Many years ago I attended a minister’s conference and the main address was on the subject; ‘Coping with Failure’ the organiser of the conference gave the address because, he said, he could hardly phone someone up and say ‘You have been a complete and utter disaster in every charge you have been in come along and tell us how you cope with being such a total failure.’ He then went on to give a moving account of how he coped with a congregation that declined year upon year with no apparent signs of fruitfulness despite his patent faithfulness.
As he spoke you could hear a pin drop because of course that is where many ministers and congregations are today, despite faithful preaching drenched in prayer endeavouring to be as open helpful and accommodating to people as one can be we witness shrinking congregations and few if any coming to love the Saviour we adore and who is more precious to us than life itself.
In learning to cope with failure this minister was in good company because in Matthew 11 Jesus is having to cope with failure. Firstly He receives word that His cousin and great friend John the Baptist faith is crumbling and John is on the point of renouncing his faith in Christ as the Messiah. Then as Jesus goes to the cities of northern Galilee having performed many miracles for the people there he finds that they have become weary of Him; having filled their stomachs with bread and having healed their diseases they have no more need of Him and carry living as though they had never heard Him preach.
When I still stayed at home with my parents I was travelling home in the bus one day with a chap who had been in school with my sister and attended the Free Church in the village my granny went to, he was a quiet gentle chap and he said to me without a trace of bitterness, ‘You are very blessed you know.’ With a laugh I said that I was very ordinary and he said ‘No you are clever you go to university you can be anything you want to be in life, I am not clever I have to take what work I can.’ I was humbled and chastened by that short conversation. This chap had dreams but he knew he did not have the ability to fulfil those dreams and so he knew a deep disappointment a deep sadness in the core of his being.
As Jesus heard of the doubts that were threatening to swamp John the Baptist as the people of Capernaum and Bethsaida closed their doors when they saw Jesus coming Jesus was learning to cope with failure and rejection and the feeling of powerlessness that goes with it. If you have known failure, humiliation, rejection I would beg you to share it with Christ Jesus rather than surrender to the anger and cynicism that grips so many that have seen their dreams die.
John was a second cousin of Jesus and his whole life had been focussed on the coming of Jesus. He knew that he was unworthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal. He knew that despite the power and authority of his ministry now that Jesus had arrived he must fade into the background and Jesus must take centre stage. He knew that though the Spirit of God had anointed him to preach the Gospel, Jesus was wholly different Jesus was the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world.
These were all the things John had been sure of now his whole world was falling apart. Now all the stories his mother had told him about the angel announcing his birth to this father, Zechariah, in the temple Dad being Dod and not believing and being struck dumb now seemed to be just that fanciful stories.
His early ministry when he preached in the wilderness and thousands came to hear him with the Roman soldiers trembling at the word of God now seemed a distant fading memory was that too just another period of religious fervour that had gripped Israel. As John lay in a dungeon in one of Herod’s palaces in the Judean wilderness these dark thoughts gripped him.
I think there are three dimensions to the cold despair that was moving over John like some dark cloying haar that moves in from the sea. John was a man used to the wide open spaces he loved the wilderness, the fresh air, the emptiness, sleeping with the stars as the canopy over is bed. Now he had been confined in a small, dark, damp cell for months. Such conditions were quite alien to his nature. We should be aware of the plain everyday things that can erode our peace of mind and bring despair or desperation to our souls.
I love you all dearly but I find the Glasgow weather miserable; all these long grey, damp days that are neither warm nor cold. I find a despair creep over me when I draw the curtains and find it is another grey day the same as yesterday and the day before that and I long, ache yearn for the cold, clear, crisp days when you can see the snow clad mountains in the distance that I at least enjoyed in the Highlands. Playing golf on a cold crisp wither’s morning was always a joy. John was low I think because of the physical conditions he was in.
Then John was a man of extremes. Before his imprisonment he lived in the desert clad only in animal skins loving on locusts and wild honey. Locusts are not as awful as you think, not the insects but the fruit of a tree rather like purple mange tout. John is not a normal person!
When I was visiting in Raigmore once I met one of the pharmacists whom I knew; she asked me how I was I was in a black mood and said ‘Thoroughly fed up.’ She said ‘Don’t be ridiculous nobody wants to meet a miserable minister!’ and stomped off down the corridor. I thought to myself ‘She is quite right and ever after whenever anybody asks me how I am I say ‘Ticketyboo.’ And for the most part it true. I am never very high, never very low. John by temperament is my polar opposite. In the wilderness preaching, baptising Jesus seeing great visions he was in his element, confines in Herod’s dungeon his spirits sink lower and lower and lower till his whole life and all he believed seems to be an empty dream.
The question that is eating John up is ‘Is Jesus or is He not the Messiah?’ It seemed at first Jesus was the Messiah but now it would seem not. One of the things the Messiah was to do was to bring justice and release for all those unjustly imprisoned. Here was John who had endeavoured to be faithful to God in every way lying in a dungeon and Jesus was doing nothing to help him. Surely by now Jesus should have been using His considerable powers to sweep away the Roman invaders, overthrow the corrupt regime of the Herods that the innocent victims of despotic politicians like him should be set free.
John had yet to see what Jesus ministry was all about; that Jesus ministry was about tackling the very deepest needs of a man or woman’s soul, john had yet to see that and so he was confused and bewildered and sinking in despair.
The wonderful thing is that Jesus does not try to reason with John, He does not quote scripture or relate some parable. Jesus is very matter of fact and tells John’s friends to go back and tell John what they see that the signs of the coming kingdom of God are being fulfilled, the blind can see the deaf hear, the lame can walk and the lepers are cured.
As john sank lower and lower in his despair as he reached rock bottom he needed one, just one solid reliable truth upon which he could rebuild his life and understand all that was going on round about him.
The search for one solid truth upon which to build one’s life has been the great quest of philosophy down through the ages. You will have heard of Rene Descartes the French philosopher, he was searching for one basic truth upon which he could build an understanding of of human existence; he reasoned that because he could see, hear, touch because he could sense things therefore he must exist, he reasoned ‘I think, therefore I am.’ That basic axiom lay as the corner stone of western thought for a long time until in recent years philosophers have come to see that our perceptions vary wildly and so that we think cannot be a basic truth, so Descartes’ philosophical system has begun to disintegrate.
For the Christian Jesus is the rock upon which we build our understanding of life and who we are.
Which leads to our final point for today.
As John’s disciples leave Jesus speaks of the importance of John’s ministry. Jesus says that to that specific point in history John was the greatest man who ever lived: greater than Abraham, the forefather of Israel, greater than Moses, greater than David there all conquering king, greater than Solomon the wisest man who ever lived, greater even than Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah John was greater than all the great men and women of the Old Testament era.
What does Jesus mean? John stood at the pinnacle of the Old Testament as the last of the great prophets, Abraham had been given a promise that through him the messiah would come but John actually witnessed the coming of the messiah and held the door open for Him to enter His kingdom. David was promised a great son who would sit on his throne for all time John anointed this great king in the river Jordan. The great prophets gained tantalising glimpses of the Messiah John saw him with his own eyes! John is by far the great man of the Old Testament era.
But the humblest soul in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Why? Because as we see in this passage John did not yet discern the true nature of Christ’s glory. He still thought of Jesus as a great King like David. We see the beauty of Christ Jesus the servant king in the most beautiful and wonderful love pouring out his life for His people upon the cross that they might be reconciled to God and be set free to love God the father freely in consummate delight in His goodness.
So greatness is not about living your dreams, it is not about being gifted and living to fulfil your potential it is not about adulation and celebrity, it is not about money and success it is about discovering the one essential rock solid truth and building your life upon it. Philosophers have always understood this; the trouble is, like Descartes, they have not been able to find the stone.
For the Christian Christ Jesus is that stone, the core truth at the centre of all things and we live to let the beauty of his glorious goodness radiate from us.