Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sermon -- 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 11, 2016)

MATTHEW 11:2-11


In the name + of Jesus.

     John the Baptist came in fulfillment of God's promises.  He was immediately recognized as a prophet even by the religious establishment.  Because of John's fiery preaching style, some wondered if he were the Christ.  When asked what claims he made for himself, John deferred to the Holy Spirit's words through Isaiah.  He confessed that he was “a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Matthew 3:3)  John's message was simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)  John's message of urgent repentance stirred the hearts of many people.  They were eager to receive their Messiah, and John was pointing them in the right direction.  In fact, John literally pointed his disciples to Jesus, declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
     Jesus of Nazareth came in fulfillment of God's promises.  He was immediately recognized as a prophet even by the religious establishment.  Jesus' message was the same as John's: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)  At this point, however, their lives take different paths.  John the Baptist preached fiery and faithful sermons, but his call to King Herod that even he should repent landed John in prison.  Jesus, on the other hand, was being invited to feast with prostitutes, tax collectors, and Pharisees.  John was languishing in a royal dungeon.  Jesus was as popular as ever.  John had good reason to wonder if he were going to die.  Jesus was living it up.
     Therefore, 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?” (Matthew 11:2-3)  Some have argued that John knew he was about to die and with this request was doing nothing more than directing his disciples to become Jesus' disciples.  John's disciples were about to lose their master.  So John was directing them to a better master—in fact, the Messiah.  Even from prison, it is argued, John the Baptist was pointing: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
     That certainly is possible.  But it is also possible that John the Baptist was having his own doubts about Jesus.  This does not mean that John was becoming an unbeliever.  It means that John was a human being.  John had been a faithful preacher of the Lord.  His role in life was to be the forerunner of the Christ.  But the judgment John had warned about was not happening.  No fire had been kindled.  If the axe were at the root of the trees, no one had yet been cut down.  In prison, John had too much time on his hands to think.  He wondered about his preaching.  He wondered about Jesus' actions.  He even wondered if he might be wrong about Jesus.  Was there another one to come?  Was there someone else who would usher in the kingdom John had said was at hand?  Was there another to execute the judgment which John foretold?  At the root of all John's questions was this: Am I wrong?  Have I been a fool to believe in this one as the Messiah?
     If you have also had doubts, you are not alone.  No one wants to be a fool.  That is why people pride themselves on being skeptics, cynics, and agnostics.  It seems wiser and safer to believe in nothing than to believe in Jesus and be wrong.  But if doubts arise in our hearts, it is likely because we make assumptions about the Lord or the Bible.  When our assumptions are shown to be wrong, then we are disappointed, perhaps even shaken.  We might conclude that the Lord deceived us or lied to us.  Even Christians find themselves believing in promises that God had never made to them.  We think that God will fix every problem, heal every disease, reverse every disaster, or erase every consequence.  But when God does not cure every wound, avert every disaster, or fix every relationship, we reason that God has failed us.  God does not always act like we think he should, especially when we assume that God had made us promises he did not actually make.
     Doubts arise in our minds about Jesus and his promises when he does not act like we do or like we think he should.  Suddenly Jesus is not the Messiah we had hoped for.  John the Baptist feared that was the case.  Though John may have struggled with doubts and fears while he pined away in prison, John did not abandon true faith.  John the Baptist turned where faith always turns—to the Lord.  He sent his disciples to Jesus.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3) 
     Jesus could have answered with a simple, “Yes.”  Instead, Jesus points weak faith to a strong promise.  Jesus responded, “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.” (Matthew 11:4-6)  John is like a bride who asks her husband if he loves her.  She knows the answer, but she still wants to hear it.  While John sat in prison, faith told him that Jesus is the Messiah and the Lamb, just as he had told others.  He wanted to hear it from Jesus.  He needed to hear it.  And so he sent disciples to get the word for him.
     When John had been asked what confession he made about himself, John quoted Isaiah.  When John asked Jesus what confession he made about himself, Jesus likewise quoted Isaiah.  It is as if Jesus were saying to John, “Dear cousin, you have heard what I have been doing.  It is not the fiery judgment you had expected.  Though unbeliever are indeed cut off from the kingdom, fire will come later.  But behold!  See what is happening.  Isaiah is being fulfilled.  God is faithful.  I am the servant he has foretold.  Your finger has pointed people to the right place.  You are no fool, John.  Blessed are you that you are not fooled by misguided expectations.”  Jesus points weak faith to a strong promise.
     And so it is with you.  Doubts will creep into our minds at times.  But like John the Baptist, we do well to turn to Jesus for our assurance, for our answers, and for our hope.  We go to the man to whom John pointed.  We go to the word which God himself gave.  If you want to pride yourself on being a skeptic, do not dare be a skeptic of what God has actually said.  While we can be fooled, it is not God who fools us.  God never lies or deceives.  He tells sinners that they are sinners.  But he points sinners to Jesus who loves us enough to die for our sins.  He reminds us that the Lamb of God has been slain for us.  He assures us the blood of the Lamb purifies us from all sin, and then he invites us to feast on his flesh for the forgiveness of our sins.  You may know all this is true, but you still need to hear it.  You still need to be fed and nourished, consoled and encouraged.  And Jesus points weak faith to a strong promise.
     John the Baptist was comforted by our Lord while he was in prison.  Jesus did not go to bust him out.  Jesus did not even suggest that John would avert death.  What Jesus did promise to John was that he was loved by God, would be redeemed by God, and would receive comfort and peace in the kingdom of heaven.
     And so it is with you.  Our Lord does indeed say that he will deliver us from every disaster, that he will reverse the consequences of our sins, and that all people will finally get along.  But he does not say that will happen in a sinful world.  It will happen in the kingdom of heaven, and that will come later.  But he does promise that, in the midst of our troubles now, he is with us.  He loves us.  He forgives us.  He keeps watch over us, and he will preserve us in the true faith.
     Therefore, we flee to our Lord in the midst of doubts and threats and death.  Our Lord alone has the words to comfort us.  He does not grow tired of our weakness or weary of our continual need for his reassurance.  And if you would be blessed by him, then flee where he is found.  If we pay attention to his words, we will always know his promises and will always have true comfort.  Jesus' promises will never lie or deceive or fail.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins, who loves us, and who saves us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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