Sermon on St. Matthew 11:2-11
[John the Baptist’s Question to Jesus]
Advent III (Gaudete)
12 December 2010
+ Jesu Juva +
Thou that dwellest between the cherubim, shine forth, stir up Thy strength and come.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, Thou that leadest Joseph like a flock. Alleluia!
Stir up Thy strength, and come and save us. Alleluia!
– Ps. 80:1-2 (Gradual for Advent III)
“Stir up!” This is the great petition of Advent, a call for our Lord to summon His own power to come among us and to save us. We pray in two Collects for Advent for the Lord to stir up His power to save us from the threatening peril of our sins (Advent I and IV). Last Sunday (Advent II), we prayed, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Thine only-begotten Son.” And today’s Gradual has two petitions for the Lord to stir up His strength and to save us by His great might. Guided by today’s Gradual from Psalm 80[:1-2], today we learn from John the Baptist’s question what it means for the Lord to stir up His strength for us and for our salvation.
John the Baptist was in prison. As the story goes, Herod Antipas was a houseguest of his half-brother Philip. During his family visit, Herod developed a hopeless crush on Philip’s wife, Herodius, and the two eloped, even though they were both married. John, the faithful theologian of the cross and stalwart defender of the sixth commandment, called them to repentance for this and other sins. Herod was offended by the truth of the law. But instead of confessing his sin and being baptized, he decided to shut John up by throwing him into prison. “And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to [Jesus], ‘Are you the coming One, or do we look for another?’” I ask you: do you think that John doubted Jesus’ identity or that he sent His disciples to question Jesus for their own benefit? If the former, then John was probably confused that Jesus came to set the captives free, yet John was quite captive in Herod’s cold dungeon. If the latter, then he simply wanted to impress upon his disciples that he was but a messenger and Jesus was the One who really counted. In the end, we simply don’t know whether John or his disciples doubted the identity of the Messiah.
In any event, Jesus’ answer rings true for everyone, everywhere, and every time. “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see,” the greatest messianic miracle of them all. “The lame walk,” echoing Isaiah’s promise that the Messiah would make the lame leap as a deer. “The lepers are cleansed,” receiving the physical healing of God’s new creation and, for those who believe, the spiritual healing of the soul. “The deaf hear,” restoring their life to normality and opening their ears to hear the gospel. “The dead are raised up” – Jairus’ daughter; the widow’s son at Nain; Lazarus of Bethany. “And the poor have the gospel preached to them,” as the repentant are blessed with full and free forgiveness in Christ. “And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” Many will be offended by this Jesus because He is not what they expected. Many wanted a messiah who would drive out the Roman army, restore the glory of Solomon’s kingdom, and give Israel peace and prosperity here and now. But Jesus came as the Messiah who told them to pay taxes to Caesar, who established a kingdom of suffering, and whose peace was won by His own blood. And blessed are those who, instead of being offended by His incarnation and passion, repent of their sins and believe the gospel.
And so our Gradual teaches us to pray, “Thou that dwellest between the cherubim, shine forth, stir up thy strength and come.” Here the Psalmist asks the Lord, the One who lives in the company of angels, to use His strength and might not for visible displays of power and glory, but to save us from our sins. Like many of Jesus’ hearers and even His own disciples, we sometimes have great expectations of God that He does not meet. We expect God to flex some muscle in our favor, to set things right in the world with His Divine magic wand, and to end all forms of suffering in this life. To take a lead from some false teachers and their books, we expect God to use His strength to give us our best life now (Osteen), to make us more purpose-driven (Warren), and to equip us with better leadership skills (Maxwell). We become the image of John’s disciples, asking, “Are you really the coming One, Lord, or should we look for someone else?” But when God exercised His strength to save us, He did the unthinkable: He hid His strength and majesty in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. And then He did what no respectable Messiah would ever do: He perished on a cross. He fulfilled the promise of the Mercy Seat in the Old Testament, the place of the atonement located between the Cherubim. By His death, He embraced this world of sin and reconciled the world to God. And it was precisely through His suffering and death that He established a kingdom where He is the faithful King, we are His subjects, and there is peace between God and man through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So go and tell John that the Christ whom he proclaimed in the wilderness, and for whom he was about to die, is the Messiah promised “deep in the prophet’s sacred page,” as the hymn puts it.
As John’s disciples started their journey back to prison to share the good news of Jesus’ identity as the Advent Lord, Jesus turned His attention to the crowds concerning John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” A reed blows this way and that, bending to every change in the wind. But John the Baptist would not bend to the felt needs of the people, the latest survey, or the most recent program to grow His “church” by the river Jordan. “What did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” The reference to Herod Antipas is clear enough. John was in prison for speaking the truth to Herod. Herod was reclining in his palace, probably enjoying the company of his half-brother’s wife. John was a theologian of the cross, ready to suffer all, even death, rather than compromise the faith for the sake of keeping the peace. Herod was a theologian of glory, ready to submit to all whims, even false doctrine, for the sake of his own convenience.
“But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.” A prophet is one who speaks for God. And this is especially fitting in this context as Jesus contrasts John the prophet against Herod the king. Recall that prophets arose in the Old Testament primarily to speak the Word of God when the kings refused to speak for God. And the supremacy of the prophet over the king continues in the contrast between John and Herod.
So what did you, the crowds, go out into the wilderness to see? The one of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.” That is to say, “I [God the Father] send My messenger [John the Baptist] before [Jesus’] face, Who will prepare [Jesus’] way.” John the Baptist prepares the way for the Messiah by calling all men to repentance, by clearing away all obstacles of false belief, “that they might escape the wrath to be revealed when [Christ] cometh again in glory” (Proper Preface).
The second portion of our Gradual teaches us to pray, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, Thou that leadest Joseph like a flock. Alleluia! Alleluia!” The idea of a flock was familiar to the Old Testament hearers of this Psalm, and of course to Jesus’ hearers in the New Testament. Many of the ancient Fathers were shepherds. Jesus’ birth was first announced to shepherds. And the word “pastor” hails from a Greek word for shepherd. To pray with the Psalmist, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,” is to pray to Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep. He is the One who hears our prayer for deliverance this Advent, stirring up His strength in heaven that it may resonate on earth. It has always struck me in the propers for Advent that the “stir up” petitions work from two perspectives in this shepherd/sheep relationship. Some of these petitions ask the Lord to stir up His power (from above). However, some of them ask Him to stir up our hearts (from below). From heaven, God stirs up His power to come to us in baptism, absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, where He delivers the deliverance He won on the cross. And on earth, God stirs up our hearts in daily repentance and faith, that He may “lighten the darkness of our hearts by [His] gracious visitation” (Collect). So the composite picture of the “stir up” petitions is Christ, the Shepherd of Israel, tending and feeding His flock, and we, His people, following Him in the green pastures of the Christian church.
And so the Gradual for the Third Sunday in Advent concludes with another “stir up” petition: “Stir up Thy strength, and come and save us.” This Gradual is from Psalm 80, a Psalm that three times petitions God to stir up His strength by letting His face shine on His people, that they may be saved (80:3, 7, 17). The underlying petition to “stir up” can mean to excite God’s power for us (excita potentiam) or to help us by His fortitude (suscita fortitudinem). God stirs up His power in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ – conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. He exercises His power to save through His cross and Passion. He makes His face shine on us through the forgiveness of sins. A bit startling to John the Baptist. Downright offensive to many through the ages. But to us who are being saved, the story of Jesus’ Advent is good news. His Advent is the story of God stirring up His power to rescue us from the threatening perils of our sins, and to save us by His mighty deliverance.
God grant it unto us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer