Sunday, December 14, 2014
Homily for Gaudete - The Third Sunday In Advent (Advent 3)
Matthew 11:2-11; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Isaiah 40:1-11
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
That’s but a snippet of a sermon by John the Baptist. It’s fair to say that John was a preacher of the Law – all fire and brimstone and the like. He puts Jonathan Edwards to shame. He would have him hanging like a spider from a thread over a burning flame. But, it was John’s prophetic calling to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching the Law of God to hardened hearts in this way that they might be turned in repentance. However, to those hearts that were crushed by the Law and were terrified of their sins, that is, to the repentant, John immediately and graciously pointed them to the Good News, to the Gospel. John pointed the broken and the repentant to Jesus saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
That’s what the preaching of the Law does – it breaks up the hardened soil of our hearts so that we might receive the life-giving Gospel. John’s preaching prepared the way for the coming of the Gospel, the coming of Jesus Christ, by making the crooked ways of our sinful hearts straight, by leveling the mountains of our prideful self-righteousness and by filling in the valleys of our despair and hopelessness, that Jesus might have a clear and level path to enter therein.
Now, the preaching of the Law is not always received well. The Law is a bright shining light and mirror upon our sinfulness, and those who are secure and comfortable in their sin typically don’t appreciate being exposed. When the light of God’s holy and righteous Law shines upon them and exposes their sin, they flee for darkness like cockroaches, or they turn and fight like a cornered beast. The latter is precisely what happened to John the Baptist. In his zeal for preaching the Law of the LORD he exposed the unrepented sins of one particular beast, King Herod. John had exposed King Herod’s adulterous relationship with his sister-in-law Herodias, wife of his half brother Philip. For that, Herod had John arrested and thrown in prison, an imprisonment that would ultimately end with John’s execution and his head upon a platter.
And so, there is John, sitting in prison, most certainly aware that he would never get out and would most likely die. John was a prophet, and that is the way it is with the prophets of the LORD. Prophets were charged with being a mouthpiece for the LORD to bring His word of Law and Gospel to His people in season and out of season, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Nearly all the LORD’s prophets met with a time when the Word they were sent to proclaim was not received well, and they were executed in various and horrible ways. The same is true today for the LORD’s prophets and pastors, and for you His people. As your Lord Jesus teaches, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” and “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”
Now, to address the question that inevitably arises when today’s Gospel is heard in contemporary times: Did John doubt? In the last two hundred years or so, this question has been hotly debated amongst Bible scholars and theologians. I confess to having flip-flopped on the matter a couple times. However, through the Reformation this was not so. It was the nearly unanimous consensus of the Church Fathers, and even Luther, that John did not doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but that he sent his disciples to question Jesus so that they might hear with their own ears the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah and believe. This was because John knew his role and vocation. John was the last of the prophets, the promised “Elijah” who was to come “before the great and awesome day of the LORD.” He was the forerunner of the Messiah, whose job it was to prepare the way for His coming. That work was complete and the Messiah, Jesus, had come. Now, it was John’s role to decrease that Jesus might increase. He was going to die, and so John sent his disciples to Jesus that they might become His disciples. John had been a good and faithful servant, he had preached the Law of the LORD to His people and prepared their hearts for the coming of Jesus. Now, John preached the Gospel by pointing and by directing those broken and crushed by the Law to Jesus, the Lamb of God’s offering who takes away the sins of the world.
No, John did not doubt. I am now fully convinced of that. Why? Well, what does Jesus say about John? “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Further, John heard the Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” and he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus and remain with Him. John repeatedly pointed to Jesus and proclaimed unequivocally who He was and what He came to do: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And then, there is the great cloud of witnesses, the Fathers and pastors of the Church throughout the ages who attest to John’s faith and selfless vocation as the forerunner of Jesus. Indeed, it is only since the rise of rationalism in the seventeenth century that the faith of the “greatest among those born of women” is routinely called into question. Let us abstain from such foolishness, which is more likely the deceit of the Enemy than the fruit of true wisdom.
What then did John do by sending his disciples to Jesus? He did what all faithful prophets and pastors do, he followed the preaching of the Law by the proclamation of the Gospel. In this case, John sent his disciples to the Gospel incarnate, to Jesus Himself. Jesus had been bringing the kingdom of God into this world by His preaching and teaching and by His miracles of healing and restoration and release accompanying the forgiveness of sins. He had been fulfilling the Messianic prophecies, particularly of Isaiah, by making the blind to see and the lame to walk, by cleansing lepers and opening the ears of the deaf, by raising the dead and by comforting the poor and the distressed. And, when they got to Jesus and asked their question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus answered them by quoting the Prophet Isaiah, just as He had done in His first sermon in Nazareth, and with the same implication: “This saying is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Then Jesus added the words, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” For, Jesus did not appear to the eyes, or sound to the ears, the way they had come to expect that the Messiah would appear or sound. Jesus did not come with the power and majesty of worldly kings and lords. He did not have the traditional authority of the priests, Pharisees, and scribes. But, He was a humble man of the people, a carpenter’s son from backwater Nazareth. Nevertheless, His authority was in His Words for those who had ears to hear. They received also eyes to see that Jesus was the Son of God and the Lamb of God’s self-offering for the sins of the world. Truly there is blessedness in receiving Him as the gift that He is, God’s gift of mercy and love, no strings attached.
For, Jesus is the Gospel, the free gift of God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness that is given to all hearts broken by the Law in repentance who will receive Him. Jesus is the comfort God showers upon His people, and He is the tender Word spoken to Jerusalem that her warfare with God is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, and that the LORD intends to give her double in blessing for all her sins.
The mystery of the Gospel is that things are not as they appear. Though he lived in the desert wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts, though he was imprisoned by Herod and was beheaded, John was “the Prophet of the Most High” sent to “go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” Likewise, Jesus was humble and mild, having “no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” Yet, He was, and He is the Lord, the very Son of God, Emmanuel, God with us, the Lamb of God offered up for the sins of the world.
Still, John goes before Him to prepare His way by preaching the Law unto repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And, to the brokenhearted, to the weary and those burdened by their sins, to those who plead for mercy and forgiveness, He directs you to the Gospel, to Jesus, that you may have peace with God. What did you come to church to see? A charismatic preacher with eloquent and inspiring words, a magnificent building overflowing with people, and money, with a café and family recreational center? What did you come to church to see? A life coach full of practical advice for how to live the best life now? What did you come to church to see or hear or do? I tell you, you did not come for any of these things. But, you have come to receive. For, the one who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, the lame to walk and lepers to be cleansed, that one, Jesus the Lord and Christ, is here to comfort you and to heal you in the forgiveness of your sins. Do not judge by what your fleshly ears hear and by what your fleshly eyes see, for the day is coming when the Lord will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then, you who appear foolish, will receive your commendation from God. Yet, even now, He is your light in darkness, your peace in trial and tribulation, and your life in death. Come, receive the free gifts of the Lord and live, now and forever
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.