What Are YOU Looking For? (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 22)

NOTE: This is part 22 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book here. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

Having answered John’s question, Jesus turned to the crowds and challenged them too. Essentially he asked them, “What are you looking for? Why are you here? Are you looking for answers, or did you just come to see a spectacle? Are you looking for the Messiah? Did you see Elijah when you looked at John—or just a ringmaster in a circus?”

The question is pertinent to all of us. It’s easy to gather around Jesus just because that’s what everyone else we know is doing. It’s easy to be drawn by the activity, by the lights, by the music, or by the miracles. Not everyone has the earnest involvement and investment of a John the Baptist, although some of us do. So Jesus challenges us all: Why are we here?

Why have we come to God? Why have we stuck with him? Are we looking for a miracle? A comfortable morality? A simple path to fit in with our family and friends? Are we looking for pat answers? Do we want prosperity, a blessing, some kind of guarantee? Is it about a ticket to heaven, or about a sense of surety in our souls, or about feeling good about ourselves—feeling secure, feeling smug?

Why are we here? Why did we come? Are we looking to fill our hunger? Are we seeking something transcendent? Did we sense—do we sense—that our need for love, for purpose, or for fulfillment may find its answer here? Are we answering a tug deep in our spirits, deep calling unto deep? Are we pushing our questions to the limit? Have we come seeking something greater than ourselves—something we can fall down and worship?

Why are we here?

Then Jesus went on. He knew, of course, that when they left this place and this encounter, the people would talk about what they had heard. They would gossip and speculate. They would have opinions, about Jesus and about John. That’s human nature, after all.

But Jesus was unimpressed with the tendency of his contemporaries to judge him, and he took this opportunity to remind them that, when we try to fit God’s work into our models—when we judge God based on our own desires and expectations—we are likely to get things wrong. We are also, by way of human nature, impossible to please.

“To what should I compare this generation? It’s like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to each other:

We played the flute for you,
but you didn’t dance;
we sang a lament,
but you didn’t mourn!

For John did not come eating or drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-18)

A textual variant renders that last verse, Wisdom is vindicated by her children. In other words, it is the final results of a thing that prove it right or not. It’s much the same as something else Jesus said: You will know the tree by its fruit. Or, to use an old English idiom, The proof is in the pudding.

What God is doing might look bad or foolish in the moment. What his handful of chosen people are doing might look entirely wrongheaded and doomed to fail. But wait and see, Jesus is saying. To be clear, he wasn’t asking for a reasonless faith—there were plenty of good reasons to think God was working through John and through Jesus. He was simply asking the people to wait and see how it all shook out. If the wisdom of God was at play here, the end of the story would make it clear.

There’s a caution in this to those of us who would judge the work of God in our own day and in our own lives. To some extent, we are always in the middle of the story. If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a novel (and I’m assuming you have), you’re familiar with that middle bit where absolutely everything is going wrong and there is no possible way the good guys will win (or get married, or live happily ever after). Except they will, of course; we know that because we’ve seen so many stories, and the pattern is always the same. It always gets darkest before the dawn.

In terms of story structure there’s even a name for this: it’s called the “bleakest moment” or “the darkest hour.” Interestingly, it’s also—often—the moment when the hero makes a pivotal decision that ultimately determines how the story will end. And nine times out of ten, that decision is just this—The hero decides not to give up.

When we are dealing with fear and doubt, even a crisis of faith, in our own lives, it is perhaps wise to stop and ask where we are. John the Baptist sent his question to Jesus in the midst of his own bleakest moment, and the ending of his life would depend on how he responded to Jesus’s answer.

His choice, unfortunately, wasn’t “live or die; get out of prison or stay in”; that decision would be made for him. His choice was “stay in faith or get out.” Remain in Jesus, or walk away. Judge the story based on the darkest hour, or believe that wisdom will justify her children—and be willing to change your understanding of the story itself if you need to.

The darkest hour always looks like an ending. But Jesus challenges us to believe it isn’t, that it’s just a turning point along the way. Remember, the context of this entire conversation is Jesus calling people to take up their crosses and come, follow him—to die. And yet Jesus implies that if they do, death won’t be the end of the story.

As far as they understood it, death on a cross was absolutely, unequivocally the wrong ending for a story about the Messiah. It was so wrong that if the Messiah died, he couldn’t have been the Messiah after all. But Jesus is basically saying, Don’t let appearances deceive you. You had good reasons to begin this journey of faith. See it out to the end.

Because the end just might surprise you.

To be continued …


This is Part 180 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash




One response to “What Are YOU Looking For? (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 22)”

  1. […] Part 180: What Are YOU Looking For? (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 22) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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