My husband and I are currently in New York visiting our son for the holiday. We attended his church on Sunday and heard what may be the best sermon I've ever heard. It was certainly in my top five. The pastor delved into the story of John the Baptist and what it tells us about how God sometimes deals with his faithful servants.
Now John the Baptist was as faithful to fulfilling his God-given purpose as a man can be. His job was to prepare the way for his cousin - also known as Jesus - the Messiah. Jesus says of him, "...there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist." John was known to all levels of society and revered as a prophet of God. He spoke truth wherever he went. One day he tells King Herod a bit of truth...it was not lawful for him to "have" his brother's wife. Nothing terribly revelatory about that, it's pretty much unlawful for any man to sleep with another man's wife, no less his own brother's. However it made Herodias (Herod's brother's wife) really mad. Like killing mad. She talked Herod into arresting John but that was as far as it went for a long time. No matter how much Herodias pushed for John to be executed, Herod wouldn't budge because he feared what the people would do if he killed a prophet. (Mt. 14: 5)
While John is languishing in prison, he sends a message to his cousin that basically says, "Hey bro...did you forget about me? 'Cause I'm here in prison and you say your the Messiah, but you've done nothing to get me out. So are you the Messiah or not? Do you have power or not? You know, the kind of power that will set me free." (Okay, so what he actually says is "Are you the Coming One or should we look for another?" but my expounded version is still accurate.) When Jesus hears the message, he doesn't even bother to go see his cousin. He tells John's followers (the ones who delivered the message) to go back to the prison and report what they have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Then Jesus adds this stinging rebuke, "Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me" which is another way of saying, "Do you doubt who I am because I'm not coming to your rescue? Shame on you." (Mt. 11: 2-6)
Poor John. All he wants is for his own cousin to come see him and - with some of that power that's raising people from the dead - be delivered from sitting in prison for telling the truth. But Jesus doesn't come to John's rescue. In Mt. 14 we read that Herodias finally gets her way by having her daughter dance for Herod at his birthday bash. Now scripture doesn't record what kind of dance this was but it probably wasn't ballet, if you catch my drift. And by the way, what kind of mother sends her teenage daughter out to "dance" for her uncle and his guests while they are all drop dead drunk? But I digress. Herod is so thrilled with the girl that he promises her whatever she wants. After consulting with her mother, the girl comes back and says she want John the Baptist's head. On a platter.
So then Jesus sends an angel with a flaming sword to keep the executioner away from John and, while everyone is blinded by angelic light, throws open John's prison door so he can escape. Oh...wait. Wrong story. That's basically what happens to Peter in Acts 12. No, for John the Baptist, his story ends like this: " So he (Herod) sent and had John beheaded in prison. And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother." (Mt. 14: 10-11)
The most faithful man ever to walk the earth, and God allows him to be beheaded. The most faithful servant of God - aka Jesus himself - also isn't spared regardless of his pleading. Jesus goes to the garden and says, "My soul is sick unto death. Can you please take this trial away from me? Dad? Buddy? Please? Okay then, we'll go with your plan instead of mine." (Mt. 26:38-44) And the thing is, Jesus didn't just ask once he asked three times for God to change his mind.
Ever feel like that? Your soul is sick, you are pleading with God for help, and you know good and well that you've been faithfully serving so why isn't God coming to your rescue? I have.
Sometimes God throws open the prison doors and sometimes he doesn't. For Jesus there was no rescue. Think of that...the God of the universe, the one who put the plan of salvation into place, the infinitely creative God who is never stumped for ideas or plot twists doesn't save his own son from a brutal, horrifying death.
Because God had a purpose. John the Baptist's purpose was to prepare the way for the Messiah's ministry. He did that. He did it well. And when he had served his purpose, God allowed his life to end. Jesus's death also served God's purpose. But to many, many people around the world, Jesus' death looks like a sign of failure. The Jews certainly were looking for a different kind of Messiah and, to be fair, they are right to expect a political and national hero. The Old Testament is filled with prophesies about the conquering Messiah who will deliver Israel from her enemies, set up a never-ending kingdom, and make Jerusalem the center of world power. Yet we know that Jesus' death served the purpose of saving souls from the penalty of sin. One day Jesus will come back and fulfill the rest of the prophesies by being the conquering Messiah. In the meantime, those of us who are followers of Christ are to fulfill our purpose and not fall into the temptation to judge whether Jesus is who he claimed to be just because he isn't coming to our physical rescue.
So set your goals for 2019 but remember that you serve God's purpose and - regardless of your plans - His will is going to be done.
"Many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails." Ps. 19:21