Advent 3 2019

Advent 3
Matthew 21:2-10
December 15, 2019 A+D

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets which John concludes. Christ is our righteousness and He, debating with the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem, states that John came in the “way of righteousness,” which is to say that John came in the way of the Christ. Thus does the preaching of John bring tax collectors and prostitutes into the Kingdom.

Now maybe John, in prison, being a fallible human being, alone, hungry, and certain he was about to be killed, was scandalized by Jesus and His seeming inaction. It is possible. John dresses up like and is called “Elijah” by Jesus. Elijah struggled with doubt. He got frustrated with God. There are some Old Testament patriarchs and prophets that seem to do no wrong, Daniel and Joseph, at least; but most of them have their weaknesses displayed for us in Holy Scripture. Moses gets angry. Abraham acts cowardly. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. Jonah doesn’t want to preach repentance to the Gentiles and Elijah runs away from Jezebel even though he had just called fire down from heaven.

John was conceived in sin and he struggled with and against sin on this side of glory. All sin is unbelief. It is a failure to perfectly love, trust, and fear in God above all things. So we can say without any speculation at all that John doubted, that he sinned, in prison, but it is unclear as to whether he sent his disciples to ask Jesus for comfort primarily for his own sake, because of his own private doubts, or for the sake of the disciples.

He could have sent the disciples to Jesus to ask Him whether He was the Coming One or not for their sake, that is, as part of the transfer of John’s disciples to Jesus and as part of his teaching his disciples. But even if that was his main thought as he prepared for martyrdom, whether he was looking for it or not, Jesus used it for his sake. Even if it wasn’t really what John was asking for, if all he wanted was for the disciples to be comforted and not to be scandalized by his martyrdom, the Lord was determined to comfort John and certainly knew better than John what was good for John. So Jesus didn’t keep the disciples with Him. He sent them back to John with words of comfort: “Tell John that I am the Coming One and all of the Law and the Prophets are being fulfilled in Me and I will not forget my promises to him or let his sorrow go unrewarded.”

It is also entirely possible that John was asking Christ for personal comfort, that he wanted the disciples to bring him an answer. If John wanted to be comforted by the Word of God in his doubts and sin, that would not make him a reed shaken by the wind. Rather it would be more evidence that he is a paragon of faith. He does not need to be without sin to be a role model for us, and, in fact, he is not without sin apart from Christ. Whatever John thought he was doing in the sending the two disciples to Jesus, we should see in him what faith desires and where faith goes and how faith lives. Faith wants the Word of God. It goes where Jesus has promised to be for it. It lives by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

A desire for comfort is not a weakness but the essence of faith. Seeking comfort from the Word of God, trusting in the Word of God, especially when things are hard, is what faith does. John is a great example for us in this like unto Mary attending to the one thing needful while Martha busied herself with worldly things. If the idea that John needed grace, that he needed the Word, or that he was a sinner, bothers you, then you really flirting with idolatry and you need to repent. John isn’t a reed shaken by the wind who comes to God in superstition or grasping at straws, but he is a beggar, a sinner in need of forgiveness, a prophet not the Messiah. He comes to God for mercy with repentance and faith.

Whatever it is that John thinks of Jesus at that moment, and whatever desires he has for himself and his disciples, whether he is doubting that Jesus is the Messiah or his own ministry or not, it is crystal clear that Jesus is not scandalized by John’s being imprisoned and hated by the world. He does not distance Himself from John because of his failure or because of his sins. Jesus loves John and He sends him comfort in prison.

He also establishes that John is a role model and example for us: he is the greatest of those born of women. He is not shaken by current affairs or caught up in celebrity gossip. He is not particularly interested in his own comfort or convenience or avoiding boredom and pain. He has doubts and fears. He has moments of selfishness and sins. He has regrets and shame and guilt. But he is, nonetheless, by grace, a man who lives by faith. He is obsessed and focused on that which truly matters: the Coming of the Messiah in glorious mercy on the last day. He can face death with this knowledge: Jesus is the Coming one who has come also for him, who takes away the sins of the world.

In praising John, Jesus applies the words of Malachi. John is the Divine messenger. He is ordained to prepare the way of the Messiah. Malachi continues by saying that this messenger is to be our delight, and yet, at the same time, he says that no one can endure the day of the coming of the Messiah or stand when He appears, for He, the Messiah, is like a refiner’s fire and a launderer’s soap. He, the Messiah, will purify the sons of Levi that they might offer an offering in righteousness to God.

But John doesn’t get to see that. He has to live by faith. He has to wait. That is the lot of the prophets and John is the last of them. Christ does not purify Caiaphas or the colleagues of John’s father, Zechariah, because they refused Him and chose Caesar. Christ He will, by Baptism, institute a new priesthood. He will anoint not only outside of the sons of Aaron and the tribe of Levi, but even outside of Israel. He will make even women and Gentiles priests. He does away with the Temple and sacrifices. All is complete and purified in Him. But when John is in prison, this is all taken by faith. It is denied to sight. The priesthood is not yet purified. The refining fire has not yet started to burn.

God will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, but again John doesn’t get to see it. Herod sits on the throne. Caesar demands taxes. False gods are openly worshipped. Christ re-establishes order in the world by submitting to the corrupt order. He suffers the judgment of Pilate and Herod. He endures blasphemy and slander. He is declared guilty. The order is re-established with the institution of the Apostolic Office on Easter evening and the ordination of the Apostles at Pentecost but that is after John is dead. So John has to take that also by faith. He is the Messenger who prepares the way of the Messiah, but Herod gets to kill him before he sees it. In this he models faith for us.

So here we are. The day has come. The priesthood is purified and expanded. We are His priests, baptized into Him. The Messiah has turned our hearts toward Him, made us His children. We live in the Messianic age. Yet there is another delay. John stood with one foot in the Old Testament and one in the New. We stand with one in the New Testament and one in the Eschaton. We receive the Absolution. We bear God’s Name into the world. We eat His Body and drink His Blood and are joined with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, but we’re not quite there. We still have our sins. We still have wars and rumors of war and false reports about all of it. We have legalized abortion and institutional racism and fake science meant to part us from our stuff and corrupt our children. We are like Moses in the wilderness. We are allowed a glimpse into the promised land but not yet allowed to enter. We have one foot in this world and one in the next. We are free in Christ, the sons of God, even His holy priests, but we are yet imprisoned to the concupiscence of our inherited sin and the horrible memories and lusts of our own actual sins and subjected to oppression from the enemy. Kyrie Eleison! God save us from our sins! Save us from heresy! Save us from the devil!

So what do we do? We live by every Word that proceeds from the Mouth of God. Like John before us, we live by faith. We are justified by faith. We wait in faith. And like John we are unashamed to ask Christ again: “Are You the Coming One or not? Do you hear our prayers or not? Do you see what is happening here? Will you hurry up and fulfill your promises? Herod is about to have way with us. We don’t belong here. We want to come home.”

Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. We believe. Help our unbelief. Make haste for the days are evil and the hearts of men are dark. And if You will not come immediately, if we must wait, if we must be imprisoned or martyred, then sustain us with Your Word and Sacrament and preserve our faith come what may – that we would not be reeds shaken in the wind.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

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