"I'm too old for this." At least, that's what I was thinking as I boarded the "Freak Out" at the Corpus Christi carnival with a teenage youth from the church I was serving. At first I thought it wouldn't be too bad. But as I boarded the car, and the bar came down to keep me from flying out, my once ironclad bravery melted into trembling trepidation. And then, the ride began to swing. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Higher and higher it swung until I was being swung some 72 feet up in the air, my feet flailing in a chasm of open space below. My stomach began to churn and I closed my eyes. And it was on that day that I began to understand why they called the ride the "Freak Out." Because I was doing exactly that. I was just glad when it was over.
I have always found it funny how, oftentimes, we will forcefully claim the ability to confront even the most frightening and challenging predicaments with steely-eyed resoluteness, but only when we are not yet directly faced with them. For when reality hits and fear and uncertainty take over, our once rock-solid gallantry gets cut down to size. "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you," Peter pompously pronounces to Jesus (Matthew 26:35). But then Jesus gets arrested and Peter gets scared. And when people begin asking Peter questions about his relationship to Jesus, he responds, "I don't know the man" (Matthew 26:72)! So much for Peter's valor.
In our reading for today from Matthew 11, what happened to me on the "Freak Out" and what happened to Peter when he was confronted by inquisitors, also happens to John the Baptist. As the chapter opens, John is in prison. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, John was held at a castle in Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea, seen in the picture at the top of this blog. As you can tell, John was not exactly staying in an oasis paradise! Apparently, John had been in prison throughout Jesus' Galilean ministry, perhaps for as long as a year. It is at this point that John begins to get a little bit antsy. "I thought Jesus was the Messiah," John reflects to himself. "Isn't the Messiah supposed to 'free the prisoners' and 'set the captives free' (Isaiah 61:1)? Why is it, then, that I remain here, languishing in prison?" Cracks of doubt and misgiving, it seems, begin to develop in John's normally impenetrable fortitude. And so, John sends some of his disciples to ask of Jesus: "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else" (verse 2)?
Many times I think we errantly perceive biblical characters to be people of heroic faith unmitigated by such struggles as doubt and fear. According to Matthew 11, however, this picture is simply not true. For even John the Baptist begins to doubt Jesus' messianic pedigree. Graciously, rather than scolding John for his lack of faith, Jesus gives him this kind reply via one of his disciples: "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 poor" (verses 4-5). "Do not fear, John," Jesus says, "I'm not some wannabe Messiah. I'm the real deal. For I am fulfilling the prophecies concerning the Messiah's work, even if you remain in prison." And then, Jesus concludes with this beautiful beatitude: "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" (verse 6). Jesus knows that faith is hard. Jesus knows that his followers will doubt. But he gives them this encouragement: "Even when it's tough, even when it's dark, even when it's uncertain, don't fall away. Trust in me, even if your trust is only hanging by a thread. And you will be blessed."
Perhaps you, like John, sometimes struggle with your faith in Christ. Perhaps you are in a time of bitter anguish and you wonder how a loving God could ever allow you to experience such pain. Perhaps you see the brokenness of this world and you wonder how a righteous God could let this go on. Whatever question you might have, please know that you are not alone. You are not the first to have your fortified faith fractured by a tough trial. And you will not be the last. Then again, perhaps you feel strong in your faith right now. Perhaps you can say with Peter, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you, Lord!" Except that you, unlike Peter, would actually follow through. If this is you, praise be to God! By his Spirit, he has strengthened your faith. But remember also to be understanding of those whose faith is shaky right now. After all, your faith has been shaky before and it will probably be shaky again. As Jude, himself a very brother of Jesus, would remind us, "Be merciful to those who doubt" (Jude 22).