In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Advent is all about the coming of Our Lord, Jesus Christ; His coming in the Flesh by way of the Virgin, His coming now in Word and Sacrament, and His immanent coming in judgment on the last day. And so it is that St. John the Baptist, that greatest of Advent preachers, proclaimed His Coming. He was a voice in the wilderness, breaking down the mountains of pride and sin in men’s hearts, calling them to repentance. He preached and baptized to prepare the way for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
But then John is baptizing and preaching, no more. They basked in the heat of his passion for a while, but then his stern message grew old. It got him into trouble. He spoke against Herod’s immoral marriage. He wound up in prison. There he awaited the executioner’s sword. But the Ministry of the One he baptized, the One he anointed for an atoning death, had begun. He must increase. John must decrease. And from death row the one sent to comfort God’s people with the good news of the Messiah’s coming, seeks comfort from the son of his kinswoman, Mary. In faith, he asks, “Are You the Coming One?”
He is not rebuked for this. In fact, Jesus praises John with unequaled praise. John is not doubting. His is the voice of faith crying from the wilderness. He is about to die the martyr’s death. Upon that deathbed He seeks absolution, grace, and comfort. He does not ask to be let out of prison or spared Herod’s satanic wrath. He asks only for a word from Jesus. Our Lord does not disappoint him. He reassures. He promises. He gives. He points John back to the prophet Isaiah. He says: “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 the good news preached to them.” Lay your head, John, upon that cruel, cold stone. Feel your neck prickle and await the swift axe. But be not dismayed. Do not be scandalized. Do not give up hope. For in the midst of it all, even with evil Herod on the throne, the Messiah has come! The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Creation is being restored. They will place your head upon the platter, John, but your soul will live in heaven by the power of the One who died in your place that you might live. You will eat locusts and wild honey, no more. Now you will feast in the presence of the God who saved you, as His honored guest. Take your place with Enoch, Hosea, and Malachi.
Blessed are those who are not scandalized by God in the flesh of Mary. Blessed are those who do not try to master Him, but who submit to His Word and will. Their’s is the fate of St. John, martyrdom maybe, heaven for sure.
But many are scandalized by Jesus. His preaching is too absolute, too uncompromising, His countenance, too stern. They prefer a Messiah who looks less like St. John the Baptist, Moses, and Elijah and a lot more like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. A jolly old elf, a cartoon fairy – these comical figures who proclaim no doctrine, who have no morals – these are embraced by the masses. But if St. John is not a reed swayed in the winds of human opinion and curiosity, then neither is the One he proclaimed. Jesus is not a member of the peace corps come to spread good will. He is a soldier, a crusader, with mission. He has no time for nonsense, for hypothetical debates and scholastic speculation. He comes in the wake of St. John the Baptist to baptize with the Spirit, to give the vision of faith to the spiritually blind, to enable those crippled by sin and death to walk by faith. He comes to cleanse filthy hearts, purify dirty minds, to heal wounded egos, to bind-up disturbed consciences, and to open ears to His Word. He comes to proclaim the Good News of His arrival to those too poor to buy it or to obtain salvation in other way. That is to say, to He comes for humankind. All of this is done by His being handed over by the scribes and pharisees to be treated spitefully, killed, and buried – just as the prophets long ago foretold. But they also foretold His rising. Death was conquered in His death. He did not stay in the grave. He rose. He lives.
The power of that death and resurrection is delivered in His Word. That’s what John sought from prison. That’s what Jesus gave. And that, thanks be to God, is the faith in which John died. Still the power of His death and resurrection, the power of life, Grace itself, is delivered in His Word. He comes still. He comes now. He comes in His Word preached, heard, and read. He comes in His own words in the absolution where He declares sinners righteous, creating them anew, restoring them. He comes in the waters of Holy Baptism where sinners are baptized into His death and resurrection, cleansed with blood-tinted waters, given His Holy Spirit, and that, by the Word in the water. He comes in the Holy Communion, in meekness and humility, without great fanfare and unnoticed by the world. He comes to serve, to give Himself, the ransom not only to the kidnapper but also to the kidnaped. He comes by His Word to strengthen and encourage, to comfort and reassure, to console. His Word is a creative, powerful, life-giving Word. It never passes away.
Once in a while, “when I really need it,” is not enough. That is why He comes so much, in so many ways. St. John does not sit in prison and think to himself about what he already knows. Rather, in faith, he seeks Jesus where Jesus is. How many times did God tell Abraham the land was his, that his descendants would be many, and that the Messiah would come from them? Again and again and again. Why does Moses record it so many times? Because Abraham needed to hear it again and again, and the sons and daughters of Abraham needed, and still need, to hear it, too. Abraham needed constant application of the Gospel, of the Hope in the Messiah to come. So did John in prison. So do you in your own little prisons.
Come to the Altar – where God promises to be. Come to the One who comes to save you. Be refreshed, renewed, restored. Eat locust and wild honey, no more. Feast in the presence of God Almighty, all merciful and gracious, and that, at the side of St. John who has prepared you with the Divine message given him to preach. Here is rest for the lonely, searching heart. Here is comfort for the repentant. Here is life for those once dead.</P>
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Rev’d David H. Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Ft. Wayne, Indiana