St. Matthew 11:2-11
December 13, 2015 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We can’t see into John’s heart as he languishes in prison, awaiting his martyrdom. It is possible, even though he is a fallible human being, that he suffers no serious doubts about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. It could be that John sends his disciples to the Lord simply for their sake, because he wants to decrease, because the disciples need to transfer to Jesus.
But as it is presented in the Gospels, John’s question from prison and Our Lord’s response leave the possibility wide open that John was not only doubting but also that he had an imperfect theology of the Messiah.
We don’t know everything that John preached about the Christ because not everything he said was recorded. But what is recorded is heavily weighted with eschatological fervor. The Coming One’s arrival is cause for repentance. He will baptize with the Spirit and fire. The axe is already laid to the root and the Coming One will cast the wicked into the furnace. He also says, of course, and most significantly, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
John’s question from prison comes when John hears about what Jesus is doing. The significance that might well be that Jesus did not seem to be doing the things that John had prophesied. He wasn’t casting people into the furnace and He wasn’t being sacrificed as the Passover Lamb. He was eating with tax collectors and sinners. He was even conversing with and reaching out to the Pharisees. So did John have it wrong or not?
We are all men of our times. We can’t help it. Luther was formed by the abuses he suffered in the Monastery, from the sale of indulgences, and from the iconoclasm of Carlstadt. John was formed by hypocrisy of the Pharisees and being the forerunner. Vocations are crosses. They leave scars and they build muscles. That is obvious to us when we consider combat vets, but it is also true of those who work for unions, who are married, or who are mothers. Your duties change and form you.
John was called was to prepare the way of the Lord. That preparation was heavy on warnings of the wrath to come. It could be that John, languishing in prison, is either too focused on the fiery images of wrath that he was sent to preach or that he is afraid that he actually got it wrong – because his preaching might seem different than that both the preaching of Jesus and the actions of Jesus. No matter what, as one facing imminent death, John desperately needs the Gospel that the Lord preaches to him through his disciples.
The Lord is the Coming One whom John announced, but there is more to Him than fire and brimstone. He is reminding John of the fullness of the Messiah and His mission as foretold in Isaiah. We should note that when St. Peter misunderstood the Lord’s mission, the Lord rebuked him and called him Satan. Peter wanted glory not the cross. That is a satanic impulse. If John is confused, his confusion is of a different sort. He doesn’t want the Lord to avoid the cross but hurry up and get to it. So the Lord does not rebuke John. Instead, He gives him a course correction. John wasn’t omniscient. He didn’t yet have perfect faith. He was suffering from temptation in prison, and his role as forerunner was costly to him as a theologian. Thus he needed correction from the Word of God regarding his emphasis.
This matters because whatever weaknesses John did or did not have, there should be any doubt that we, every one of us, have theological blind spots and gaps. When they are discovered it can be disturbing. Most of the time these things are fairly innocuous. You discover, for example, that the Bible doesn’t say anything about Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem even though you always thought it did. But sometimes they are quite substantial, such as when a Christian has thought his whole life that worship was what he did for God and then discovers that God doesn’t get anything out of the Divine Service, that worship is actually what God does for us, it is where He serves us, where He visits and forgives us. In light of such a revelation, one might feel that he has misunderstood the essence of the Gospel itself, that his unconscious assumptions, picked up mainly from his culture, were wrong and even potentially dangerous.
That can be a disturbing experience, but it is one that I hope all of you have had and that you will keep on having. To be lacking that experience could be a sign that you have not let the Word of God have its way with you but are reading and hearing it only at a surface level so that it simply confirms what you already believe. That is a dangerous path. The Word of God is mean for correction.
At the same time, there is no need to manufacture these experiences. They are gifts of the Spirit and they aren’t ours to control. Our task isn’t to create spiritual experiences – either mountaintop or shake ups – but to wait on the Lord.
We wait on the Lord by being where He has promised to be, by gathering around the Baptismal font, the Altar, and the pulpit. We trust that He does what He promises to in those places whether we feel it or not. The risen Lord is present for us here to deliver to us what He has won for us on the cross and from the empty tomb. Here He speaks and we listen. He forgives and we rejoice. Sometimes it feels wonderful and we are well aware of His presence in more than simply our intellect. Sometimes it is disturbing. And other times, we just wait. We aren’t merely going through the motions, but we are acting in faith, in accordance with His Word, because that is what we trust. And for those times when we do feel it, whether it is a mountaintop experience of joy or it is a disturbing shift in our worldview, we give thanks.
The polar opposite of not experiencing these disturbing revelations of God’s grace, of never having much to learn, is being barraged with them so much that it almost seems as though you might not have been a Christian before. That is actually a worse phenomenon and it shows how clever Satan is.
Consider John in prison. When he hears the Messianic description from Isaiah, that the Lord is giving sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, cleansing the lepers, restoring sound to the deaf, and, above all, that the poor are receiving not warnings of wrath but good news of God’s acceptance and love, he might be worried. To make it worse the Lord says: “Blessed is He who is not offended by Me.” John just might have thought: “I am a false prophet. My ministry was a waste. I wasn’t’ even a Christian.”
And if he thought that, he was wrong. That wasn’t the Lord’s point at all. He revealed Himself to John in this way not as a rebuke but as comfort. He was reaching out to John not in judgment against what John had thought before, but as a further opening and a fuller vision of who the Messiah is and what the Messiah does.
It is the same for you when the Lord reveals something that seems to contradict what you thought before. It is rarely a full contradiction. It is not as though you were worshipping Satan. For the most part you just had the wrong emphasis on worship, you thought it was mainly your work, or you didn’t realize what the Absolution really was or how central the Supper was, or you had a flawed understanding of some passage. Even if you really had a doctrine wrong, say you denied the Bodily Presence of Christ in the Sacrament or even the exclusive claims of Christianity – you are baptized. Your salvation isn’t based on your orthodoxy or your ability to articulate it. It is grounded and subsists in Christ’s faithfulness to you, not yours to Him, and certainly not in the wavering and confused ideas and emotions of fallen men.
Rather than feel bad that you were wrong about something, you should rejoice that you have been given a new insight, that the Lord has revealed Himself to you and recognize that this comes as grace, as a gift, as it did to John in prison. There is no end to this. There is no full knowledge to obtain. The life of the Christian is the life of catechesis, of continual learning and growth. That isn’t a burden for us or some sort of impossible standard that we can never obtain, but it is a great joy: God keeps talking to us, revealing Himself and His grace to us.
He doesn’t always act the way we expect. His Word is fuller than we can understand. But His intention never wavers – whether John was doubting or not, whether his understanding of the Messiah was less than perfect or not – doesn’t matter. The Lord’s intent, either way, was to comfort and uphold John in his faith, faith that knew enough to seek comfort from Jesus and His Word.
That is where we need to be as well. The Lord comes to you today as He always does, in every season, as a Shepherd, gathering you into His arms, with healing in His wings. He comes to speak you righteous, to bestow His forgiveness on you anew. Even when rebukes, He comes to comfort and bestow the peace and joy that passes all understanding.
For if John was not a man arrayed in soft clothing, neither was the Lord. He came and did what He promised. He did not shrink from His sacrifice and He does not shrink from your sins whatever they may be. He came for this then, He comes for this now in Word and Sacrament, and He is not done. He is coming back and in the same grace and desire, that you would be His and that forever.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.