Sermon on St. Matthew 11:2-10
Advent III (Gaudete)
16 December 2012
+ Jesu Juva +
Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You. – St. Matthew 11:10
“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?” John the Baptist was in prison. His thriving “congregation” by the Jordan was vacant. Perhaps he was sharing the Gospel with some prisoners and a few guards, but probably little more. As the story goes, he had called Herod Antipas to repentance for living together with a woman without marriage – just cause for the preaching of the Law, for the minor ban, and even for excommunication. His disciples visited him, probably giving him updates on the miracles and teachings of Jesus. But John’s question sparked a debate that continues in the church to this very day: Did John doubt Jesus’ identity or did he simply want his disciples to learn the person and work of Christ for themselves? In other words, did John ask about Jesus’ identity because he had doubts or did he want his disciples to encounter Jesus personally and discover first hand that this was the very Son of God? One could easily argue the answer in either direction. In any event, John’s question resonates in our midst as the great and abiding question of Advent: Is Jesus the Coming One foretold in today’s Old Testament lesson or do we look for another?
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see.’” Jesus answered with direct, concrete evidence of His Messianic work; those works that specifically fulfilled what was spoken of Him in the Old Testament. “The blind see,” perhaps the most important miracle of them all, save Jesus’ death and resurrection. For only the Messiah can cure the blind. “The lame walk,” recalling Isaiah’s prophecy that the lame man would leap like a deer. “The lepers are cleansed,” fulfilling the rites of the Holiness Code in Leviticus that dying sinners would be purified and able to stand holy before the Lord. “The deaf hear,” recalling the prophecy that the Messiah would open ears to hear the good news of His person and work. “The dead are raised up,” a sure and certain sign that the New Creation has come, a creation that would be sanctified through Jesus’ own suffering, death, and resurrection. “And the poor have the gospel preached to them,” as the poor in spirit (the repentant) hear the good news that Christ has come with healing, wholeness, and forgiveness. In short, Jesus invites John and all the Faithful to ponder anew the works of Christ. The things Christ has done invite us to look deeper into His person and work, to repent of our sins, and to believe that this is the very Son of God.
“As [John’s disciples] departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: ‘What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’” A brush reed is a tall plant that thrives near water. It survives by bending with the wind, instead of resisting it. Applied to John the Baptist, think again of his encounter with Herod Antipas, which eventually lead to his death. A reed shaking in the wind would have said, “Well, King Herod, I appreciate the doctrine that living together is reserved for those who are married. But times have changed. It’s a different world now than it was of old, and the church needs to change with the times to stay relevant.” A reed shaking in the wind is the way of liberal or moderate theology. It’s the way of those who start their sentences not with “The Word of God says,” but rather, “In our culture.” You’ve probably all heard, for instance, that some liberal churches are ordaining the sexually impure and encouraging same sex relationships. They do it to stay relevant and to meet people where they are, but at heart it destroys the right doctrine, subjects the church to the whims of the moment, and brings death to her members.
“But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments?” Again, the reference to Herod Antipas is clear. Herod was in the king’s palace, fighting for his throne, and wiping out anyone who got in his way. History suggests that this Herod actually arranged the deaths of his own sons and at least one wife to guard his throne. See the contrast between John and Herod. Herod wore kingly garments. John wore camel’s skin. Herod ate the finest cuisine. John ate wild insects. Herod promoted himself. John decreased in self in order to increase the proclamation of Christ. So we see here the contrast between faith (John) and unbelief (Herod). There are two ways, the way of life and the way of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways. Left to ourselves, we are the image of Herod, trusting in ourselves, being paranoid of those who threaten our false gods, and obsessing over my power, my way, and my personal whims. According to our sinful nature, we will reverse the Old Testament proclamation to prepare the way of the Lord through repentance, and instead we will obstruct His way by fearing, loving, and trusting in ourselves. So the Advent message from John the Baptist is to repent of all our sins of thought, word, and deed.
“But what did you go out to see? A prophet?” Arguing from the lesser to the greater, Jesus takes his view of John the Baptist from a reed blowing in the wind (the liberal), to a man in soft garments (the politician), to the prophet, literally “one who speaks for God.” Recall the prophets of the Old Testament, from Moses to Elijah to Malachi. They preached full-strength Law and Gospel, worked miracles, and usually paid for their faithfulness with their own blood. Is this what you went out to the wilderness to see, O Israel? Yes! Even John’s dress and diet were the credentials of the Old Testament prophets. And this prophet was unique, for He was the last prophet to prepare the way for the Lord, not to mention a close blood relative of Jesus. Yes, prophecy (word) and baptism (sacrament) was the basic stuff of John’s ministry by the Jordan. John was a prophet, mighty in word and deed. But there’s even more: “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”
This quote from today’s Old Testament lesson tell us who John is and what he does. Who is this shaggy preacher by the Jordan? “I send My messenger.” The New Testament word for “to send” means to send with the authority of the sender. So when John was summoned out of an obscure childhood (nothing is recorded of him between his birth and his ministry), he was called to preach in the stead and by the command of Christ Himself. When John preached the Law, he was speaking for God. When John preached the Gospel, he was giving the gifts of heaven itself. When John baptized, he was doing so for God. The person and work of Christ were present in the person and work of John the Baptist. Here we see a high view of the preaching office. It’s not just talking about Jesus from a distance. Rather, preaching and baptism are the very voice and presence of Christ among us. When the pastor calls us to repent, the voice of John the Baptist still rings out in this church, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. When the pastor preaches Jesus Christ and Him crucified, He is a pointing finger, directing penitent sinners to the crucified One, who alone brings life to this dying world of ours. And when the pastor baptizes in the name of the Trinity, he is carrying on the ministry of John the Baptist, that we may die to sin and receive new life in Jesus’ name.
And what does John do? “[John] will prepare Your way before You.” God the Father promised a special messenger, second in rank only to Jesus, who would prepare the way of the Messiah. This promise was fulfilled in John the Baptist. The New Testament word translated “prepare” or “make ready” is the language of royalty. When a king is about to enter a city, he sends emissaries ahead of him to prepare the city, to make reservations, to fix a banquet, and much, much more. There’s a similar plan today for presidential visits, not to mention kings and queens in other countries. So by calling all men to repentance, we might endure the day of the Lord’s coming and escape the wrath to be revealed in the final judgment. Here we see Advent as a season of preparation. There are many themes packed into the short but rich season of Advent. Hope and expectation. Prophecy and fulfillment. But I think the primary theme in today’s Gospel lesson is preparation. As John made all things ready for Jesus by calling men to repentance that, as the Communion liturgy puts it, “They might escape the wrath to be revealed when [Jesus] cometh again in glory” (Proper Preface). And that is exactly what John’s preaching and Baptism, still active in our liturgy, do for us: they prepare us to encounter Christ with clean hands and a pure heart this Christmas, and to stand righteous in His sight, even to the end of days.
Finally, we see yet again today that the phrase “stir up” is a key word in the Collects for Advent. It appears in three out of the four, but it’s not in today’s Collect. However, it’s in today’s Gradual twice: “Shine forth, stir up Thy strength and come.” And again, “Stir up Thy strength, and come and save us. Alleluia!” The prayer for God to ‘stir up’ is the Advent prayer of faithful disciples like you and me. Like John, we have our doubts. We pray to God from the prison of our darkness and depression, our sin and sickness, and even from our own shock over sudden and violent death of children (Newtown, CT shooting). We ask with John, “Is this Jesus the coming One or should we look for another?” The good news in today’s propers is Yes! This Jesus – crucified, dead, and buried, risen, ascended, and glorified -- is the coming One. He stirs up His mighty power this Advent to come to us and “lighten the darkness of our hearts by [His] gracious visitation” (Collect).
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer