Advent Three Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| December 16, 2007| Matthew 11:2-10
Matthew 11:6 “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
When a church goes bad, whose fault is it? Should we blame the preachers? Or should we blame the people? It is true that pastors often come into congregations with their heads filled with false teachings. They proceed to lead people away from the truth into error. It is also true that people look for pastors to teach them what their “itching ears” want to hear. Jesus said, “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” This applies equally to both preachers and hearers. The preachers should not become weary of preaching Christ crucified for sinners and the people in the pew should not tire of listening to the gospel by which they are saved eternally.
The Christian gospel offends people. The gospel is the good news that God forgives us of all our sins freely for Christ’s sake. This means that we are sinners who need to be forgiven. This also means that we cannot do anything to win God’s forgiveness for ourselves. To admit our need and our spiritual poverty is neither easy nor pleasant. People imagine that they need something more than the forgiveness of their sins. When they discover what that need is they reject Jesus the Savior for something they regard as more valuable. That’s what it means to be “offended” by Jesus.
Preachers are easily offended by Jesus. When you represent Jesus you may not rely on your own personality or persuasive powers. On the contrary, the preacher must consciously deny that he has anything of his own to offer anyone. He is only a spokesman for Jesus. Commenting on the meaning of the words “let a man so consider us, as ministers of Christ,” Luther wrote:
So all apostles and bishops are ministers of Christ; that is preachers, messengers, officers of Christ, sent to the people with his message. The meaning of the verse, then, is: “Let every individual take heed not to institute another leader, to set up another Lord, to constitute another Christ. Rather be unanimously loyal to the one and only Christ. For we apostles are not your lords, nor your masters; we are not your leaders. We do not preach our own interest, nor teach our own doctrines. We do not seek to have you obey us, or give us allegiance and accept our doctrine. No, indeed. We are messengers and ministers of him who is your Master, your Lord and Leader. We preach his word, enlist men to follow his commandments, and lead only into obedience. And in this light should you regard us, expecting of us nothing else than to bring the message. (Sermons of Martin Luther, Lenker, Volume VI, pages 66-67)
The only authority the preacher has is the authority to speak on Christ’s behalf. Any pastor who demands more authority than that is setting himself above Christ. But the power of Christ has always been hidden under the appearance of weakness. As a little baby, lying in a manger, Jesus remained the Lord God by whom the whole universe is sustained. As he cried out in pain on the cross, the whole world remained under His power. The power of the gospel cannot be seen. It is always hidden under weakness.
Consider St. John the Baptist. He was a great gospel preacher. He refused to tailor God’s word to suit the powers that be. That’s what landed him in jail. From prison he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him some questions. It appeared as if John had lost his confidence. He had identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and had preached Jesus with great boldness. Now his disciples were asking Jesus if He really was the promised Savior.
It is easy to take offense at Jesus. This is why Jesus says, “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. When Elisabeth heard that Mary would give birth to the Savior, John leaped for joy three months before he was born! Who said that infants can’t have faith? Of course they can! It’s much harder with adults. John’s faith was stronger before he was born than it was when he was languishing in Herod’s prison, waiting to be put to death.
Perhaps that’s what it was that brought him some doubt. How could the bold gospel preacher have doubts about what he had preached? Jesus said he was the greatest man born of a woman, yet he had doubts when he was suffering. So he sent his disciples to Jesus. Jesus told those men to tell John the things they could hear and see for themselves. “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.” Jesus reminded John’s disciples of the clear fact that He had fulfilled what the Scriptures predicated of the Messiah so that they could conclude without any doubt that He was indeed the Christ. He was answering John’s question by showing him how the Bible was being fulfilled.
But more than that, Jesus was also addressing the reason John had doubts. He said, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” The word for “offended” is much stronger in the original than it is in English. It does not simply mean to be upset. It means to stumble and fall. St. Peter, quoting Isaiah, refers to Jesus as “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” (1 Peter 2:8) St. Paul explains why this is so. He writes of unbelieving Israel:
But Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: “Behold I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whosoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:31-33)
The most offensive thing about Jesus is what we Christians love the most. Jesus teaches us to believe that He and He alone can make us rich and successful by clothing us in the robe of His righteousness. This is the gospel that Jesus preached to the poor. It offends the rich. Those who believe in their own goodness stumble and fall when they hear the gospel of Christ. They are offended by the very idea that they are condemned sinners. They are offended by the claim that all of their good deeds offered so piously and sincerely to God are nothing but filthiness and deceit. Christ offends the spiritually rich. The gospel is intended only for the poor and the weak. Mary put it well in these words from her Magnificat:
He has shown strength with His arm
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He has put down the mighty from their seats
And exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich He has sent empty away.
John was in prison. He was afraid. Herod would soon put him to death. His faith was undergoing a terrible test. Why would God let him die if the gospel he preached was true? Why should Christians suffer when the unbelieving world appears to have it made? How can we explain the apparent injustice built right into the nature of things if God is indeed in charge of this world? To these and similar questions Jesus offers Himself as our righteousness before God. He offers Himself as the answer to every injustice. And He says to us today as He said to John the Baptist, “Don’t be offended in Me.”
The true blessing of being a Christian is not being popular with the crowd. Oh, John drew the crowds. That’s one of the reasons Herod threw him in prison. He had too much influence and he didn’t mince words when it came to dealing with sin. He was a courageous man. But even a courageous man can have doubts. There he languished in prison and must have wondered if his ministry hadn’t been a colossal failure.
St. Paul writes, “Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.” It doesn’t matter whether John is in prison or free. It doesn’t matter if people have believed his message or rejected it. The only thing that matters is whether or not he preached the truth. Was he faithful? That’s all he needed to know. That’s all any preacher ever needs to know. And Jesus answered him. Yes, he was a faithful preacher. You go tell John that. Tell him what you see and hear. Tell him that his preaching was true and that’s all that matters.
Let me tell you why preaching the true gospel is the most important thing a preacher does. It’s because hearing and believing the true gospel is the most important thing there is. After beautifully describing the riches of the Christmas gospel, the hymnist Paul Gerhardt says it very simply:
The world may hold her wealth and gold
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true Treasure.
To him hold fast until at last
A crown be thine and honor in full measure.
Ah, but we want to be honored here below. We want a religion that won’t interfere with our jobs or put any pressure on any of our relationships. I’ll never forget the words of a lady at my first parish who became exasperated by my refusal to join in with the other churches in the community in some kind of activity that would have compromised our confession of the pure gospel. She said, “Pastor, why do we always have to be different from everyone else?” But why would we want to be like everyone else? Why would we want to follow the crowd? How could there be anything more precious than the blood and righteousness of Jesus by which we poor sinners are made into wealthy saints?
Let us pray that we may never stumble in unbelief at this treasure, but rather glory in Christ’s birth, life, and death for us all, that we may be glorified with Him when He returns to judge the living and the dead. Amen