The Third Sunday in Advent| December 13, 2009| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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.'”
Some folks think that John sent his disciples to Jesus because he doubted that Jesus really was the Christ. It appears that way. After all, it would be understandable if John harbored doubts. He was in jail. That does something to a man. Not only was he in jail, he was there unjustly. He had done nothing wrong. Indeed, he had done right. He publicly condemned Herod’s disgusting sin. He took his brother’s wife away from him. For the crime of preaching God’s Word King Herod threw John in jail. He would later have him beheaded. If John began to doubt the promises of God it would be understandable.
But I don’t believe that John sent his disciples to Jesus because he doubted that Jesus really was the Christ. It was John who first identified Jesus as the Christ. Speaking of Christ, John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He confessed that Jesus was eternal. He confessed that he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. He heard the voice of God the Father from heaven saying of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” On what evidence are we to assume that John harbored doubts?
As a matter of fact, when John sent his disciples to Jesus he was doing what he had been doing since the very beginning of his ministry. He did what every faithful preacher in history has done. He directed people to Jesus. Don’t look to me. Don’t listen to me. Don’t follow me. Don’t trust in me. Go to Jesus.
John was the voice. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River the Old Testament gave way to the New. John was the final voice of the prophets. His ministry was to culminate in seeing all of his disciples leave him to go to Jesus.
John preached Christ. He preached Christ crucified. No clearer gospel has ever been proclaimed than that proclaimed by John the Baptist when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The Church sings these words. Her plea is joined to John’s proclamation. This is the gospel that the poor have preached to them.
John the Baptist was a faithful gospel preacher because he directed his disciples to go to Christ.
When they went to Christ with their question what did Jesus tell them? Did offer a persuasive religious philosophy to validate his spiritual claims? Did he give them some kind of twelve step self-help spirituality awareness program? No, he directed them to what he, Jesus, had done.
The gospel is about what Jesus does. He gives the blind their sight. He enables the lame to walk. He cures lepers of their leprosy. He gives the deaf the ability to hear. He raises the dead. The gospel is all about what Jesus does. What Jesus does is always an attack on sin.
Why can’t the eyes see? Why can’t the legs walk? Why can’t the deaf hear? Why disease? Why death? Sin is why!
Oh, it’s not as if this particular sin results in that particular physical malady. But the fact of sin is what has brought the entire human race into bondage to sickness and death. When Jesus demonstrated his power over sickness, physical handicaps, and even death itself he demonstrated his power over sin. So when he preached the gospel of the forgiveness of sins to poor sinners they knew that he spoke with true authority.
The gospel is words. But it is never just words. It is divine power. It sets the captives free. It heals. It gives life. It opens heaven. It binds the devil. The gospel proclaims the works of Jesus. Everything Jesus ever did was for the benefit of sinners who need, above all else, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Go tell John that! You tell him that his preaching was not in vain. You tell him that he can remain in that stinking prison, alone, waiting not for release into the fresh air of freedom, but for the corrupt and wicked man who put him there to kill him there. You tell him that in the face of death he has eternal life.
John was murdered for preaching the truth. But his preaching stands. It is the eternal Word of God. Long after the world has forgotten all about Herod and his disgusting life they hear the gospel that John preached.
There is a reason why Jesus added the words, “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” There is so much about Jesus Christ that offends our human reason and our sinful flesh.
Can the man who hangs in torment and shame on the cross really be the Son of God with almighty power to give us everlasting life? Can such a wretched and despised Man actually be ruling over a kingdom that will endure forever, long after the glory of this world has been forgotten? Can it be true that every good deed of every religious person who has ever lived is nothing but sin when compared to the righteousness of Jesus and that his holy obedience and innocent suffering are our righteousness before God?
Who believes this? Who confesses this?
Most people think that Christianity is a system of morality and that the Christian gospel is just another ethical system – better than others, perhaps, but essentially the same. The radical claims of Jesus are, quite frankly, offensive. So Jesus promises: “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” The warning is implicit. Even as you are blessed when you don’t take offense in Christ, you are cursed when you do.
John the Baptist stands as an example of Christian faithfulness for preachers and people alike. Preachers like to feel sorry for themselves if they must pay just a little bit of a price for taking a stand on God’s Word. They want the people to like them and they’re frightened of saying what needs to be said if they think it won’t be well accepted.
John didn’t worry about that. He called the religious hypocrites who came to him for baptism a brood of vipers. He didn’t shave his message to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of anyone. He thoroughly violated the North Dakota / Minnesota rules of religious niceness. He knew that God’s word was far too important to be trivialized, sentimentalized, or compromised. What an inspiration for Christian preachers! And this man – John the Baptist – received from Jesus the compliment that he was the greatest man born of a woman. Jesus’ approval matters more than anyone else’s.
John stands as an example for every Christian. For it is not just the preachers who are to take a stand on God’s truth. All of us are called in Holy Baptism to confess the truth by which we are saved. We are called to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. This requires courage. It means being willing to stand apart from the crowd.
God’s truth doesn’t change, but the religious climate does. It goes where the culture goes, following after, like a puppy who wants to belong. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven and that only those who trust in him for their salvation are saved. Popular religion doesn’t confess this. It teaches that Jesus is one way among many ways to heaven. What do we confess? The Bible teaches that the good works we do are only fruits of faith but in no way contribute to our salvation which is by God’s grace alone. Popular religion doesn’t confess this. It teaches that the road to heaven is paved by the good works we do here on earth. What do we confess? The Bible teaches that it is wrong for a woman to be a pastor. Popular religion doesn’t confess this. It says that it is sexist and wrong to deny this office to a woman. What do we confess?
What do we confess? I’m not asking what we will tolerate from our pastor to preach. But what do we confess? Do we stand up for the truth of God’s Word when it is under attack? Do we stand and confess what we know from God’s word to be true even in the face of criticism?
John the Baptist was God’s messenger, sent before Christ, to prepare the way for Christ. He was no reed shaking in the wind. He stood firm. He was no pampered hireling, living in comfort, bought and paid for by the religious establishment. He didn’t need the respectability they offered. He needed rather to be faithful to the Word God commanded him to preach. He needed to preach it without compromise.
He preached the law. He didn’t tailor it to keep it from angering self-righteous hypocrites who trusted in their own goodness. No, he preached God’s law with crystal clarity. It condemned everyone. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The good news of God’s forgiveness was offered to those who were convicted in their own consciences and led to confess their sins.
And he preached the gospel. He was no fire-breathing legalist as he is falsely portrayed. While he preached a strict law that condemned everyone who heard it, he also preached Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Look at him! He came for you. He died for you. He bore your sins. He took your sin away. Don’t run away from God, but run to Jesus and find in him your true Champion, your true Savior.
John was a faithful preacher. He lived as one. He died as one. And his preaching endures. As long as the Church exists here on this earth God will call his people together to eat and to drink the body and blood of his dear Son, given and shed for the remission of sins. As they come they will sing, “Oh Christ, thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the word, have mercy upon us, grant us thy peace.” And John’s faithful preaching will be preached through God’s people until the end of time. Amen