When God Is Near and Yet Seems So Far Away

Title: When God Is Near and Yet Seems So Far Away

Bible Book: Matthew 11 : 1-11

Author: Sammy Burgess

Subject: God, Nearness of; Providence of God; Purpose



The story is told (supposedly true) of a missionary who was sitting at her window when the mail arrived. She opened a letter and out fell a $10 bill. As she read the note accompanying the money, the sight of a poorly dressed man on the street below caught her eye. Touched by the sight, she placed the $10 bill in an envelope on which she wrote, "Don't Despair" and tossed it out the window. The man picked up the envelope, opened it, looked at the contents, smiled, tipped his hat, and went on his way.

The next day there was a knock at the missionary's door and when she opened it there stood the man she had given the money the day before. He was standing there holding out a handful of cash to her. "What's this," she asked. The man said, "Lady, it’s your cut; 'Don't Despair' paid five to one at the races yesterday."

As we look at the story before us we find a man that needed to hear the message, "Don't despair." We find John the Baptist in prison and at a very low point in his life. His faith was bordering on doubt and his heart was quickly sinking into despair. From the lowest moment in his life we hear him asking, "Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?

If you were to ask John the Baptist how he was really feeling about his situation, he would more than likely tell you that “At this point, my life just doesn’t make sense.”

Many of us at one time or another has felt the same way. There have been times in our lives when things have happened and we just don’t understand “why”. In fact, the things that happen to us just don’t make sense. We try to live right; do right; give right; act right, talk right; yet, God allows things to take place in our lives that just don’t seem to make sense. It makes us wonder what God is up to in our lives.

John the Baptist was in one of those predicaments. The things that were happening to him just didn’t make sense to him. But the Lord knew how to handle John the Baptist and the Lord knew exactly what John needed in his situation.

I want us to consider the situation John the Baptist and study the interesting question he asked; {11:3}- “Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” You see, Jesus seemed near, and yet He seemed so far away.

I. The Praise That Was Extended To John

In {11:7} we find the Lord Jesus speaking to the multitude about John. We read, "And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John." What did Jesus say about John? {Notice with me…}

A. The Lord's Evaluation Of John's Life

Jesus asked the people questions for the purpose of showing what kind of man John was. {11:7}- "What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken in the wind?"

No doubt Jesus had in mind the long cane grass that was common on the banks of the Jordan River where the people had heard John preach. Like high grass in a field, if the wind blew from the north the grass leaned to the south. If the wind blew from the south, it leaned to the north, and etc.

Jesus was asking, "When you heard John, did you hear a man whose message was based on which way the wind was blowing? Did you hear a man that was governed by popular opinion?” If Jesus were living today He no doubt would have asked, "Did you hear a man whose message was shaped by what the polls say?"

The answer was “no”. When the people heard John the Baptist, they heard a man who looked them straight in the eye and told them like it was and never flinched. John the Baptist was not a preacher that preached what the people wanted to hear. He preached what the people needed to hear.

I heard about one preacher that got up on Sunday morning and said, "I have in my hands 3 sermons. I have a $100 sermon that lasts 5 minutes. I have a $50 sermon that last 15 minutes, and I have a $10 sermon that lasts a full hour. Now we will take an offering and see which one I will preach."

John didn't take an offering to see what He would preach. He had a message from God and he never wavered in declaring, "What saith the Lord."

Jesus also asked the people in {11:8}- "But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?" Jesus was asking if they had seen a man dressed in luxurious and expensive garments. The next statement in {11:8} sheds light on who in particular Jesus was describing: "Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings houses."

Jesus was no doubt referring to the courtiers of King Herod, whose luxurious lifestyle typified "soft raiment." The art of these courtiers was the flattery of the king. Jesus was asking, "When you heard John did you hear some spineless sissy who only sought to make you feel better, or do you hear someone that pulled out a dagger and went straight for the heart.

A man who was trying to explain the meaning of the word "oratory" commented with tongue in cheek:

"If you say {black is white} that's foolishness. But if while you say “black is white” you roar like a lion, pound on the table with both fists, and race from one end of the platform to the other, that's oratory!"

If that is the case, John the Baptist was no doubt an orator. (I would like to use my imagination for a moment.) I think of John the Baptist as being the kind of preacher that roared like a lion, pounded the pulpit, and ran from one end to the other; all the time pointing his finger at the people shouting, "Repent!" You see, the people had not heard a man dressed in soft raiment.

The last thing Jesus asked the people about John is found in {11:9}- "But what went ye out for to see? A prophet?" A prophet was one who declared the message of the Lord. Yes, John was a prophet, but as Jesus said in {11:9} he was "more than a prophet."

In {11:10}- Jesus declared, "For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee."

John was more than a prophet. He was God's messenger that had come to announce the arrival of the Messiah - the Lord Jesus Christ. He was a man sent from God. Jesus wanted the people to understand that John was not just your ordinary man. He did not fall into the category of the ‘average’ or ‘normal’. John the Baptist stood out like a diamond against a black cloth.

B. The Lord's Exaltation Of John’s Life

Clarence Macartney said, "If praise is to be measured by the lips which pronounce it, then never was man so praised as was John the Baptist."

No greater compliment or tribute has ever been paid to man than what Jesus said about John the Baptist. What did our Lord say about John? Notice {11:11}- "Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist."

Solomon said in {Proverbs 27:2}- "Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth." [I think one of the most distasteful things a person can do is brag on themselves.]

I heard about a preacher that said to his wife, "You know honey there is not many great preachers in our day." She smiled and said, "No, and there's one less than you think."

People that are always bragging on themselves can be a bit obnoxious.

I think about this Texan that landed in Sydney, Australia. He was picked up by a taxi and no sooner got in when he started on this tirade about the small town airport and how in Texas they have larger runways on their ranches. *When they crossed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Texan grumbled, "I have a duck pond bigger than that harbor and a bridge across it that makes this one look like a toy."

When they got onto the Sydney-Newcastle Expressway he complained; "Is this a road or a track?" Through it all, the driver said nothing but when a kangaroo jumped out in front of the cab causing him to slam on the breaks, he couldn't help himself and hollered, "Stupid grass-hoppers!"

Solomon said in {Proverbs 27:2} to leave the bragging to others. If we deserve any praise, let others do the praising. We should never publicly praise ourselves. Yet, his words remind us that there are those who deserve to be commended, honored, and shown appreciation.

John the Baptist was that kind of a person. In fact, we see him receiving the ultimate in praise. We hear him being praised by the Lord Jesus.

What greater thing could be said of a person than that he/she was the greatest born of woman. Who greater could commend a person than the Lord Jesus?

Some may brag on themselves and others may seek the praises of men, but when it is all said and done, the only thing that matters is what the Lord thinks and says about us. The only praise we should desire or seek is the

The story is told that when the Italian composer Verdi produced his first opera in Florence, at the completion the crowd stood to their feet and cheered. Yet his eyes were not on the cheering crowd, but fastened on the face of one man in the audience - the great Rossini. *It mattered not if the people were cheering or jeering him. What mattered was what the master musician thought.

II. The Perplexity That Was Experienced By John

As I said in the beginning, when we come to {Matthew 11} we find John the Baptist in prison. As the Holy Spirit grants us access to his cell we find there is a struggle of titanic proportions going on in his heart and soul.

Notice {11:2,3}- "Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?"

Let's think about his words for a moment. As I think about what John asked I seem to see a hint of:

A. The Outward Situation That Discouraged Him

I seem to sense a bit of discouragement in John's words. When you look at his circumstances you can easily understand why he would be discouraged. {He wasn't in a penthouse - he was in a prison.} {He wasn't rolling in the lap of luxury - he was rotting in a dungeon of extremity.} *The dark, damp, dreary, prison cell with its cold nights, damp bed, and tasteless food was enough to depress any person.

When you think of John as a man of the desert and wide-open spaces, you can imagine how discouraging it must have been to be contained within 4 narrow walls. Here was an active man with a Divine Mandate to preach, yet he was silenced. This must have been a discouraging time for John.

John Stott said: "The Christians chief occupational hazards are depression and discouragement."

The devil knows if he can get a Christian discouraged they will quit praying; they will quit reading their Bible; and they may quit witnessing and serving God. Discouragement is an occupational hazard and a tool greatly used by the devil.

When I think about John in prison, I can't help but feel that the one thing that discouraged him the most was the absence of his Lord. Jesus was in the area. You could say that “He was in the neighborhood”. No doubt when John first heard that Jesus was in town he more than likely thought the Lord would surely drop by and visit him. But days had passed by and not only had he not seen the Lord, he hadn't even heard a word from Him.

There are times when we get discouraged. The things that we go through and the places we find ourselves in can be very discouraging.

What is even worse is the seeming disinterest and care of our Lord. We know that He knows where we are and what we are going through, yet it seems like that we don’t hear one word from Him. It almost appears as if He doesn't care.

B. The Inward Struggle That Distressed Him

There was not only the outward situation he had to deal with, but there was also the inward struggles going on deep down in his soul. These inward struggles are seen in the question that he asked. He sends two of the disciples to ask Jesus, "Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another?"

If you have carefully studied the life of John the Baptist, you will understand that he was a man of great spiritual power and great spiritual authority. But now, we see something unusual about him. We see the mighty and powerful John the Baptist wavering in his faith. What he had preached as an exclamation point had now become a question mark.

At Jordan, there had been no questions that he was the Lamb of God, but now in jail he is wondering if he was the Son of God.

Oswald Sander said, "Even a man of granite can be a prey of torturing doubt."

Even the strongest person can sometimes find himself/herself wavering in their faith. {Proverbs 24:10}- “If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.”

Why was John doubting that Jesus was the promised Messiah? The answer is found in {11:2}- "Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Jesus." *His doubt was caused by the works of Jesus. {As G. Campbell Morgan said: "the methods of Jesus.”} In John's mind, the way Jesus was doing things was not the way he thought the Messiah would be doing things.

John had expected Jesus to set up His kingdom. He had expected the Lord to come as “a cleansing fire and laying the axe to the root” {Matthew 3:7-12}. From what John could see, the Lord was making no effort to set up His kingdom or judge the people.

The seedbed of John’s doubt was that the Lord was not doing things the way he thought they should or would have been done.

Have we not all been guilty of the same thing? Have we not all at times questioned the way of Lord done things? We have been guilty of saying such things as, "Lord, why are You not answering my prayers? You promised that You would answer my prayers, but you haven't?" - "Lord, why did You allow this to happen? Why didn't You stop this?" "Lord, why did You do all these things for everyone else, and yet You don't do anything for me?"

There are times when the methods of the Lord confuse us and leave us perplexed.

III. The Power That Was Exemplified For John

The two disciples carried John's question to Jesus and they carried Jesus' answer to John. The message Jesus sent back to John was message of assurance. The sequel is not recorded, but no doubt the message John received from Jesus brought healing to his troubled mind and heart. (Notice with me the message Jesus sent to John and the assurance the message contained.)

A. He Was Assured Of The Works of Jesus

We read in {11:4-5}- "Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: {5}- The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them."

Jesus said to John, "John, I am working. The blind are receiving their sight. The lame are being made to walk. The lepers are being cleansed. The deaf are being made to hear. The dead are being raised to life, and the poor are having the gospel preached to them. Yes, John, I am working. I may not be working the way you think I ought to be working, but I am working."

John’s disciples had already told him what Jesus was doing in {11:2}. But Jesus told the disciples to “go and show John AGAIN.” ({Luke 1:17} tells us that John the Baptist had the “spirit of Elijah.”) If you study the life of Elijah, you will understand that he became discouraged. Jesus knew that John the Baptist was discouraged. So Jesus sent word to assure John that He was still at work.

I want to assure you at this very moment that the Lord is working. He may not be working the way we think He ought to be working, but nonetheless, He is working. We may not see His work and we may not sense His work, yet He is working. God is not sitting in the heavens twiddling His thumbs. He is at work! His plan and purpose is being brought to pass.

You may not feel that God is at work in your situation, but you can be assured that He is at work. God is never inactive. He is always active. Each of us can be assured that God is always at work. {Now once again, I remind you that He may not work the way the think He ought to work, yet He is always working.}

As a preacher of the Gospel, I have learned that I don't always see what God is doing. There have been many times when I preached and felt I had been an absolute failure and that nothing had been accomplished. *God has taught me lessons in my ministry that I don't always see or sense what He is doing when I preach.

I had the privilege of preaching in a Preacher’s meeting in December, 2001. I preached a message entitled “He’s More Than Enough.” I didn’t preach anything new to those preachers. It was just a simple thought. While I was preaching, I thought to myself; “They have heard this before. It’s worthless preaching something like this to these men who have more experience than I have.” But I kept Preaching. I know that I had the message for this particular time slot.

When I finished, no one really said anything. I sat down and basically thanked the Lord for the opportunity to preach; and I thanked Him for the fact that that part of my ministry was over with.

As we were getting ready to leave the Church, a preacher came up to me and said; “Preacher; Do you know Bro. Ken Trivitte? Bro. Ken is a good friend of mine. I live right outside of Chattanooga where He Pastors. Bro. Ken set with me as my wife had some major surgery. These are trying times for my family. And I just wanted you to know that the message ‘He’s More Than Enough’ was what I needed to hear. I know that Jesus is more than enough; but God, through your sermon, reminded me again and assured me again that He was going to take care of me and my family.”

I bowed my head and begin to thank the Lord He was still at work, even when we don’t see Him at work.

B. He Was Assured Of The Ways Of Jesus

Notice carefully {11:6}- "Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me." I want you listen very carefully to what Jesus told John. [I think in these words we find one of the most powerful lessons we can learn in the Christian life.] The word "offended" speaks “of that which causes a person to stumble”. One has translated the statement, {"Blessed is he, who finds nothing in Me to stumble at."}

I love Vance Havner's translation: "Blessed is he whomsoever does not get upset by the way I run My business."

Jesus was saying to John, "Yes, John, I am at work. I am doing things My own way. Don't get upset because you don't understand what I am doing or how I am doing things."

Listen to me carefully. God does not always do things how we think He ought to do and even when we think He ought to do it, but happy is the person who does not get upset with the way God does His business.

I want you to understand that GOD HAS A RIGHT TO DO THINGS HIS OWN WAY. He is God! He can do anything He wants and He can do it any way He wants to do it.

I think of John the Baptist. To my knowledge, Jesus never did visit John in prison and did nothing to prevent John from being beheaded.

In the Book of Acts we read of Peter being in jail. In Peter's case the Lord delivered him. Why God delivered Peter and not John is beyond my understanding. Yet, that is God's business and He has the right to do whatever He wants.


Someone has said: “Our heavenly Father's way may twist and turn, but He maketh no mistake.”

We are sometimes like the little boy who couldn't understand why God put so many vitamins in spinach and not ice cream.

We may not understand why God does things the way he does, but he always has a reason. *Our part is not to be offended in how God does things. We are not to get upset with God in what He does.

As Corrie ten Boom said,

"Don't wrestle. Just nestle."

I am going to make a statement that I have made many times and I believe that it is worth repeating right now. God may not always give you what you want, but He will always give you what you need.

You see, you may want something that is good - God wants to give you what is best.

During the Second World War, when Hitler was blitzing London, for safety purposes, the children were loaded into train after train and moved out of the city. One little fellow was asked, "Where are you going?" He replied, "I don't know, but the King knows."

We may not understand all that is going on, but the King does. Don't get upset because God doesn't work {how} and {when} you think He ought to work. Let the Lord do what He wants and how He wants instead of getting upset with Him.

There is a Creed inscribed on a plaque at the Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine in New York, City.

“I ask God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn to obey.

I ask God for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I received nothing that I asked for; but I got everything that I hoped for.”

Never forget that the Lord is always at work, even when we don't see Him at work. When he works in ways that we do not understand, don't be offended or upset with God. He knows what He is doing.


I heard a story about a 10 year old boy named Danny Aialo. {I-e-lo}. Danny Aialo was in a tragic automobile accident and lost his left arm. His physical therapist who was trying to get this boy back into physical and psychological shape was a Judo expert. He begin to get this boy back into shape by teaching him Judo.

As the therapist begin to teach Danny Aialo Judo, he became very interested in it. The therapist then, after several days of therapy, referred Danny to his Judo master, a “black belt” specialist from Japan. This Judo specialist took interest in Danny Aialo and took him on as one of his students. Every day, Danny Aialo went down to the studio (one arm; no left arm) and work out with all the other students. Danny became very good at Judo.

The Regional championship came up and all the students were wanting to participate, including Danny Aialo. The Judo Master tried to discourage Danny from participating; but Danny insisted that he enter the event. Danny wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

The Judo Master begin to show the other students several new moves; but he only showed Danny Aialo one move. After several days of training, Danny became frustrated. He couldn’t understand why they Judo Master showed the other students 10 new moves, but showed him only one move. The Judo instructor told Danny Aialo that he would have to trust him. He wanted Danny to perfect this one move so he could enter the tournament. Danny Aialo was offended, but he had no other choice but to trust his instructor. THE INSTRUCTOR WAS NOT TREATING DANNY AIALO DIFFERENTLY; HE WAS TREATING HIM SPECIALLY! He told Danny that if he would perfect this one move, he would win the tourament.

It came time for the tournament and the students participated and did very well. The little one armed boy Danny Aialo won his first 3 matches. In the finals, he was going to face the boy who was the defending champion.

Nobody gave Danny Aialo a chance to win the match. In fact, the first few minutes were awful. Danny was beaten, bruised, broken, but he wouldn’t quit. The referee came close to calling the match because of the beating Danny was taking. But the referee saw something in Danny’s eyes and new that he wasn’t about to give up.

As Danny Aialo struggled in his match, his eyes caught the eyes of his Judo instructor. His instructor eyes looked hard into the eyes of Danny as if to say; “Danny; it’s time to use your move.” Danny used his one move with his one arm; beat that kid and won the championship.

When the match was over with, Danny asked the instructor; “What was so special about that move that you taught me?” The coach smiled and said; “Danny; the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”

Let me teach you a lesson worth learning:

Behind every problem you face lies the Purpose of God! SO DON’T DOUBT HIM! EVEN WHEN LIFE DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.

(1)- WITH SUFFERING - God’s Power is Received.

(2)- IN SUFFERING - God’s Provision is Released.

(3)-THROUGH SUFFERING - God’s Person is Revealed. {11:3}- “Art Thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” God is who He says He is. Even when life doesn’t make sense.


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