I find it easy to sympathise with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11). Not only is he in prison, but the man he identified as the coming Messiah doesn’t seem to be baptising with fire as predicted. Doubt sets in, probably made worse by John’s situation, and inability to go and ask questions himself.
Still, he does the next best thing – he sends someone else. The question is direct, “Are you the one?” Doubt and uncertainty are difficult to handle, but Christians are always allowed to ask questions – and it is better to do something to resolve doubt than let it fester. (What is not allowed is encouraging the “you can’t be sure of anything” state of mind.) So John sends to ask a question.
Jesus doesn’t give a simple answer. Instead of “yes” or “no” he tells the messengers to report what they heard and saw. Jesus is not making claims for himself, but pointing to the fulfillment of prophecy – something John would understand. Jesus may not have fitted John’s expectations – or ours – but he fits into the prophecies and predictions of the Old Testament, making us think again about the things we might not have expected, and might not like.
Jesus then talks about John as a prophet – and the one Malachi had foretold. He is honoured, but we are left with the amazing thought that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Why? Perhaps because John still has to wait for a saviour, while those of us who follow Jesus as our Lord are already included in the kingdom. We are honoured by the comparison, but also challenged.