In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John had stood in the wilderness with his unbending ethic and boldly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. He had pointed at Him and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The only way lambs take away sins is by being sacrificed. He did not point and say, “Look, it is Santa Claus and he doesn’t care if we’ve been naughty or nice. He never gives coal. He is magic and wants fat, little children to have lots of toys.” Instead John says, “Look: the Lamb of God! He will be roasted on a spit, consumed in His Father’s wrath, the plaything of Hell’s evil desires, for sins He did not commit, for you sins. In this way He will take away your sins and open heaven to all believers.”
Then John infected Our Lord with our sins. He poured the filthy baptismal water into his ears, nose, and eyes. He made Him swallow it. John anointed Jesus for death. He marked Him with our filth. For this Lamb, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended in visible form and with whom the Father proclaimed Himself well-pleased, is also the scapegoat who will be exiled and forsaken. He is the incense. The aroma of His burning blood will please the Father. He is the priest who performs these duties for the people and for the Gentiles. He is the mercy-seat who shields us from the Law. He is the Redeemer. He sells Himself into slavery as a ransom. He is the Lamb of God. He takes away the sins of the world.
Then John finds himself in Herod’s dungeon. He has stepped on the wrong toes. His fierce law preaching needed an exception for powerful people, but there was none. The Law always accuses, always kills, is always antagonistic to sinners. John could have lied. He could have spun it. He could have pretended there was a royal loophole, but he didn’t. He told the truth. John then becomes a lamb, about to feel the consequences of wounding Herod’s pride. He is more than a prophet, and straddles two worlds, but he will not live to see that which the prophets longed to see, which he himself foretold: the Lamb of God lifted up from the earth, the redemption of the world.
Does this fill him with fear and doubt? Some are quick to say that it could not be. John is not a reed swayed by the wind. He is the greatest of those born of women. But we can only say such things of John if we are speaking of his new Adam apart from his old Adam. The new man, the one who arose clean and justified from the waters of Holy Baptism, does not sin or doubt. But John had not yet been transferred to glory. He was both old and new Adam, struggling against his fallen flesh, even as he preached for all people to struggle. For that is what it means to repent and John is the epitome of a repentance preacher.
Faith is not the absence of doubt. Such absence belongs only to the dead, in either kingdom. Here on earth, whether we are old man and new man, redeemed by Christ, or unbelievers with only the old man in us, doubt is always part of us. Faith is not the absence of doubt but the mastery of doubt. The new Adam in the baptized says, “I believe” even as the old Adam whispers, “maybe not.” Faith then speaks: “I believe, help my unbelief.” Faith subdues doubt. Faith acts and confesses despite it. In this, faith is not much different than its kin-virtue courage which acts despite the presence of fear.
It is not doubt, in any case, that sends John’s question to Our Lord. It is faith. Faith desires to hear the Word of the Lord. Faith seeks comfort in the only place comfort exists: in the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. To think that this comfort was only for John’s disciples thinks too little of John’s faith and of the comfort Our Lord provides to those who suffer on His behalf.
Like a child asking his mother if she loves him, John asks, “Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?” He knows the answer but wants reassurance, wants comfort.
So Our Lord says, “The blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. But all flesh is grass, cousin. It withers and fades. It dies. I am the Coming One. But I am not coming to you. You are more than a prophet and I am leaving you in prison. Your illnesses will not be healed. You will not behold miracles. I am the Coming One, the Messiah, the long-expected Hope and Consolation of Israel, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, for you. But I am not coming there, to the dungeon, to rescue you from your martyr’s fate. For you are a stiff reed, John. You will not bend and your faith has consequences. The winds of Edomite impenitence and greed will snap you in two. But your faith will see you through. Your iniquity is already pardoned. You are more than a prophet. By violence, your warfare will end. You will come to your reward. I will gather you to Myself. You will find soft, radiant clothing in a King’s house called by your own name. You will sit at the banquet table with your fathers. Washed in My Blood, Herod cannot kill you. Do not be afraid. The blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. The poor have the Gospel preached to them. And the miracle you get is the most significant of all: the dead are raised. The old Adam will be left in the grave. The final victory bestowed upon you and all who believe in Me.”
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen