Sunday, December 11, 2016
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.
A prophet does not speak for God on His behalf, but a prophet is literally a mouthpiece for God who proclaims His Word to His people. John the Baptist was such a prophet. In fact, Jesus says that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” That’s pretty high praise coming from the Son of God. It had been four hundred years since the last prophet of the LORD proclaimed His Word to His people, and that prophet was Malachi who proclaimed, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Jesus proclaimed Malachi’s prophecy fulfilled in John saying, “All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“All the Prophets and the Law” is the Holy Scriptures, The Old Testament, the Word of God, Law and Gospel. All the Prophets of the LORD, men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Malachi, and others, preached both the Law and the Gospel, but the Gospel they preached pointed to a fulfillment yet to come, the promise of Messiah, the Anointed One of the LORD. But, John was different, for John preached the Law just like those prophets before Him – “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” but He also had the unique honor, privilege, and blessing of pointing repentant sinners directly to the Messiah Jesus Christ saying, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
John the Baptist was the prophesied “Elijah, who is to come,” for John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus the Messiah by turning “the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” That is, by turning men’s hearts in repentance through the preaching of Law and Gospel that they might be prepared to receive the LORD’s Messiah, Jesus, in faith and put their trust in Him as Jesus proclaimed of John in St. Luke’s Gospel, “And he will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
However, as a prophet of the LORD, John’s fate would be no different than those prophets who preceded him. The Word of the LORD John proclaimed would be rejected by the self-righteous and the self-secure, by those who loved worldly power and wealth and possessions and prestige in the eyes of men more than they loved the LORD and His Commandments. They would despise him and ridicule him. They would think him crazy and out of step with the world. They would consider him a blasphemer of the LORD because they had hardened their hearts and stopped their ears to the Word of the LORD, exchanging the truth of God for a lie. They would persecute, imprison, and murder him because he exposed their hypocrisy and sin and threatened their self-righteousness and self-security. They would join with Jerusalem in killing this prophet as they killed all the prophets before John, stoning and murdering those sent to her.
And so it was that John was in prison for preaching against King Herod Antipas’ adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias, calling him to repentance. Herod hated John for this, but he also feared him, just as Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herod both hated and feared Him. Herod wanted John dead, but he was afraid to do it. It would take a young girl, Herodias’ daughter, Herod’s step-daughter and grand-niece, to bring about John’s murder by arousing and pleasing Herod with her sensuous dancing. Regardless of any delay, John knew that he would not leave that prison with his life, not without a miracle of the LORD.
And here we take up once again the annual debate: Did John have doubts about Jesus, or did he send his disciples to Jesus in order that they might follow him as his role as preparer of the way was nearing completion? In all truth, I have gone both ways on this matter. However, today I believe that it is both/and: John did truly believe that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the Messiah, but he did not fully understand what that meant or in what way precisely Jesus would save His people. It is completely reasonable and normal for people of faith to waver and to have doubts, even people of great faith like John the Baptist. All of Jesus’ disciples, including Peter, Thomas, and Paul, had their moments of doubt and weakness. They repented, and they were restored.
In prison, awaiting his inevitable execution, John heard about the deeds of Jesus in fulfillment of prophecy, perhaps particularly the prophecies of Isaiah which Jesus quotes in today’s Gospel reading: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” However, John may also have been recalling Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” It seems probable that John, in prison awaiting his execution, would be wondering if Jesus were going to fulfill that particular prophecy as well. In answer to John’s inquiry via his disciples, Jesus directed John to what they had seen and heard in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, conveniently, intentionally (?), leaving the freeing of prisoners out. Ultimately, when all material and fleshly things have passed away, when signs and wonders are no more, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Perhaps even John the Baptist, the greatest of those born of woman, needed to learn this as much as you and I.
Yet, when John’s disciples went away to return to John and tell him the news, Jesus turned to the crowd that had gathered and proclaimed about John saying, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you’.” Now, “A reed shaken by the wind” is an analogy for someone who changes position with every shift in public opinion. John the Baptist was no “reed shaken by the wind,” for he fearlessly proclaimed the Word of the LORD in the face of the Pharisees and the religious leadership of Israel and even before King Herod as Psalm 119 says, “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame,” and as Jesus taught His disciples saying, “You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” Beware those who seek to appease men to win their favor and compromise the Word and Commandments of the LORD. Jesus promises that, if you confess Him before men, He will confess you before His Father in heaven, but if you deny Him before men, He will deny you before His Father in heaven.
“A man dressed in soft clothing?” John wore camel’s hair for clothing tied with a leather belt. He lived in the wilderness eating locusts and honey. Like the prophecy of Jesus before whose coming John prepared the way, John “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” John did not attract people by his position, association, title, or location. His preaching drew people out to the wilderness by the Word of the LORD. So too you must not judge a book by its cover, or a preacher of the Word by his appearances, manner, or style, but by his faithfulness to the Word of the LORD alone. You will know the LORD’s servant, not by his appearance, eloquence, age, wisdom, or even his success, but you will know him by his fruits, by his faithfulness in proclaiming the Word of the LORD and His Commandments and in the administration of His Sacraments. Those who are too lazy to read, study, hear, and inwardly digest the Word of the LORD, perhaps, are best to keep their ears open and their mouths shut.
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet!” John the Baptist was indeed a prophet of the LORD, a mouthpiece proclaiming His Word to His people. John was no shrinking violet, nor was he a lover of pleasure and comfort, but he was dedicated to full proclamation of the Word of the Lord, of Law and Gospel, in season and out of season, to people who closed their ears and clenched their fists and gnashed their teeth in hatred of John and of the LORD whose Word he proclaimed. For this John was despised and ridiculed, persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered by men who feared, loved, and trusted in their own works and righteousness and believed that they earned and merited the good things they enjoyed in life. Truly, then, as now, the words of St. Paul to the young pastor Timothy ring true: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Truly, St. John the Baptist knew those times, as did the prophets before him, as did Jesus and the Apostles, and faithful pastors and teachers still today.
John was in prison. I know from personal experience ministering to a few folks who have spent time in prison that those walls and those bars change your perspective on the world. For a Christian locked in prison, it might seem as if Jesus isn’t doing anything, at least not to help me. Did John feel that way? Perhaps. But, even more importantly, this text, and this Advent season, is provided you that you may step outside of the prison you have constructed for yourself, a prison of selfish, fleshly, and worldly expectations for how God must act in order for you to trust in Him, and how preaching must sound for it help you to believe, and for worship to feel in order to believe that Jesus is present and active. Jesus directed John to the Word of the LORD, and to that Word fulfilled for others, if not immediately for himself. And, by hearing and seeing that God is working and active and present in the lives of others, John was encouraged and caused to reflect upon the many and various ways God was working and active and present with him in his prison cell, forgiving his sins, preserving and strengthening his faith, even unto death and eternal life with Him. Jesus directed John to hope outside of his prison walls now. And, because of that hope, John was truly free even while in prison. For the walls and bars we construct for ourselves to imprison us are much worse than any worldly and material prison that may hold us. Worldly and material prison walls and bars will fail and perish. Blessed is the one who finds his freedom in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, now, and for eternity.
Judge not by what your eyes see and your ears hear. Things are not what they appear, but they are as the Word of the LORD has declared. John the Baptist is the greatest of the prophets of the LORD and the greatest among those born of women, but Jesus, who made Himself to be the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. John had the unique honor, privilege, and blessing of pointing repentant sinners directly to the Messiah Jesus Christ saying, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Pastors today have this same unique honor, privilege, and blessing of pointing you to Jesus. Your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the LORD’s Messiah, is present and active to heal you and forgive you and to set you free from the prison of sin and death you have constructed for yourself. How do you receive him? Jesus invites you to believe on Him for your life and salvation that you may live freely without fear. What did you come here today to see? Judge not by what your eyes see and your ears hear, but see with the eyes of faith and hear with the ears of faith that the Holy Spirit has created in you through the Word of the LORD, and you will be free indeed.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.