Saturday, December 13, 2008

Advent 3 – December 13–14, 2008

“Blessed Is He Who Is Not Offended Because of Me”
Matthew 11:2-11
Advent 3 – December 13–14, 2008
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Are you the Coming One? Or do we look for another?” That is the question John asks of Jesus. You can understand why John might ask that question. After all, John is now in prison. John had come as a mighty preacher, preparing the way of the Lord, calling people to repentance, baptizing them for the forgiveness of sins. Everyone was coming out to John at the Jordan River to hear him. John spoke of a Messiah who was mightier than he was, who would clean out the threshing floor and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. All of this carried with it images of power and glory.

But now John is in King Herod’s dungeons. He had been put there for condemning the sin of Herod, who had taken his brother’s wife for himself and was therefore committing adultery. Herod’s wife wanted John killed immediately. But oddly enough, the king had some respect for John. And so he had John thrown into prison instead. In the end, though, the scheming of Herod’s wife would win the day. John would eventually be beheaded.

As John sat in his dark cell, the thought may well have crossed his mind: Did I get it wrong in saying that Jesus is the Messiah? If He is the Christ, then why is this happening to me? If the Messiah comes to bring God’s righteousness, why is this unrighteous king being permitted to rule unchecked and unpunished? Why am I the one who is suffering? “Are you the Coming One? Or do we look for another?”

I would guess that there have also been moments like that in your own life. In your own times of suffering or difficulty, when you’ve been victimized or treated unjustly, you may have wondered: Is Jesus really the One? Is Christianity the right way? Or should I be looking for someone or something else that maybe works a little better? How easily doubts can creep into our fallen minds when things don’t go the way we planned or expected, when God doesn’t come through for us the way we hoped. Is Jesus the One?

Even though John must have had his doubts and his questions, I believe he knew all along that Jesus was the Messiah. For when does John send two of his disciples to Jesus to ask this question? It is when he hears in prison about the works of Christ, the works that are the evidence that Jesus really is the Coming One. Consider also what Jesus Himself says about John: “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” What tremendous honor Jesus bestows on John with those words! Just think about what He is saying there. John is greater even than Abraham, than Moses, than Elijah, than all the prophets. Above all others, John is a picture of great faithfulness and zeal and love for God.

Jesus says, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” No, not at all. John the Baptist wasn’t a preacher who told people what their itching ears wanted to hear, compromising with the culture around him. “Oh, you think we should be more tolerant of alternative lifestyles and beliefs? OK, I can go along with that. You want more sermons on how to achieve worldly happiness and fulfillment and success in life? Sure, whatever keeps my paycheck coming.”

Instead, John preached the truth which God had given him to preach. He said things like, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That’s how he prepared the way of the Lord Jesus. He said to the multitudes that came out to him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. . . Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” That may not have been the best church growth technique, to call the people coming out to him a bunch of snakes. But John knew that until the people had confronted the reality of their fallen condition, they would not be ready for the One who came to deliver and save them from their bondage to sin and death.

The same thing is true for you still today. You too must hear that message of John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus is near. Turn away from your sin. Stop justifying it and making excuses for it and becoming comfortable with it. Seek to bear the fruit of faithfulness and love. Acknowledge that you are grass, a flower that inevitably withers and wilts and returns to the earth from which it came. Take refuge in Christ alone.

For He Himself is “the word of our God (that) stands forever.” Though the grass withers and the flower fades, the everlasting Word of God declares that there is full, free forgiveness and real, enduring life for you in Him. For the Son of God took your wilting and withering condition upon Himself in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary. Though He was without sin, He took the curse of your sin into His own body and He broke the curse, putting it to death on the cross. All the power of the devil to drag you down to hell, all the power of sin to condemn you was completely destroyed and abolished there at Calvary. Now, through faith in Jesus, you are released, you are free, you are holy. St. Peter writes, “You have been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” You have been baptized into Jesus, the Word made flesh, and so you will live and abide forever in Him. Just as a lily dies in the winter but comes forth to life again from the bulb in the spring, so also you will rise again to an everlasting spring when the risen Jesus returns.

John’s real aim, then, ultimately is not to condemn you but to comfort you, as the Old Testament reading said, “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The Messiah whom John proclaims doesn’t give you just barely enough forgiveness. Rather, the Lord gives you twice as much forgiveness as you need, overflowing mercy, so that you may be absolutely certain that all of your sins, the big and the small, have truly been covered and answered for and taken away.

Jesus goes on to say about John: “What did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” John was one who wore a rough camel pelt for clothing. He lived in the harsh wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey. He knew well that the life God had called him to was not one of ease and comfort but of self-denial. As the last of the prophets, he must have suspected that his own life might end as the prophets before him, in persecution and death. He would never enter the king’s house in soft clothing but in chains.

So the question remains: why would John still send two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Coming One?” I believe John sent these two disciples of his so that they might become disciples of Jesus. The time for John to have followers of his own was past; his mission was completed. The way had been prepared for Jesus, and now they were to follow Him. John himself said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” It was time for him now to fade from the scene and for Jesus to become the focus. And so upon hearing of Jesus’ works, John sends his disciples to Him so that they may see Jesus’ works for themselves and know that He is the One to follow, the Messiah, the Savior.

“He must increase, I must decrease.” That’s true not only for John but for all of us as well, pastors and laypeople. A preacher’s job is not to draw attention to himself but to do like John did and point to Jesus, “He is the One.” “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And through repentance you also are to decrease, to die to yourself and your own desires, so that Jesus might be magnified in you with His abounding love. Your old Adam is to fade from the scene so that the new man, Christ may dwell in you to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Jesus said to John’s disciples, “Report to 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.” These are the kind of people that Jesus came for–not those who are proud in their own righteousness and self-sufficiency, but the weak and the helpless and the unrighteous. Are you beginning to lose your sight or your hearing? Are your legs and your arms not working like they used to? Are you contending with some ailment or disease? Are you living from paycheck to paycheck? Do you feel unclean? Do you sense the death in you that sin brings? Then Jesus is for you. He took on your flesh and blood that He might redeem your humanity and cleanse you and restore you in both body and soul to the fullness of His resurrection life.

And finally, Jesus says to John and to us all, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” Blessed are you who are not scandalized by My suffering and cross, who are not offended by your need to repent and to trust in Me alone to save you. Blessed are you who, like John in prison, are not caused to fall from faith by the difficulties and the crosses you must yet suffer but who continue to cling to Me and hope in Me. For yours in the kingdom of heaven.

Brothers and sisters of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is at hand not only because Christmas is near, not only because the second coming is near, but because the King Himself is near. His body and blood are at hand, given from this very altar for you for the forgiveness of sins. Here is your Comfort. Here “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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