marriage broke up. I was dreading the thought of it because there’s no time of the year when the pain of life becomes more acute than at Christmas with all of its expectations of family joy.

I wanted to make Christmas seem as normal as possible for my kids, who were already struggling hard enough to deal with what had happened, and so I arranged for them to spend Christmas Day with my wife’s family, as they’d always done.

But I spent the day on my own. I went to my church hoping for something to lift my spirits but seeing all those happy families together made me feel so miserable I up and left as soon as the service was over. I can’t remember what happened after that. I think I just went home and tried to read and watch television.

Except for one thing. As I climbed into bed, I opened my Bible to a verse that had become very precious to me, and it spoke deeply to me again that night. It was from Psalm 34. I’d read that verse many times over the years, but it had never registered on my mind until the first night after my wife had left, and I’d returned to a house with half the family, furniture and possessions gone. 

It was one of the lowest points in my life and I remember, as I was about to climb into bed, I opened my Bible at random hoping to read something that would lift my spirits. What I got did more for me than I could ever have imagined. My Bible fell open and my eyes went straight to these words: ‘The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.’ It was like a ray of sunlight. It didn’t change anything; what it did was assure me that God knew, and God was there. And that’s what I needed.

One of the things we all have to learn is that in the tough times when our natural inclination is to pray God get me out of this, what God is actually wanting is for us to accept that we have to go through it, but we won’t be doing it alone; He’ll be there with us.

Well, it was that verse I turned to again as the last thing I did on the worst Christmas of my life. And once again it spoke to my heart and reminded me the true message of Christmas is not just about happy families and celebrations – wonderful though these things may be. It is about Immanuel – God with us; no matter what our circumstances are; God with us if only we look and see.                                  

And so, once again this Christmas, we remember the ancient message of the prophet: ‘Behold the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – God with us...’ through all the changing scenes of life, God with us; even in our dark nights of the soul. And how that realization lights a candle of joy in our darkness that will never go out.