Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent 3 Sermon -- Matthew 11:2-15 (LSB Advent 3A)

December 12, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

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.”

The voice who cried out in the wilderness was silent in the king’s dungeon. No more did John get to address the crowds and call them to repentance. He had done so, and done well. But his calls to repentance had also offended some in power: King Herod heard John’s sermons against his marriage to his brother’s wife. And for that offense, John was imprisoned.

But in his silence, John could listen. He had been told of what was going on in Galilee: “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 question is about Jesus’ identity. John had encountered Jesus before. He had baptized Jesus in the Jordan. He had seen the Holy Spirit descend like a dove upon Jesus. He had heard the Father’s voice declare Jesus to be His Son. This is what should be expected by the Christ’s herald.

John knew his role. When asked if he was the Christ, John said no. Jesus confirms John’s identity, when He speaks to the crowd: “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.’” John had been born to make people ready for the Christ’s arrival, to turn people back to the Covenant that the Lord had made with them and the forgiveness that it brings. And John had fulfilled that duty. But John’s faithful execution of those duties now brought the threat of unjust execution.

Is that what the Christ’s herald should expect? It does not seem so. The era of the Messiah had been prophesied in the Old Testament. It included grand and miraculous things. You heard the words of Isaiah this morning: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” The prophecy goes on with more promises of deliverance and reversal of afflictions. But where was that found in Herod’s prison? When was John able to see this era that he was ushering in by preparing the Christ’s way?

Expectations were not being met. So John wants to know, to hear directly from Jesus’ lips, the truth about Jesus’ identity: “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Perhaps Jesus was not the Christ. Perhaps He was not the One to bring in the era that Isaiah and the other prophets foretold. Maybe a few more prophets needed to come and suffer like many did in the Old Testament. If that was his fate, John wanted to know. So the question is given for Jesus to answer.

How does Jesus answer? He takes John back to the prophecies about Himself: “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.” This is what Isaiah had foretold. Jesus is saying to John: “You know what the Christ was supposed to do. That is what I’m accomplishing. You’ve heard about it. Your disciples have seen it. Know it is true. If I am the One doing these things, then know that the other promises about reversing sin and its effects are also true.” Jesus caps off His answer with an exhortation for John: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”

This is important for John to hear, because his salvation will be found in Jesus’ identity and work. But to take offense at Jesus, to think that He is not the Promised One, cuts one off from the salvation that He brings. Sitting in Herod’s dungeon, that is a realistic possibility. Believing that his fate should be better, that his impending death was proof that Jesus was a fraud and the Lord had abandoned him, even that all the promises were lies; John could have easily taken offense at Jesus. Whenever experiences do not match up with expectations, the temptation is to take offense. That temptation was as real for John as it is for you.

You have been promised many great things from the Lord through His Christ. The greatest is the restoration of humanity to perfection, along with all creation. We call this the eschatological hope, the anticipation of a time to come which the Christ will usher in. No more sin of any sort. No more lies and deceptions. No more death and destruction. It is what Isaiah described with his message to the Lord’s people of old in their exile: And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

But there are many ways to take offense at Jesus. It includes wondering if all this promised goodness is going to come. Just when will this new era commence? That was the offense which James the Brother of Jesus had to address with the Christians under his care: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” There is the temptation to pull the ripcord and bail out of this whole Christ-following enterprise, seeing that nearly two thousand years have elapsed since Jesus’ promise to return. Distrust in His promises would be a form of taking offense at Him.

Additionally, one can doubt Jesus’ statements about His identity. Jesus declares Himself to be the mediator between God and mankind. He says that He—and no one else—is the pathway to everlasting life. But rejection of this—belief that there are better, easier, more acceptable ways to enter the kingdom of heaven—is another taking offense at Jesus. He even spoke about it in His discussion about John’s and His identities: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

Another way of taking offense is to create other expectations for Jesus than what has been promised and be disappointed that they don’t come true. It was seen in Jesus’ time, when He wasn’t a Warrior Messiah to overthrow the Roman oppressors of Israel. A modern form can be seen when church leaders who promise earthly wealth or health for those who follow Jesus. And when that doesn’t come true, there can be great despondency and despair. Your concept of Jesus and the demands that come from it go lacking.

Other examples can be put forward. Every one of them leads people away from Jesus and what He brings for humanity. So what can be done about it? Expect exactly what the Lord promises about the Christ: no more and no less. That puts the expectations into focus. It allows you to evaluate what Jesus has done for you in a proper way. Did He perform miracles? Yes. Did He bring salvation through His dying and rising again? Yes. This is what the Lord promised, so take no offense at Jesus. James’ words are quite appropriate here: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” That is what Jesus displayed in His life.

Do not think that you are the only ones who have to wait to get what the Lord promised or have unexpected experiences. The Scriptures are full of other examples. Again, James writes: “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.” Isaiah’s statements about what the Messiah would do were spoken to the Lord’s people going into exile. None would have expected that to take place. But the prophet says: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart: ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” God did not abandon His people of old; He will not abandon you.

Hear again and again the actions that Jesus has done. For that is where the Holy Spirit works—in the Word of Christ: what He said and what is said about Him. The Holy Spirit’s work is what keeps you and the Church in the one true faith. Even John had to hear from Jesus. That is why Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him with the command: “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” You also must have the same happen for you. The Church’s Divine Service is where you find those with the command to “go and tell”. It is where you receive Christ’s pledges to you in His Sacraments.

None of this is easy. It is a challenge now, just as it was for those who have gone before you in the faith. There are extreme lows like John’s imprisonment. And yet, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” But Jesus follows that statement with one about Himself: “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Faithfulness and endurance are difficult. But your salvation is not dependent upon your effort. No, it is found in what the Greater One does for you. Take no offense at Him. Instead, receive the testimony of those who have seen and heard Jesus’ accomplishments as the Christ. Then, your hearts will be established for the time of His coming, the day when Christ fulfills the last prophecy about Him: “[you] shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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