Advent 3 – December 12/13, 2015 – Matthew 10:2-11
In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
We are on to my favorite week of Advent – the third week, the pink week. It's the time in Advent where things lighten up a bit, where we sort of prime the pump and get ready for the last push towards our celebrations of our Lord's incarnation on Christmas Day. Now wait just a second, pastor, did you say that things lighten up? The Gospel text is John the Baptist stuck in prison feeling miserable! How in tarnation is that supposed to be a “lightening up” sort of text? Well, let's find out.
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?” It might surprise you, but this is one of the most debated passages in the New Testament. Some people will look at this text and say, “Oh, surely John wouldn't be doubting, John wouldn't be struggling – he's not really asking, he's just trying to send his disciples off to Jesus!” It's a very nice, pious way of looking at things... except, back in the day, if you wanted to send your disciples to another teacher, you'd just say, “I can't teach you any more, you're going to go follow so and so.” Moreover... Jesus sends the disciples back to John - “Go and tell John...” So no, here is what is going on. There is John. And he has given his life to serving the Lord. His whole life, even from before birth – dedicated to God. He eschewed the comforts and joys of civilization and society, he ate locusts and wild honey in the wilderness, he preached and preached, angering the powers that be in society, and now finally, there he is in jail. And we know what happens. His head on a silver platter because some gal does a sultry dance for Herod. That's how John goes out – not even in a blaze of preaching glory – not like St. Stephen who gets stoned to death while preaching (we'll hear about this on December 26th). No, John, the great preacher, stuck by himself in a prison, waiting to be killed.
And that cell was cold, and dark, and dank. And John is left there with his own thoughts, with his own doubts. It's easy to be strong when you are preaching to others, it's much harder when you are alone with your fears. And so there is John, and he has his disciples run to Jesus and ask Him, “Are you the One?” Are you the one Jesus, was I right when I said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”... or did I mess up? Because right now, seeing the four walls of this prison cell, it's really easy to think I messed up.
So what's our Lord's response? Does He start ranting against John – John you should have known better! You get what you deserve, I hope you rot and die you doubter! No. There is not a single ounce, not a drop of disdain or condescension towards John from our Lord. Instead, there is utter care. “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.” Do you see what Jesus does? John had been looking at his own doubts, his own fears. The lousiness of his own life was creeping in on him and driving him to doubt and despair. And so Jesus takes John's disciples and tells John – no, quit looking at the walls of those cells, quit looking at your doubts and fears, quit looking at your quaking heart. Here's what you should be looking at – here's how you will be refreshed. Here's what you need to behold (eh, eh, see the third candle on the banner).
The list Jesus gives to John is the classic list of what the Messiah would do, what would happen when the Messiah comes. The blind see. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. And the Dead are raised. It's a good list, a great list – all things that Christ has done. But the final one – and the poor have good news preached to them – that's the kicker. Alright John – you feeling poor and miserable right now? Well, I'm sending your disciples back to you to preach a bit of Good news. Yes, I am the Messiah – and you know what that means? You ain't see anything but the walls of your cell? You will see eternal life. Stuck in that cage, chained and bound? You will walk freely in the courts of the New Jerusalem in the glory of the Lord. Is that dungeon grimy and dirty? You will be spotless, washed in the blood of the Lamb, for I am indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Have you been hearing nothing but the sounds of your own doubts? Hear the word of the Lord. Even though you die, even though Herod will take your head and I will not see you again in this life, I am the Lord your God who suffers and dies for you, who rises for you, so you will be raised. There's your good news John. And you are not offended by Me, you are blessed. While what Jesus tells John at first sounds strange to our ears, to John there would have been nothing more beautiful to hear, nothing more refreshing, nothing more restoring. As beautiful as “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” ringing out, even in the midst of a funeral service. Good news.
And then as John's disciples go Jesus addresses the crowd. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Why did you go to listen to John people – did you think he was a reed shaken by the wind? Did you think he was something weak rooted and insubstantial that was just spouting the latest and greatest craze and fad? He wasn't merely that. “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses.” Were you wanting some money advice, someone who would help you become rich and wealthy and powerful? Those sorts live in palaces – not the palace dungeon. What 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.' No, you went out to John because he was preaching repentance, repentance because the Lord was coming. And I am here, and the time of salvation being won, your salvation, is at hand.
So then my dear friends in Christ, what do we see and learn from this text?
Well, first things first – never let anyone tell you that a real Christian never struggles with doubts or fears. Never. Jesus says of John, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” - and yet, what do we see in John? Are we going to say John wasn't a real Christian? Poppycock! But there is this idea, especially running around in American Christianity, where we feel compelled to pretend, to put on this always happy mask, to act as though we are never hurt, never scared, never fearful, never worried, and especially at Christmas time, which isn't always a happy time for all of us. “Oh well, just fake it.” Here's why that's dangerous. It isolates us. John was stuck in a cell, and he was isolated... and doubts and fears grew. And we've been trained by culture and stupid false piety to think that when we are hurt we should just be quiet, don't let anyone know, tough it out... and we throw ourselves into a prison of our own devising, and the hurt and the doubt and the fear grows... all the while we struggle to keep up appearances. Have you not heard, dear friends, that Faith comes by... hearing. Your faith is buttressed, is strengthened not by your ability to tough it out, not by your ability to keep a stiff upper lip – but faith comes by hearing. That's what Jesus teaches in this text – look, John is struggling... so Christ says, “Go tell John” - go speak to him, for faith, even for John, comes by hearing.
And hearing what? Not platitudes. Not sappy advice. Not the sentimentality of the season. Go tell John what Christ Jesus is doing, because you know what John, that is what Jesus is doing for you. And likewise, my dear friends, when you are hurt, when you are suffering, when your sin looms large, when guilt attacks, when there's fear, when your body breaks, when you see failure – you too need to hear what Christ Jesus has done for you. You see, all this stuff comes with shame, and we close up, we get fearful. You do realize none of this surprises Christ Jesus? He is all knowing, you're never going to shock Him. Indeed, He knows your troubles better than you do – and so Christ Jesus says to you, “Behold, I am Your Lord, I am your Savior, I know your troubles... I knew them even before you were born... and in fact because of your troubles, Behold, I Myself came down from heaven and was born, I Myself came and took My place in this fallen world, I Myself came and faced all these sorts of fears and trials and troubles, I even faced down death. For you. So that I would rise and have the authority to say, all your sins are forgiven and even though you should die, yet you shall live.”
It's actually pretty neat. Satan and your flesh will want to rub your nose in your sin and fears and doubts – there's a reason Satan is called the accuser. Instead, Jesus says, “there's something else I want you to look at – something else for you to behold. Me and My love for you which never fails.” And seeing Christ, and hearing His Word of life, hearing forgiveness, remembering our baptism, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good in His Supper – we are refreshed. Not by our strength, but by His. Let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Come quickly, Lord Jesus! In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +