December 17, 2017 A+D (reworked from 2016)
St. Matthew 11:2-11
In the Name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
John the Baptist stuck out in his generation like a rose candle on an advent wreath. He looked strange—what he wore; what he ate, he did unusual things-baptized people in the Jordan, and he was preaching bold words—Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. He wasn’t politically correct, and he didn’t have a “nice” filter on his mouth. He came like a bull in a china shop. No one was off limits. No one was safe. He condemned all sinners alike. St. Luke records John calling everyone in the crowds—brood of vipers—the tax collectors, the soldiers, and of course the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious leaders in his day as well as many of the spiritual people in our day, would have told him, this isn’t how you start a “successful” ministry. This isn’t how you “win” people for the Gospel. But John wasn’t sent to be successful or winsome. He was sent to be faithful, and unfortunately in this sinful world the two hardly ever align.
Even though he was harsh, everyone was going out to hear his preaching and to be baptized. Even though many were offended, there was something about John’s preaching that lured them out into the wilderness to hear it. John was preparing the way of the Lord. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. He was filling in every valley and leveling every mountain—he was encouraging the repentant and condemning the proud. That’s how the people of God prepare for the Lord’s coming—they repent, turning from their sins, and believe the Gospel. This repentance affects more than their faith, it changes how they act.
But there are people who exclude themselves from God’s congregation, there are mountains that refuse to be leveled, the prideful who refuse to repent, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the priests and Levites, King Herod; those people did not delight in John’s preaching and therefore sought to get rid of him. Herod does this by locking John up in prison because he spoke against his affair with Herodias, his brother’s wife. The Church’s admonitions against breaking the Sixth Commandment go back a long way.
John’s preaching was two-fold—an unrelenting call to repentance, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; and an unbending arm pointing to the Messiah, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John never wavered from these two messages. He never shook in the breeze of popular thought or modern sensitivities. He was a man on a singular mission, “to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people in the forgiveness of their sins.” For he knew that only through preaching the fulness of the Law could a sinner be prepared to receive the Messiah promised of old.
John wouldn’t bend or shake, therefore his adversaries sought to break him. Herod tries to break his body by throwing him in jail, mistakenly thinking that he could break John’s spirit and turn his message. We don’t know how long he was in jail before he called two of his disciples and gave them the mission to seek out Jesus and ask Him a question: “Are you the coming one?” That is, “are you the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior, the one who comforts in all tribulations, or shall we look for another?” It’s hard to be dogmatic on the motivation of his question. Was it his final effort to catechize his disciples, to point them to Jesus, to decrease even more as Jesus increases, to hand them off to become Jesus’ disciples? Or was it out of John’s own need for strengthening his faith in the face of persecution? Both are possible. Both are probable. And it could even be a combination of the two.
That’s because John was a real man, like you and me. He was susceptible to the devil’s lies, to insecurity, and even to doubt. This man who was a prophet and even more than a prophet; this man who was the greatest born of women WAS still a man. He was tough, strong, and unrelenting in his preaching, but he was still human. And in his humanity, we can find an example for our dark times.
When you are in the prison of your fears, or of uncertainties, or of your own sinful choices, you can look to your brother, John, for guidance. You can do what he did. You can reach out to Jesus and question Him. “Are you the one for me?” “Are you capable of helping me?” “Are you there for me in my darkest hours?” And what you hear this morning is that your Lord is approachable. He takes time to answer questions. You can approach him where He is to be found, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, and even in your sinful pastor, who suffers with you.
And when you approach your Lord from the position of humility and repentance, from brokenness and despairing of your own power, from the position of asking Him as dear children ask their dear father, He responds to you in the same gentle way that He responded to John. He doesn’t point you back to what’s inside of you; He doesn’t point you to your feelings or emotions. Those are too flighty, and they shake in every breeze that happens to come along. Jesus tells John’s disciples to “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Go tell John what is happening right now. Go tell John what I’m currently doing. Go tell John the objective, undeniable truth that I am the Messiah, I’m the one Isaiah foretold. I open the eyes of the blind, cause the lame to walk, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and I preach the Gospel to the poor.
Yes, listen to the ones whom God sends to you in your prison. Do not despair. Don’t give up hope. The Lord knows your suffering. He is with you. He may allow you to suffer from your crosses, your sins, or the sins of others, but we have been promised that it is for our good. He didn’t remove John from prison. He allowed him to be beheaded, murdered. But John had His Word of hope even as the ax came down upon his neck. God’s Word is as real today as it was to John. The Scriptures are at your fingertips. In the Bible, you can question Jesus and hear His answers any moment of the day or night. His Sacraments are external and real. They actually bestow His love and forgiveness every time they are administered. Every time His body and blood touch your tongue, you taste and see that your Lord is good. The Sacraments are objectively true and don’t rely upon what you think or feel about them. His sure Word makes them powerful, to affect their purpose—the forgiveness of sins and comfort to your conscience.
Among those born of women, no one is greater than John. But you are not merely born of women, you are born again of water and the Word. You are born from above. You have been adopted into the family of God. By contrition and faith—that is, by repentance, you remain in God’s family. And even if you were the least in the kingdom of heaven, you are greater than John. For you have seen God’s salvation. You have beheld in Word, preaching, and sacrament Christ crucified for you. You have beheld the Lamb of God, whom John pointed out. You have been washed and marked with His blood. Your prisons will not hold you forever. The world will try, like Herod, to break your bodies (and even try to break your spirit), but your Messiah has overcome this world. Your prisons will have their end. Your pain will be removed. The hope you have of eternal life will not be disappointed. That is what this Sunday, Gaudete, is about. It’s about rejoicing even in the midst of trials, recognizing that all sorrows on earth are temporary. The joy of Gaudete is anticipatory, celebrated in the midst of sadness and watchfulness. Advent gives way to Christmas; night to day; Winter to Spring; labor to birth; pain to healing; death to resurrection.
John’s unwavering message is for your good. The Lamb of God has come to mark you as one redeemed. Christ’s comfort to John in prison is also on your behalf. Don’t waver. Your faith is built upon God’s Word and Sacraments. Come find comfort this morning.
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.