Text: Matthew 11:2-11
“You can’t always get what you want. No, you can’t always get what you want. But…sometimes, you get what you need.” These were the words the great poet Mick Jagger sang on a 1969 single from The Rolling Stones. The jury’s still out on what the specific meaning of the song is – if there is one. Some say it’s about the declining culture of the 1960s, others, about a failing relationship. Whatever the song might mean, Jagger is right about something – you can’t always get what you want. But, sometimes, you do get what you need. We might have a case of that in our Gospel text this week.
In our text, St. John the Baptist is in prison. By this point, he had been there for about a year. Though he had preached about Jesus and had seen the Holy Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove, he began wondering from his cell: where’s the brimstone? Where’s the winnowing fork and the axe to the root of the tree? Why hasn’t Judgment Day happened already? Was Jesus truly the One? Jesus responded to John that the blind were seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the dead were being raised, and the poor were receiving the preaching of the Gospel. In His response, Jesus showed that He is the Messiah John (and we) need, even if He isn’t always the one we want.
Next week we’ll hear a little bit of John’s preaching, but let’s get a snippet of it here. These are from St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 3.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear
fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat…but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John’s job and goal was to preach repentance and faith in the coming of the Lord. He also encouraged people to bear fruit in keeping with their repentance, so that when the Lord did come in glory to judge the living and the dead, they would be gathered in with the wheat into His barn and not burned with the chaff. John expected that the Messiah would come and judge in the immediate sense. But, then he was arrested.
Herod Antipas was the king at this time – son of Herod the Great – and he threw John in his prison for this reason: John had been preaching to him that it wasn’t right for him to take his brother’s wife. In the Gospels we hear that Herod did, indeed, take his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, to be his own. But, Herod didn’t initially put John to death; That would come later. Over a year later. So, John, who had expected not just the Messiah to come but also Judgement Day, was a little shaken. St. Matthew records, “When John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” John did see the Spirit descend on Jesus, so he knew Jesus to be the Messiah – but where was the judgement? Where was the final separation of the righteous and the unrighteous? When would God’s people have peace? Maybe, Jesus wasn’t the one?
“You can’t always get what you want.” That’s how the song goes; maybe you’ve used that phrase with your kids, too. It’s true. It seems in our text that John was not getting the Messiah he wanted. But, maybe that’s going a little too far. After all, as we know, John saw the Spirit descend on Jesus. God told John that whomever he would see the Spirit descend upon – that was the Messiah. John’s error (if we can say that) was timing. Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. This is true, and we confess it every week in the Creed. But, that wasn’t the purpose of His Incarnation. Back before the end of the church year, we heard this from Hebrews, “just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him.” Christ’s first coming was to make atonement for our sins. His Second Coming will be for Judgment.
John’s issue was timing. He wanted things to happen (for the Messiah to do things) before the time. Don’t we want the same? What sort of lives do we all want to live? A happy life, a safe life, a joyful life, a life without any conflict, illness, or pain. In other words, we want all the benefits of the Resurrection now. We don’t want to wait. We often forget that the life to which we’ve been called now through the Word and in Baptism is none of these things. Through the Word and Baptism, our lives were united to Christ’s life – which was a life of suffering, rejection, conflict, and pain. Unfortunately, the devil is so active in our world that it seems now that almost any mention of Christ or Christian doctrine is met with hostility. So, to avoid it, we avoid it. We try to fashion for ourselves a quiet Messiah, who silently approves and condones all personal choices and behaviors, a Messiah who is not exclusive and holds no specific doctrine, and – above all – who only smiles. John wanted a Messiah who judges and we want a Messiah who does nothing.
Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” John wanted a Messiah who would immediately judge the living and the dead. Our sinful nature wants a Messiah who would do nothing but make us happy in the present time. Thankfully, and by the mercy of God, Jesus does neither of those things. You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. In Christ, we have the Messiah we need. He is the one who heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, causes the lame to walk, cleanses the lepers, raises the dead, and proclaims to the poor in spirit that their sins are forgiven.
These miracles Jesus did in the Gospel are the promised signs which would accompany the true Messiah. In our midweek services, we’ve been working through Luke 1 and we learned that it was spoken through the prophets that the Messiah would be God Himself in the flesh. And, so, Jesus is. He may not have been acting like the Messiah John wanted, but He was the one he needed. It was for John and for us, that Jesus came to die. He came not with winnowing fork and axe, but clothed in humility and blessing. He came not to live a life of comfort, but a life of suffering and death. By the sacrifice of Himself, He earned for us the forgiveness of our sins.
You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. John wanted a Messiah to come in immediate Judgment and we want a Messiah who will give us the good life to come in the now. John and we both err in timing. Thankfully, Jesus is the Messiah we need, who, by His perfect life and death has secured for you and me (and John) the forgiveness of all our sins. Once He came in blessing to win our salvation and soon He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Let us give thanks to our God and Father that, in Christ, we have the Messiah we need. Amen.