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Advent 3 Gaudete
December 16, 2018 A+D
St. Matthew 11:2-11
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Traditionally, theologians have argued that John did not do this because he himself was uncertain. They say that he did it for the sake of his disciples. He was decreasing and Christ was increasing. His goal for his disciples was that they graduate and become Christ’s disciples. Sending them with this question was part of the transfer. He wanted them to hear Christ’s Word from Christ Himself.
That is indisputable, but I think there is more to it than that. John, as a Christian, as wants some reassurance and comfort for himself. He also benefits from the preaching of Christ. He doesn’t send the disciples for something he himself doesn’t need. Christ’s Word is also for him. And Christ uses the question as an opportunity to both witness to Him of the Gospel and also to instruct Him.
The idea that John doesn’t need the Word of God or that he doesn’t have doubts or his faith can’t be strengthened is false.
John is a saint of Christ. That means he is a sinner who was declared righteous by Christ. He believed the declaration of forgiveness. All sin is doubt. It violates the first commandment. John doubted. Every sinner doubts.
John came in the spirit of Elijah. Elijah had called fire down from heaven and then ran away in fear of Jezebel. John was given no miracles to perform and he had his own flesh to deal with as we all do. He wasn’t less of a sinner than Elijah or Moses or Malachi.
We don’t know everything that John preached about the Christ. Not everything is recorded. What is recorded is heavily weighted with eschatology, that is end times warnings. The Coming One’s arrival is cause for repentance. He will baptize with the Spirit and fire. He will cast the wicked into the furnace. Matthew reports that John’s question about whether Jesus is the Coming One or not arose when John heard about the deeds that Jesus was doing. It could be that it seemed to John that Christ wasn’t doing the things that he had prophesied about. He wasn’t casting people into the furnace. He was healing people.
And that could be what drives the Lord’s description of His Office from Isaiah. There is more to Him than fire and brimstone. So also He has more prophets than John. He is reminding him of the fullness of His Office and mission.
When St. Peter misunderstands the Lord’s mission the Lord calls him Satan. I don’t think this is that level of rebuke, but the Lord does answer John in the manner in which He answered Satan in the desert: He quotes the Bible. He doesn’t say “I say to you,” but He says “Go tell John what you hear and see: Isaiah.” This is a course correction. John is not off by 180 degrees, going in the complete opposite direction, as Peter was when he spoke against the cross, but John is off by a few degrees. If he keeps going he will miss his target. John isn’t omniscient. Nor does he have perfect faith in prison. Being the forerunner was costly to him as a theologian and as a man. He never marries or has children. He doesn’t enjoy the normal camaraderie of men and he dies young.
I point this out because we are all men of our times but we tend to forget it. We forget our bia and narrow vision. Luther was formed by the abuses he suffered in the Monastery, the sale of indulgences, and the iconoclasm of Carlstadt. John the Baptist was formed by hypocrisy of the Pharisees and being the forerunner. Vocations are crosses. They leave scars. They make you who you are. In prison, John may have been too focused on the fiery images of wrath that he was sent to preach and desperately needed the Gospel of Isaiah that the Lord preaches.
We have blind spots and gaps in our knowledge. As theologians we are formed by the heresies that threaten us. We can get off balance or slightly off course. We might be so pointedly against the mistaken American Evangelical doctrine that teaches you have to prove your faith to God by your works that we start to deny the doctrine of Sanctification, as though we weren’t created for good works or that our good works aren’t pleasing to God. Or we might be so enamored by a beautiful description of the Gospel defined against the Law that we make that our dogmatic standard instead of the Bible. Or we might be so influenced by the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture of America so that we eschew anything that looks “catholic.”
In fact, God doesn’t always act the way we expect. He isn’t ours to command or control. Theology doesn’t give Him rules to live by. His Word is fuller than we can understand. We must always be students of His Word. He has more than one prophet. He has more than one Evangelist. He has more than one Apostle. We need all of the Bible. Because all of it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. If it is possible for John to get a bit off course, it is possible for us.
Christ directs John to Isaiah 35 and 61. In Isaiah 35 just before the bit about healing the blind, deaf, and lame, that Christ quotes, it reads:
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:3–4)
That seems like a laser aimed right at John. There is no record of any OT prophets ever opening the eyes of the blind. This is an important Messianic sign unique to the New Testament foretold in the Old. Jesus is doing more than preaching fire and brimstone. Healing the blind and preaching Good News is the core of His Office. It is not that John preached the Law and then Jesus preached the Gospel. Both preached both, but there is a matter of emphasis and prerogative. Jesus is the Gospel in a way that John wasn’t and can’t be.
That leads Jesus to Isaiah 61. The context again seems particularly aimed at John in prison. Here is Isaiah 61:1
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
Jesus isn’t just preaching the poor of Jerusalem. He is also opening John’s prison, proclaiming liberty also to him. He will do that by way of martyrdom. Even in prison, Jesus wants John to know that if the Son makes you free you are free indeed.
This is how Christians are comforted, how doubt is restrained and faith is strengthened: by the Word of God. Here is something to rejoice in.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.