Sunday, December 11, 2011

Advent 3 sermon

Matthew 11:2-10

In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
A lot of times we Christians will talk about our old foes – Sin, death, and the Devil. And we are quite used to talking about sin – about the various struggles and temptations we have to face down, about the times we fail and how we have received forgiveness on account of Christ. And we are still somewhat used to talking about the Devil – though in some circles it’s not as popular to talk about him anymore – but when we see the world around us, trials and problems, and we know that Satan desires our anguish and pain, and we delight in the fact that Christ Jesus came to destroy Satan’s power and that He will come again to deliver us for good on the Last Day. But this week, today, the Pink Sunday, the Sunday of refreshment and joy, or initial focus will be on that third foe, the one we don’t want to talk about. Death.

That’s what was on John the Baptist’s mind as we see him in prison to start our Gospel lesson. “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” This is one of the most poignant, most honest passages of Scripture. I mean, this is John here. This is the bold and brash preacher that I could only dream of being. This is the guy who stared down the mighty and powerful and told them off – You brood of vipers, who told you to flee the wrath that is to come. This is the guy who pointed to Christ and shouted – Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is stuff any preacher would give his eye-teeth for – John is such a good preacher we sing part of his preaching in our Communion liturgy. And Jesus confirms how awesome John is – among those born of women, you aren’t going to top John.

And I suppose if I were writing the story, or maybe Hollywood had scripted it, we’d see nothing but a bold and brash John, totally defiant. Taunting Herod as he’s being taken to the headsman’s axe – Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of Elderberries! And your daughter’s a lousy dancer to boot. That’s not what the Holy Spirit records for us, though. Instead, we hear of John in prison, John staring death in the face. He knows he’s not getting out of that cell. He knows this is the end – and as he sees death staring at him, sees death in the pacing of the guards outside his cell, hears death in the raucous debauched parties from upstairs – he becomes scared. And so he sends his disciples, his friends, the people who had been following and learning from him – who were the ones who brought him food, because in that day if you were in jail you had better have friends who brought you food otherwise you starved, and he says to them – go talk to Jesus, and just double check that He actually is the One, that he is the Messiah.

So these disciples come to Jesus, and they ask Him, they relay John’s question. And what is Christ’s response? Does He chide John – oh ye of little faith; silly, silly cousin, you know who I Am. Nope – Jesus came to face down death Himself – He can sympathize. Our Lord who would be bound and scourged, our Lord who Himself would weep bitter, bloody tears – He isn’t going to belittle John at this moment. So what does Jesus do? Does Christ point John to John Himself? Come on John, you’re bold and brash, you’ve been a great preacher, a might prophet – shoot, even Isaiah prophesized about you – you’ve surely got nothing to worry about. Nope – Jesus doesn’t soft sell John here, He doesn’t point John to his own works or deeds, doesn’t tell him that he’s been such a good person. John being a prophet isn’t going to stop the axe from falling. What is Christ’s response?

“And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’" That’s what Jesus says. He instructs John’s disciples on how they ought to go preach to John – He instructs them in what to tell John. John – do you see death? Well, yes, there is death, but what else is there? The blind receive their sight – there maybe death but I, Christ Jesus, have come, and those who saw nothing but only darkness now see everything clearly – and to you who sees only death in front of you, you shall see life everlasting. The lame walk, and you who soon won’t be able to walk anymore, whose limbs will truly hang lifeless – I will call you forth and you will stride out of your tomb. Lepers are cleansed – yes, your skin will be destroyed, yet you will see Me, Your God and Lord, in your own flesh, just as your fellow prophet Job had said. Those ears of yours which are going to be closed off in death – the swipe of the ax won’t be the last thing they hear – you will hear the trumpets of God and the Cry of Command on the last day, for I am indeed the Lamb of God who is slain but shall reign. Indeed, let’s just get directly to the point John. You are going to die – but so am I, and I will be raised from the dead, and because of that, so will you, for you are Mine and I will bring you with me. Yes, you are poor and lowly now, you are in one of the worst spots in life – but here is good news – He who believes in Me shall never die, and even though he dies, yet shall he live. Go tell John what you see and hear – go preach the good news of Christ Jesus to him.

That’s it, right there. That’s the counter that we have to death. When death looms large in front of us, when it comes stalking after us in all its terror and might – we look at Christ. We see and hear what our Lord has done, and we know that not even death can top us, not really. We belong to Christ. And all the old hymns used to emphasize this – they end with us dying but rising on the last day because of Christ. Just the exact same thing we see in our Gospel Lesson. We are pointed to Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, the One who faced and defeated death for us. John’s story is our story. Unless Christ’s second coming hurries up, well, chances are we’ll end up having to face down death. Where to cling, where to reside in that moment? Not in trying to tell ourselves that it’s not so bad, not in pointing to how good we were and all we did, but simply by looking at Christ, by hearing who He is – He is the Messiah who has suffered and died and rose again – He is the One who has claimed you by Holy Baptism so that even if you are suffering, even should you die, you will rise again.

And so John’s disciples go off to preach this truth to him, to comfort him – and then Jesus turns to the crowd. And Jesus asks them a question that He would rightly ask of Christians, especially American Christians today. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see?” Why did you people go and listen to John’s preaching? What were you hoping to hear, what was the point? Were you looking to see a reed shaken by the wind? You know, something neat, some entertainment but nothing really important. Were you thinking just to have a pious time killer? Not what John was. Or were you looking to see a man of wealth and taste – someone refined who could give you the secrets so that you too could have all this wonderful wealth blessings and riches as he tells you with a big smile about all the junk God wants you have? Not what John was.

So what about it for you here today? Are not these the things that we Americans tend to crave when we think of church? Are not many churches filled with preachers who are nothing but reeds shaking in the wind – hucksters giving a pious song and dance to entertain the crowds who then can go home feeling all good about themselves because they were nice and went to Church? Are not many churches filled with the slick and smooth preachers of power and wealth and how you can have your best life now? Not the point. Yet these are the things we in our sinful flesh crave and desire – we want ego boosts, we want money and wealth. We never want to have to deal with death – and so many places will offer us happy sounding ways of ignoring the harsh realities of this life.

“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, "'Behold, I send my messenger before your face,who will prepare your way before you.'” What did you see when you saw John? You saw someone who constantly pointed to Christ. You heard one who preached repentance and forgiveness because Christ is coming. No song and dance, no promises of a new Mercedes Benz or a big house in the suburbs – no gladhanding, nothing like that. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. You know – the things that will give you life, that will give you victory over death. John preached Christ.

I will let you in on a secret about pastors, at least those who would be faithful. Every sermon I preach here, every lesson I teach, every thing I do – in reality, it is me preparing you for death. The first thing a pastor ends up doing for a child is baptizing him – “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” That’s why I baptized my son – because some day he’s going to die – but now he’s not going to face death alone, He is with Christ and Christ is with him. That’s why you were baptized as well. And preaching, and teaching? St. Paul says that he is determined to know nothing but Christ and Him – crucified. Paul preaches a Christ who faced down death for you, so that you need not fear death. The Lord’s Supper – it’s no accident that it first happened on the night when He was betrayed – it’s no accident that it is His Body, given over to death upon the Cross for you, His blood shed upon the Cross for the forgiveness of your sins. It’s no accident that I say, “depart in peace”, it’s no accident that we sing “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” Because of Christ you will. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you show forth the Lord’s death until He comes. Everything in this place is nothing less than Christ giving us His victory over our foes, giving us victory over sin by forgiveness, giving us victory over Satan by the strengthening of our faith, and even giving us victory over death by His own death and resurrection.

So – I’ll ask. Did this seem like a dourish sort of sermon? Did it seem too heavy a topic? We’re getting closer to Christmas after all, shouldn’t the sermon have been a bit more holly jolly than this – at least a little reed shaking Pastor Brown? Our Candle today is pink – you know why? This is the Sunday known as “Gaudete” – Rejoice. The refreshment Sunday. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Always. And that’s the point today. Even in that moment when death stares you in the face, even if you are like John in prison and death is trying to make itself the only thing you see – rejoice. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and even the dead are raised, and why? Because God would not simply hand you over death and let you stay there, because God would give you life. The Father sends His Son into the world, puts Him in the womb of the Virgin, and He is born come Christmas – born to face down death for you, born to rise again for you, born to sanctify all the waters of the world by His own baptism so that you might be joined to Him, born so that He might give you His own Body and Blood to be the medicine of immortality. The call to rejoice today isn’t simply because you’re going to get a really neat present this year that you will have forgotten by next – no. Rejoice – Christ Jesus has come, and not even death can hold you now. Rejoice - Christ Jesus shall come again, and you will have life everlasting in the world without end. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. In the Name of Christ Jesus our Advent King +

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