Jesus Disappoints Everyone
Since we are people of action as well as faith, we do what we can to make a difference. We take to the streets and befriend the homeless. We give our money to organizations that work for justice. We register to vote and try to change the system. Yet no matter what we do, the problems multiply. We keep looking for reinforcement, but no cavalry appears on the horizon. What good is the gospel if it allows a wicked ruler like Herod to treat God's prophet like his personal plaything? We are disappointed with God because he allows the guilty to go unpunished.
But just as many, it seems, wrestle not with the outrage of Jonah but with the distress of Abraham (Gen. 18:25). What disturbs them is the possibility that God might cast anyone into hell. Many evangelicals, especially younger evangelicals, see the notion of hell as cruel and barbarous. They wonder whether such an idea is consistent with a God of mercy and grace. How can a God who "so loved the world" bear to watch his creatures suffer for eternity? If he means to teach sinners a lesson, couldn't he think of a better punishment than casting them into a lake of burning sulfur?
Oddly enough, it is common to find both dispositions—outrage and distress—in the same person. Such people are simultaneously frustrated with God for leaving the guilty unpunished and distressed at the thought that he would condemn anyone. They are like the people Jesus describes after John's messengers leave: "To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 'We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her deeds" (Matt. 11:16-19). When Jesus condemns John's generation with these words, he also condemns ours and offers a frank assessment of our ambivalence. What do we really want from God? Do we want justice or mercy? It would seem that we want justice without judgment and mercy without justice.
Your God has Come to Save You
Jesus' condemnations reveal an even more disconcerting truth. They suggest that on some level, Jesus disappoints everyone. Jesus is an equal opportunity disappointer. He disappoints not only the people of Nazareth who drove him out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off a cliff because he wouldn't perform miracles for them, but also people like those in Korazin and Bethsaida, where he did perform miracles. Jesus disappointed friends and foes alike.
Jesus' reply to John's question should be a clue that we have missed something. Our disappointment is mainly a problem of perception. Most striking about Jesus' answer is that he provides no new information. John already knows everything that Jesus tells him. Even the description of Jesus' miracles merely reminds John what he has already been told. So how does Jesus' answer help? It alludes to a passage in Isaiah, set in the context of a promise that John, as a student of Scripture, would have recognized immediately: "Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, 'Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you'" (Isa. 35:3-4).