John the Baptist would have excited your imagination. First, there was the rugged, ascetic appearance and air of the man. His eyes were ablaze with a strange, intense fire, and his voice roared the judgment of God like peals of thunder, and his clothes were so different, exotic, strange, way out, actual camel’s hair. Word drifted through the swank residential areas of Jerusalem that he ate the old diet of the desert, locusts and wild honey. This prophet, who held forth near the Jordan River, became the talk of the town. He was so picturesque, reminding the people of what they imagined the old prophets in Israel had been like. Some were deeply touched. Others were curious. But whatever the reason, one was not “in” in Jerusalem that season unless he had been out to the Jordan at least once to hear the preaching of John. People talked with a mixture of awe and respect and resentment of the things which this wilderness preacher was saying. His voice thundered about some impending judgment which hovered low and ominous like a cloud over the land. He talked about an “axe laid unto the root of the tree” and insisted that God was about to do some new and mighty things. People, well, their task was to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight in the desert a highway upon which the new adventure of God might proceed. John would make you almost tremble as he raised again the lyrics of Isaiah, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way shall be made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
There was that day, many would never forget it, when Jesus showed up among John’s hearers. Something instantly softened and surrendered in the grim, unflinching spirit of the wilderness preacher. He saw, he believed, the answer! He saw in Jesus the very visitation of God. “Behold the lamb of God,” he cried, “who taketh away the sins of the world.” It was like the coming of springtime after a long and biting winter. Jesus was the answer. All would be well.
But then John ran afoul of the vengeance of cruel King Herod and was thrown into a dismal, unlighted cell. He was not in despair. Hadn’t he seen Jesus and discovered in him God’s visitation? Soon the deliverer would strike the blow that would bring the year of jubilee. Down the unlighted cell block, rushing feet would be heard racing, and the rusty doors would creak as they were thrown open to let John out into the sunlight again, a free man. Jesus would do it, only he didn’t. Caged in his prison, it is hard to imagine the questions which began to plague the mind of John. Did Jesus know? He must have heard what happened. Why didn’t he do something then? At first he would smother the thought in his mind, ashamed of it. His plight, the silence of Jesus, long hours to brood, combined to make the question in John’s mind too achingly sharp to be stifled any longer. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” wrote a wise man. And John’s heart began to grow sick with doubt.
Is it that way with you? Heaven knows, you have tried to live a decent life, but things have turned out so poorly for you. You are imprisoned in ugly, terrifying conditions which you have done so little to deserve. Locked in sickness or imprisoned with family responsibilities which really belong to someone else, jailed by a dead end on the job, day after day you must get up to go through the old routine of quiet desperation. Night after night you stare into the darkness and stifle a sob and wonder deep down in your heart why God doesn’t do something about it. If not so trapped, you and I ought to try to brace ourselves for those fearsome times when there is no light around us and the night of despair closes in upon us almost like choking fingers. A person can lose one’s faith in the darkness if he or she is not careful and prayerful. Once I talked with a man by lovely Lake Geneva at the National Council of Churches assembly ground. He was a church executive, and in the gloaming he told me how in one year he lost his father, his wife, and his son. And then he said, “My grip nearly slipped.” Sometimes in the darkness and the cold a person’s grip will slip.
What is one to do then? What can one do? I like what John did as his grip of confidence in Jesus nearly slipped in the darkness of his prison cell. He did not conclude that all was hopeless and therefore there was no use attempting to do anything about the situation which wrenched his spirit and stuck in his heart like a dull, rusty sword. He decided to put the matter before the Master. John sent his friends to Jesus to report to him the anguished question which was tormenting the man in his prison cell. They sought an audience with Jesus and reported John’s mood to him. “Our friend and former leader is in jail,” they said. “His voice which once roared like thunder by Jordan’s stream has been silenced by a vindictive king. He believed in you, and when you came to Jordan our teacher and leader, John, stepped out of the way saying that you, Jesus, must increase and he, John, must decrease. A long time now he has waited to hear in you footfalls of God’s visitation to his people, Israel. He has believed that from you glorious tidings of deliverance would ring like stirring music through the land. But you have not been to see him, and you have not delivered him, and Israel still seems waiting for her redemption. Now, John has asked us to put the question to you bluntly. Art thou he that should come, the deliverer, the blessed of God? Or must we go back to the long, painful waiting for one who is come to set captive Israel free? “Art thou he, or should we look for another?”
Jesus’ answer is characteristic, for God will not be put on trial. He is the judge of all the earth, and is not the defendant. He does not whine or beg. He states his case but does not wheedle or apple polish or grovel. God pleads, but always with the note of one who is in command. And so Jesus sent a word back to the lonely, tormented prisoner which was neither yes nor no but which was far more. “Tell John what you have seen and heard. Tell John the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. To the poor the gospel is preached. Tell him to make his decision upon the basis of my record.”
You and I may have cried out ever so desperately, only never to receive the answer we want. Look around now and you will see, I think, in your life signs that God is at work, though not as you requested. When we are ready to conclude that there is no God anywhere and hope is dead, we ought to consider how it has been with us in the past, through what difficulties we have somehow been led. If a soul must doubt God’s goodness, let him first feel the warming sun on a cold and chilly day. If one must doubt God’s providence and protection, let him first think of the dangers through which the soul has been led, as if by another hand. If a woman must doubt God’s goodness and kindness, let her first remember the blessings that have been in her path and the ways that have opened before her. If a man doubts God’s judgment, let him look first at history and see a steady, unyielding pressure upon people to fashion a fair world or suffer the guilt and turmoil of an unjust one. I think there is abundant evidence that there is a purpose and a mercy operating in your life and in the world. Do you remember the words of a well-loved and steadying hymn,
All the way my Savior leads me—
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who thru life has been my Guide?
Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.
So to present to God whatever it is that troubles us and to cry out against it if need be, is our right as his people. Nor does it matter how bitter the complaint! Never forget the old psalm, “He knoweth our frame and remembereth that we are dust.” There are days when we can bring before God a deep and glad laughter of joy and gratitude. There will be other days when we can only muster a bitter, angry complaint. If it is honest, be confident that God will accept whatever it is we truly have to lift up before him, and he will make it serve his purpose and our good.
Words of Gardner Taylor