The Third Sunday in Advent
December 11, 2011
“The Gospel Preacher”
St. Matthew 11:2-10
And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me." As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: 'Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.'" St. Matthew 11:2-10
Today is the Third Sunday in Advent. The topic is preaching. It is good for preachers to preach sermons about preaching. Both preachers and hearers should be drawn back to God’s word for instruction on this topic. We need preaching. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, chapter ten:
For “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “LORD, who has believed our report?” So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
We need preaching. We need the right kind of preaching. As St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle Lesson:
Let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.
The minister of Christ administers what Christ gives him to administer. He is a steward or manager of what belongs to another. He is to manage the mysteries of God, that is, the gospel and sacraments of Christ. The faithful steward is a faithful gospel preacher. He preaches the truth. As Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth.” God doesn’t sanctify anyone through falsehood. The preacher is to preach only the truth.
But the truth isn’t enough. It must be the truth about Jesus. This is why John sent his disciples to Jesus. They wanted to stay with their teacher, but their teacher was sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. After Jesus began his ministry, John was arrested and put in prison where he would remain until he was beheaded by Herod. In prison, John sent his disciples to Jesus to become his disciples. That’s what the faithful preacher does. He sends people to Jesus.
How did John’s disciples know that Jesus was the Christ? Jesus pointed them to the Holy Scriptures and to his own works in fulfillment of the Holy Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah wrote:
Say to those who are fearful-hearted, “Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. Isaiah 35:4-6
And again, Isaiah wrote:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.
Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.
Jesus joined his work to the Holy Scriptures, showing that he was the fulfillment of the promises of God. This is how he answered the question whether he was the Coming One. He showed himself to be the fulfillment of the Holy Scriptures.
The healing of the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf, and the raising up of the dead all demonstrated his power of life over death. They pointed to the truth of his preaching. The point was the preaching. “The poor have the gospel preached to them.” That is what marked Jesus as the Christ. And that is what marks a preacher as a minister of Christ. The gospel is preached to the poor.
The gospel is the means by which God brings comfort to sinners who are sorry for their sins. The law reveals the guilt of sin and makes us afraid. The gospel preacher cannot preach the gospel without preaching the law. John was a gospel preacher. He proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He pointed to Jesus as true God and true man and the Savior of sinners.
But John also preached the law and he did so without compromise. He wasn’t like a reed shaken by the wind, bending to public opinion and saying what he thought the people wanted to hear. No, he demanded fruits of repentance and he warned his hearers of religious hypocrisy. He called the hypocritical Pharisees who came to him to be baptized a brood of vipers. He told tax collectors not to collect any more money than was legal. He told soldiers not to intimidate people for monetary gain but to be content with their pay. He publicly condemned public sin. When Herodias divorced her husband and married his brother John condemned the sin as sin. John knew that her new husband, King Herod, had the power of life and death over John. As a matter of fact, Herod threw John into prison for what he preached. Later, he had John beheaded.
The law is always preached for the sake of the gospel. That is, the law prepares you to receive the gospel. The gospel is not another law. The law tells you what you must do and not do. It teaches you to love God, his name, and his holy word. It teaches you to love your neighbor as yourself. The law condemns you for your failure to obey.
The gospel does not demand anything at all of you. The gospel is the good news. The poor are those who see themselves as poor, miserable sinners who have no hope in themselves because they cannot overcome their sin and find their way back to God. The gospel tells them that Jesus Christ is their Savior. The gospel doesn’t tell them what they must do to make God gracious. The gospel tells them that God is gracious for Christ’s sake, as the angels sang on that first Christmas: “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
The gospel teaches us not to rely on our good deeds to obtain the favor of God. It does not forbid us to do good works. To the contrary, the gospel is the power to do good. But the gospel does teach us to rely only on Jesus. The gospel encourages us to believe that for Christ’s sake, for the sake of his holy obedience and suffering, all of our sins are forgiven by God. The gospel is always about Jesus because Jesus is the only one who has taken away our sins. Jesus is the only one who makes us acceptable to God. Without Jesus there is no gospel and the poor remain poor. The saving gospel, which if you trust in it you will receive eternal life, is the gospel about the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ for us. The gospel is always about Christ for us. It is Christ for us in obedience and suffering that brings us forgiveness of all our sins, freedom from God’s anger and punishment, true peace with God, deliverance from death and hell, and everlasting life.
Preachers who don’t preach the gospel of Christ are less than useless. And there are plenty of them out there who promote a religious message that gives lip service to Jesus but does not direct poor sinners to rely on Christ alone for their salvation. Telling self-satisfied folks that if they do not repent of their sins they are going to hell and that they need a Savior from their sin may not win their hearts. They may become angry. So preachers will test the waters to see what sells – what the religious market will bear – and they craft their message to meet market demands. This is why there is so much preaching of health, wealth, and personal success. That’s what people want. They don’t want to lament their sin and repent of it in sorrow. They would rather feel good about themselves than to feel good about their Savior. But Jesus says, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.”
Nobody in the Bible besides Jesus himself receives as high praise for his faithfulness in preaching as John the Baptist. In many ways he’s a strange fellow. His diet consists of locusts and wild honey. He wears strange and primitive clothes. He lives an ascetic life far removed from the circles of the high and mighty and influential. The comforts and cares of this life mean nothing to him. He doesn’t wear expensive suits or live in an expensive house. He is oblivious to such things. He is obsessed with the message committed to him to preach. So he preaches it. He preaches Christ.
John sent his disciples to Jesus. He had no use for a following. What did he ever have but Jesus? So he sent his disciples to Jesus. And Jesus honored John. He called him an angel and so he was. He was God’s messenger to prepare the way for Christ.
No minister of the word can do better than John. The purpose of the ministry of the word is not to honor men or laud their powers or talents or to hold them up for admiration. There is one purpose and one purpose only for the preaching office. It is to set Christ before the people and show them that he and he alone is their hope in this life and in the life to come. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Preaching the gospel of Christ to poor sinners is the means by which the Holy Spirit gathers his flock and sustains his holy Christian Church on earth. Blessed are those who are not offended by Christ, neither by his humble birth nor by his bitter suffering and death. Blessed are those who listen to Christ’s ministers, not to have their itches scratched, but to have their sins forgiven. May God bless the ministry of the word among us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen