In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Poor John, wasting away in prison, denied his locusts and his honey. He had been raised as a Nazarite. He´d never enjoyed the normal comforts men: wine and beef, house and home, wife and children, even nice clothing. There in prison, awaiting his martyrdom, the axe laid to the root of his tree, he knew those things would never be his. His decrease came so that the Lord´s Martyrdom would take precedence and draw all men unto Him. I hope his disciples had the presence of mind to not whitewash his tomb.
Was John doubting in prison? Is that why he sent two of his disciples to inquire of Our Lord whether He is the Coming One or not? Was he afraid, lonely, depressed, or just wanting a bit of reassurance to strengthen him for the end? It is quite possible. He was greatest of those born of women, but he was still born with the inheritance of Adam. He was fallible. He was not free of sinful desires. He selfishly indulged them like any other born of women. It may be, though, that he sent those disciples for their own good. He might have wanted to stave off their doubts and fears by having them be comforted by the Divine Word Himself.
I don´t know. Do the Propers for today sound a judgment against him? “Rejoice in the Lord always’ even in prison, John. “Comfort My people, ’ don´t plant doubt. Then a speech from that braggart Paul about faithfulness. If these rail against him at least the Collect for Gaudete is sympathetic. It prays: “lighten the darkness of our hearts.’ That is an appropriate prayer for both those wrongly and rightly imprisoned. It is also an appropriate prayer for those in the doldrums of a rainy December with haunting pasts and uncertain futures. And then there is Our Lord. He is more than sympathetic. He is down right complimentary. He has nothing but the highest praise for John.
That is because John is no reed blown about by the wind, even if in prison he feels the full weight of locusts in his belly. Such a ministry takes its toll on a man: eating the eater, taking the sign of wrath and plague into oneself, putting God´s Law into his belly, living as a symbol of the brokeness of this world in the desert, and letting the people´s sins die in his ear. He is no Messiah. He has his limits. But if the Lord insists he is Elijah. Still he is not stronger than David, more patient than Job, or more compassionate than Hosea. He is tired. He is ready for his release and awaits the reward of Jesus Christ: the promised land.
The bulk of his preaching and images come from the Exodus: the locusts that feed him, the Passover Lamb to whom He points, the desert in which he preaches. But he is most Exodus-like in standing in the river and separating the old man from the new. He points to Christ and puts Moses and his Law, the plagues and the armies of Egypt, to rest. They drown in the crashing waters of the Jordan. The path to heaven is open for you. All things are fulfilled. The Messiah, our high priest, is anointed in the desert by the son of a priest, more than a prophet. He decreases for Our Lord´s increase. And the desert blooms with grapes too big for one man to carry. The promised land, awaited by Abraham, longed for by David, envisioned by Jeremiah, is at long last obtained. God is pleased to be your God. The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove that He might come into your heart. The Son sets His face toward Jerusalem to die for you even as John heads off to prison and beheading.
John was the culmination of all the prophets. He overshadows them all. For He is the Divine forerunner, the harbinger of the eschaton and of grace. He is the greatest, but his greatness passes. He decreases so that the ultimate Prophet, the one who counted least in the Kingdom of Heaven – the only One for whom there was no Savior, who could not find forgiveness or have the cup lifted from Him, who, though innocent, endured Hell´s fire and was forsaken by the Father, who is a worm and no man, a scape goat for all your sins, a sacrifice worthy of all the rapes, plunder, lies, betrayals, and violence of men – John decreases and ceases, so that He, even your Lord Jesus Christ, would be the least in the Kingdom of God. Thus is He greater than John and so also are you who believe in Jesus Christ and are washed in His Baptism and Blood. If John is to endure for the ages it will not be as a prophet but as a citizen of this kingdom, as one of the host arrayed in white.
And with that, John, by grace, has no argument or complaint. He rejoices. He rejoices even in prison for he understood it better than most. And still he preaches. He says, “Your flesh is grass.’ He is stern and fiery, serious and scary. He issues a clear call to repentance and faith. “Repent before it is too late.’ He is talking to you. Repent. But he also preaches: “The Word of the Lord stands forever. The Lamb of God is here to remove your transgressions, to adopt you into His house, to bring the Kingdom to you.’ Your baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. It is still valid. In Christ, you are blameless and pure. Thus John says to you: “The war was ended. Your guilt is pardoned. God is your Father.’ In this way John prepares the way of the Lord into the desert of your hearts. He paves the way for God to enter you. He is more than a prophet! He is a Divine herald, a fellow of the cross, a fearless zealot obsessed with the only thing that matters. And whatever he endured in prison, whatever doubts, fears, and sins he suffered and engaged in, in the end, by grace, he did not love his life.
He is the Gaudete prophet. He lept for joy in his mother´s womb. He shows us the way of rejoicing in Lord always, and now he rejoices in heaven. He ministers to us still, by his preaching and by his prayers. Rejoice, daughter of Zion. The Lamb of God has claimed you. Your warfare is ended.
In Jesus´ Name. Amen.
Rev’d David H. Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana