Third Sunday in Advent
December 15, 2013
Jesus and John: The Message and the Messenger
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
John was in prison for telling the truth. It was his job. God sent him to preach. God never sent anyone to lie. Those who preach lies are not sent by God. God tells the truth and so do those who speak for him. John preached the truth. He preached the true gospel. He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He preached the true law. He publicly rebuked Herod for his sin of incest. He married his brother’s wife. That was a sin. John said so. Since it was a public sin, John publicly condemned it. That’s what landed him in prison.
Herod’s hatred and fear of John were tempered by the fact that he knew how much John was respected. Herod was a politician, after all, and didn’t want to offend the people and the people loved John. Herod didn’t want to hurt John. He just wanted to shut him up. John was an influential preacher. As is often the case with men of courage and integrity, he had loyal disciples. They stuck with him even when he was in prison. They were not ashamed of being his disciples. But John did not want disciples for himself. He wanted disciples for Jesus. That’s the mark of a true preacher sent by God. He doesn’t want a following. He wants those who listen to him to be taught by Jesus. In John’s case, he was sent specifically for the purpose of preparing the way for the Coming One. John’s job was to prepare the way for Jesus. Jesus, not John, was the topic of John’s preaching.
It’s likely that some of John’s disciples were somewhat disappointed in Jesus and wondered how he could be the Coming One. After all, if Jesus were truly the promised Savior sent by God to deliver his people why did he leave John to languish in jail? Would not the Christ establish justice on earth? Would he not set the prisoners free? Isn’t that what the prophets foretold? But John remained in prison for doing what God sent him to do. He was in jail because he preached God’s word faithfully.
John preached Jesus as the Christ. That’s why he sent his disciples to Jesus. His disciples needed to be taught and there was no one better equipped to teach them than Jesus. So John sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he were the Christ, the coming One, or should they look for another. Jesus responded to the request by pointing out to them what they could see and hear for themselves:
Jesus mentions six things. Five of them pertain to bodily needs. He gives sight to the blind. Those who were lame can now walk. Those suffering from leprosy are cured. He gives the deaf the ability to hear. He even raises the dead. These signs display compassion and power. All of these wonders are foretold in the Old Testament. They are signs that Jesus is indeed the Coming One promised by God through the prophets of old. But the sixth thing Jesus mentions does not pertain to immediate bodily needs, yet it is by far the most important. You may think that the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the dead being raised up are more significant, more important, than mere preaching. And you would be wrong. For as wonderful as Christ’s miraculous signs were they were only temporary. Those who benefited from the bodily blessings he bestowed remained trapped in dying bodies infected by sin and headed toward the grave. It is the preaching that saves sinners from their sins, from death, and from hell. And that is the greatest sign of the promised Messiah and the kingdom he rules. The poor have the gospel preached to them.
Listen to Jesus. Jesus validates John’s preaching and John is the preeminent example of a great preacher. In the verse that follows our text Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” John stands as the model for all preachers to emulate. I’m not talking about imitating such peculiarities as eating locusts and wild honey and living out in the desert. John lived an ascetic life. He didn’t drink strong drink. He didn’t marry. He wore clothes made out of camel’s hair. He was a strange sight to behold, that’s for sure. But what set John apart was his single-minded devotion to his task of preaching Christ crucified for sinners. When he first identified Jesus he called him the Lamb of God. He pointed to his crucifixion. He preached the gospel of Christ.
John was called to this office before he was born. When Jesus spoke of John he cited the book of the prophet Malachi where God said: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.” John was God’s messenger, literally, his angel, chosen to prepare the way for Jesus. Preaching always points to Jesus or it isn’t gospel preaching and the only preachers God sends to preach are gospel preachers.
John identified Jesus. He saw him. He pointed him out. He baptized him. He touched him, talked to him, and witnessed the evidence that Jesus pointed out to his disciples as proof that Jesus really was the promised Christ. Whether John was having his own doubts or he just wanted his disciples to be instructed personally by Jesus is not really important. We cannot know for sure because the Bible doesn’t say. We do know that John needed to hear his own preaching. The preacher relies on what he preaches.
“The poor have the gospel preached to them and blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” If only these words of Jesus could be planted deep into the mind and heart of every Christian preacher. You think they are listening to you because you are you? You think it is your charm, your eloquence, your deep knowledge, your status among the high and mighty, or something else you think you have to offer? No, Mr. Preacher! It’s not you. It is Jesus. It was John the Baptist who spoke for all genuine Christian preachers when he said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
John was a gospel preacher. He was no reed shaken by the wind, bending this way and that in response to the demands of the crowd. He was no man-pleaser. He was a faithful steward of what God had entrusted to him. He preached what God gave him to preach.
John was not a commercial or financial success. He didn’t have a big budget. He didn’t live in a fancy home or drive in a fancy chariot or have a big staff of professions handlers and managers. He didn’t wear fancy clothes and he didn’t hobnob with politicians. He was a preacher who preached the gospel he himself needed to hear.
John was called an angel, but he was still just a man. No preacher can ever rise higher than the gospel he preaches and that gospel is intended for the poor. Poor people rely on rich people to help them. Whether it is a job, or a handout, or the taxes to pay for government benefits, the poor rely on the rich to help them out. They usually won’t admit it, especially in our class conscious society where everybody wants more and more money while resenting those who have more than they do.
If those poor in material things don’t like to admit their dependence on the rich, how much more those who are poor spiritually don’t want to admit their dependence on God’s grace. But the gospel is for precisely these people. Indeed, the gospel is only for those who are spiritually poor and know it. It is for sinners who feel the weight of their guilt and know that they cannot undo or overcome their sins. They are poor and they need the wealth of another.
Mary, the mother of our Lord, describes the gospel so beautifully with her words, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” Are you poor and hungry? Or are you rich and satisfied? The secular gospel of self-esteem teaches you to find wealth within. A humble and contrite heart is despised by men, but God does not despise you in your poverty and weakness. He never despises the contrite sinner. He always forgives.
This is what John preached. Consider his best known proclamation. He pointed to Jesus and said “Behold! The Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” Behold! Look! Don’t look at me, the preacher. Don’t consider me or my gifts or my personality. Look at Jesus. And don’t look at Jesus to make you popular or powerful or successful in life. Look at him to bear your sins away. Did he? Or must you languish in your guilt; feebly attempting to undo the harm you’ve done by making up for it in some way? Yes, he did! He took away your sins and you know it because he took away the sin of the world.
This is gospel preaching to guilty sinners who need it. Jesus knew that John was suffering in jail. Jesus knew that John was paying for the privilege of preaching the truth. When John was being punished by men for doing what God gave him to do Jesus assured John that he, as poor as he was, languishing in prison, was the one the gospel was intended for. The preacher preaches to himself. The guilt that he feels from his failures as a preacher and as a man is the guilt that Jesus bore and in the preacher’s poverty the gospel he is privileged to preach makes him rich. Only in his poverty can he become rich, because it is the poor who have the gospel preached to them.
The preacher or the hearer who wants something more than that should consider Jesus’s promise: “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” Your Lord knows that confessing the faith is not always easy to do. He knows it is especially difficult when life seems to be going against us. If this gospel we confess is such a precious thing, why do we face the pains we face in our jobs, our marriages, our families, and in our consciences? Why aren’t we always feeling the peace that is proclaimed to us?
Don’t be offended by your lowly circumstances, dear Christian. Consider John. Jesus left him in jail, though as the almighty God he certainly could have set him free. But he has something far more precious than temporary freedom and validation. He has the forgiveness of sins. He has victory over the devil and the grave. He has eternal life to give, and he gives it to us whenever we hear his gospel proclaimed. We, the poor, are made rich with the treasures of heaven that nobody can take away from us.
Rolf D. Preus