Sermon: Fulfillment

December 11, 2022

Luke 1:46b-55
Matthew 11:2-11

by Eric Anderson

John the Baptist had experienced one of the greatest spiritual revelations described in Scripture. In the course of his baptizing ministry in the Jordan River, he had encountered Jesus of Nazareth and recognized him as the one he had been promising – the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. “I need to be baptized by you,” he told Jesus, “and do you come to me?” When Jesus insisted on the baptism, they’d gone into the water, and John had, or so Matthew suggests, seen the Spirit of God descending like a dove onto Jesus, and heard the voice acclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

On a scale of one to ten for spiritual revelations, this is a Nigel Tufnel – it goes to eleven.

The time had not been kind to John, however. Along with baptizing and preaching and calling religious leaders a brood of vipers – I would guess they didn’t care much for that – he had offended King Herod Antipas by criticizing his marriage. Herod Antipas ordered John arrested and eventually ordered his execution. All in all, John was in trouble and knew it.

At least he could rest in the assurance of his great revelation experience, and face the future without worry or anxiety. Except that this passage suggests that he didn’t.

Christian theologians have struggled with this over the centuries. One popular reading was that proposed by Saint Augustine in the fifth century. His idea was that John’s followers were the ones with the worries, anxieties, and questions. He imagined John saying, “’Go then, ask Him; not because I doubt, but that ye may be instructed. Go, ask Him, hear from Himself what I am in the habit of telling you; ye have heard the herald, be confirmed by the Judge. Go, ask Him, Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another?’ They went accordingly and asked; not for John’s sake, but for their own.”

If you’re thinking that sounds like a stretch, it’s a popular one. Martin Luther adopted it as well.

I suppose it’s possible, but human spiritual lives don’t work like that. In the 16th century John of the Cross, a Spanish poet, described the spiritual journey as a series of peaks and valleys. It’s not a steady climb. There are ups, but there are also downs. The highs of God’s closeness are followed by the lows, a sense that God is far away. I know just enough about Martin Luther and Augustine of Hippo to know they knew this in their own lives. Why couldn’t they imagine it in John?

Well. You and I can. We can sympathize with John because we know that he’d sympathize with us. We keep laboring for fulfillment and it doesn’t seem to get any closer. We keep working for a better world and it still seems far off. We keep praying and… where are the answers to our prayers?

Debie Thomas writes at, “John was one of those people — we all know them — who did everything right, and suffered, anyway. He died disillusioned and afraid, unsure of his Messiah. Worse, he suffered a death that accomplished nothing. No one repented. Nothing changed. There was no ‘happily ever after.’ As Teresa of Avila purportedly told God, ‘Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!’”


Here we are, two thousand years since all these events, and if we’re not precisely asking if we’re supposed to wait for another Savior, we are still waiting and frankly, it’s getting a little old. Where is the happy ending? Where is the grand finale? Where is the fulfillment?

As Matt Skinner writes at Working Preacher, “Christianity is, at root, an Advent religion. That is, our theology situates us in a cleft where promise and fulfillment don’t quite meet.”

Where promise and fulfillment don’t quite meet. What an awkward, uncomfortable, and precarious place to be. How could we do anything but lose our balance, stumble, or trip over things? “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus told the messengers. The Greek word for “take offense” is “skandalizo,” which also means “fall over an obstacle,” so we might render the sentence as “Blessed is anyone who doesn’t trip over me.”

There’s a lot of stumbling blocks where promise and fulfillment don’t quite meet. Blessed is anyone, indeed, who manages to navigate it all and avoid the obstacles and the pitfalls. Nobody, observed John of the Cross, is that blessed, not even John the Baptist. Yet we do find those pinnacles, those peaks of closeness with God, that reassure us that there is progress, there is learning and growth, there is the fulfilling of faith if not its fulfillment.

What did Jesus tell John’s messengers?

He told them to use their senses and report their experiences. As D. Mark Davis observes at LeftBehindAndLovingIt, he made them witnesses. Witnesses to what? To the full inclusion of disabled people in their communities. Rather than rejecting them as cursed because of some lack or sin, Jesus restored them to their lives. Rev. Davis wonders, in fact, if that ministry wasn’t one of the stumbling blocks that tripped up some who observed Jesus.

What did Jesus tell John’s messengers?

The poor are the recipients of good news. Poor people in the first century rarely heard good things directed to them. Poor people in the twenty-first century don’t hear good things directed them very often, either. Look at political campaigns in the United States. Who are the people candidates appeal to? First of all, they’re the wealthy, because the wealthy fund political campaigns. Second, they’re the middle class, because the middle class seems fairly well represented among actual voters. You won’t hear many appeals to the poor, however, and it’s not because they’re not out there.

Jesus brought good news to the poor. Perhaps he was thinking of his mother’s song, composed thirty years before: “[God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

In summoning John’s disciples to witness, Jesus also defined his own mission and purpose. If John had been hoping for a Messiah that would overthrown Herod Antipas and release him from prison, Jesus had to correct him. Jesus the Messiah would be a healer, not a general. Jesus the Messiah would be with the poor, not with the powerful. Jesus the Messiah would be easy to dismiss amidst all those stumbling blocks, but there would be profound blessing for those who accepted it.

In the Christian life, there are many moments of seeming fulfillment, but they are not ultimate, final fulfillment. After the sun comes the rain. After day comes the night. After the baptism of John comes the doubt. After the height of revelation comes the question. Shouldn’t the life of Jesus have been enough? Shouldn’t the resurrection of Jesus have been enough? Shouldn’t this have all been enough, already?

Yet we remain in the place where promise and fulfillment don’t quite meet.

Curiously, Matthew did not tell us at least one of the things we’d like to know. How did John appreciate Jesus’ answer? Did it satisfy him? Did it reassure him? Did it restore his confidence that Jesus was the Messiah? Instead, Matthew walked John’s friends offstage and kept the focus on Jesus.

So what do we think of Jesus’ answer?

Sometimes, you see, our place where promise and fulfillment don’t quite meet resembles that of John the Baptist. May your situation never be as dire as his, but we certainly know the long dark nights of the soul. Does it reassure us to hear and see God’s work in the world? Does it at least provide a glimpse of the possibilities that seem so remote in our hardest times? Jesus thought so, or at least hoped so, enough to send that word back to John.

Sometimes, though, it might be you or I that function as one of those messengers. We have the twofold task of recognizing God’s gracious acts in the world and reporting them back to someone in distress. What do we see and hear? What do we understand as good and right and beautiful? Where is the grace of God? And how will we describe that to someone who, for whatever reasons, simply can’t see it? How do we acknowledge the pain of their moment and raise up a hope?

We may also find ourselves in the place of Jesus’ disciples in that moment, who got to stay (for that moment) in the presence of Jesus, hearing words that raised their spirits. Do you understand what he told them? “You are as great or greater than John the Baptist.” If must have felt like they were on top of the world.

The life of faith does not bring fulfillment in this world we know. In it, however, we can be fulfilling our spiritual aims. We can be seeking to recognize God’s saving work in the world. We can be sharing that with another. And from time to time, we can be on top of the world, rejoicing in the presence of Christ.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric improvises. He did with this sermon, too.

The image is Saint John the Baptist by El Greco and workshop (between 1610 and 1620) –, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on December 11, 2022

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