In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
St. John the Baptist receives the highest praise from Our Lord given to any man. He is the greatest. Yet even the greatest of men is still a man, still infected with Adam’s curse, still weak with desire. His greatness is thegreatness of grace, of what God had done in him and for him.
In the first place, his greatness is in his Office. He is a prophet of the most High. Indeed, he is the culmination, the archetype of all prophets. He calls stiff-necked, hard-hearted, luxury-loving men to repentance. And he pronounces peace to a war-torn people, even though for the most part, they are unaware of the devastation the enemy is inflicting upon them. Yet above all that he has beautiful feet. He is a joy to behold. For he brings Good News from God. He announces the Messiah and gives voice to the Church’s new song: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
There is also another greatness in John. He has faith. He held this faith already in his mother’s womb. He lept for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice for in her womb the Word of God, his Savior, had taken up Flesh to make him pure. This faith was made perfect in Christ, but on this side of glory whether that was on the Jordan’s bank, hunting locusts in the desert, or in Herod’s musty prison cell, that faith had all the weaknesses, doubts, and temptations common to man. Perhaps he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, “Are You the Coming One or do we look for another?” for their sake. Maybe it was they who were doubting. In order to alleviate the problem he sent them straight to the Source.
But it could well be that even he, greatest of all, knew doubt and fear. If that is the case, then we get a remarkable glimpse into the greatness of St. John. For faith is like courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. Rather, courage is acting, doing what needs to be done, despite fear and with knowledge of the danger. Faith is not the absence of doubt. But it is believing and clinging to God’s Word despite doubts and in the midst of danger, with the ever-present reality of earthly consequences, trusting above all that God is good and will not let us down. The greatness of John’s faith is not demonstrated so much in his martyrdom but in where he looked for answers. He looks to Christ, the One upon whom the Holy Spirit had lit in the form of a dove, the One of whom the Voice from heaven had declared, “This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.” That is faith as only God can give.
Now whether it was John who was suffering doubt or his disciples, he knew the answer to his question before he asked it. He had said to those who would listen: “He who comes after me is greater than I.” He knew that Jesus was the Coming One. But like children asking their mothers: “Do you love me?” he wanted to hear Him say it. And Jesus, in his great compassion, gave an answer custom made for the last and greatest of the prophets: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” “Check the record John. The prophecies, even yours, are all fulfilled. I have done what I came to do. Let that be enough.”
As far as we know that is the last bit of preaching that St. John hears before his body is split at the neck and his bloody head paraded before Herod. It seems as though that was to satisfy the vanity of Herod Antipas. But it was actually to bring the prophet the prophet’s honor and to deliver him to his reward. Great is the thing that has been done in John, which he enjoys to this day and will forevermore. Great is the Grace he received from the Lamb who died in his place, the Faith kindled in the Baptism with which he baptized, and the prophecy he prophesied made good.
We, of course, are not running about the desert or sending notes to Jesus from prison. We could be home snug in bed, buried in the covers, awaiting the morning paper. Are we here this cold, December day to hear the Word of the Lord, to be cut low and raised up, to be broken and healed, to confess and be absolved? Indeed, and that is always worth getting out of bed for! But if John was not worthy to strap Our Lord’s sandals, then certainly we, not as great as he, are not worthy to eat His Body and Blood, to call Him Brother, or to approach Him so boldly in prayer! But ours, by grace, always by grace, is the Kingdom of heaven.
This is what Jesus wants for you. What St. John for all his greatness could not obtain by right or power has been given to you as pure gift, as the inheritance of the baptized. Christ, Lover of men, Savior of the nations, Emmanuel, is your Lord. Your heavenly Father has given you His Holy Spirit so that by that His grace you believe His holy Word. You embrace it. You rejoice in it. You hunger in and are satisfied by it. You are His citizens,
His children, His beneficiaries. You are those from whom He has removed all guilt and shame, upon whom He has bestowed His holy Name, for whom He gave His very life. Least amongst you is greater than John according to his Divine Office. For yours is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever and forever. Because He has said so. Because He takes what is yours: sin, death, corruption. And He gives you what is His: righteousness, innocence, blessedness. You will soon leave these doubts and weaknesses behind and come to your proper place, to your true home, to the loving arms of your Savior. Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned.
Look and see, O forgiven doubters: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” The Messiah was born in Bethlehem for you. He died and rose in Jerusalem for you. He is coming back everywhere at once for you. You will see Him with your own eyes and your throat will fill the night with songs of praise and joy. Hallelujah!
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Rev’d David H. Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana