Preached: December 12, 2010
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit cheers our hearts with Jesus is Matthew 11.
Now when John had heard in prison of the works of the Christ and had sent through his disciples, he said to him, “Are you the Coming One, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied and said to them, “Go, report to John what you hear and see: The blind see again, and the lame walk. Lepers are healed, and the deaf hear. The dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Blessed is everyone who isn't fatally trapped due to me.”
As they were going, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John. “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed being swayed by the wind? Well then, what did you go out to see? A man finely dressed in soft clothes? Behold, those who wear soft clothes are in kings' palaces. Well then, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you -- and more than a prophet. For He is the one about whom it's written: 'Behold, I indeed am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' Truly, I tell you, no one born of women has arisen greater than John the Baptizer. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.” (Matthew 11:2-11)
This is the word of our Lord.
Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:
“It's the most wonderful time of the year With the kids jingle-belling And everyone telling you 'Be of good cheer.' It's the most wonderful time of the year” (by Andy Williams, see ) Or is it?
Yes, this time to celebrate, this time to be with family, this time to remember our Savior's birth is wonderful. Yet along with it comes frenzy and stress, disappointed expectations, loneliness -- at times even a hopelessness.
It seems that John was struggling with some of those same feelings. We met him last week in the wild areas along the Jordan, wearing coarse camel's hair and a leather belt. He was baptizing and preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NIV). But now some months later, he's sitting in prison.
Why? Here's the background in brief. Herod the Great, whom the wise men came to see after Jesus' birth, had died almost thirty years earlier. One of his son, Herod Phillip, married Herodias, who was his own niece. Herod Philip's half-brother, named Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee, visited the couple in Rome. He and Herodias fell in love. So Herod Antipas arranged to divorce his first wife and married Herodias, his brother's wife, instead. John said that this was not right. So Herod Antipas threw him into prison.
Do you think this was what John was expecting for his ministry? He was the forerunner, sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. He knew and gladly accepted that he would grow less as the Christ came into focus. We see no self-appointed arrogance in John. He confesses that he's not fit to carry even the Messiah's sandals. But he had preached that the ax already lay along the root of the trees. He had preached that the Coming One had the winnowing fork in his hand to separate his grain from the chaff which would be burnt with unquenchable fire. But where was that justice? Where was God's judgment as he lingers there in prison?
Can you empathize with John? How could this be God's plan? Why weren't God's promises working out the way he expected? How long would his suffering go on? Jesus had to be the One because he saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain on Jesus as God had promised. But where were those acts of judgment.?Was maybe another one coming to fulfill that? Can you empathize with this struggle of faith, his spiritual questions, even his doubts and confusion?
But John knows where to turn for help. He sends two of his followers to go and ask Jesus. Jesus is the One.
What does Jesus do? He points John to the Scriptures, but not in a mechanical way that simply says: “Read the Bible more.” Rather, he draws John and us into the fulfillment of the prophecies: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear . . .” (Matthew 11:4, 5 NIV).
Isn't that what the Scriptures had foretold? Didn't you, dear friends, just hear the prophet Isaiah describe the work of the Messiah in those terms? “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a dear . . .” (Isaiah 35:5, 6 NIV). Jesus is saying, “Despite your struggle of faith, John, recall the prophecies of old. See how my ministry fulfills them, and in fact does even more. Yes, even the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor.”
Isaiah 61:1 describes the Messiah preaching good news to the poor in spirit. What a summary of Jesus' saving work! To the poor, like you and me, who see our spiritual bankruptcy, who feel the weight of the debt of our sin, who are nothing but penniless beggars before God -- what good news Jesus as says to you: “Your sins are paid for you. Your debt is forgiven. God's riches are yours at my expense.” What good news for you, dear friend!
“Yes, John, hear and see the prophecies of Scripture fulfilled in Jesus. And as for the justice and judgment you long for, leave that in his hands as well to carry out at the right time. For Jesus is the One.”
Now you don't have disciples to send to Jesus to get answers as John did. But God has given you a pastor. One reason you provide for my family and me rather than having me work a second job is so that I can regularly study God's Word and be ready to apply it for you. That's one purpose of the sermon each week.
Yet a sermon in any given week may not deal with the specific question or problem you have. Bible class provides an opportunity to ask questions, like John did. And if a public Bible class doesn't seem appropriate for the question or problem, I'm here to visit one-on-one or counsel from God's Word as the need arise.
And although my skill has its limits and weaknesses unlike Jesus, yet my prayer is to be able to lead you ever deeper into that life-giving word -- not merely echoing, “You should read your Bible more,” and not relying on the gimmicks of this world, but drawing you into that life-giving word, which is the sword of the Spirit, the balm of Gilead that heals our sin-sick souls.
At times his word is difficult. I don't necessarily mean hard to understand, although some parts are. I mean hard to take to heart. We expect Jesus to do one thing, but he does the opposite -- sort of like John's struggle. That's why Jesus adds here, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Matthew 11:6 NIV).
For you see, doesn't logic dictate that if Jesus is the all-powerful God and if he really loves me, then my life should be pretty top-notched, or at least above average? But faith accepts whatever my Savior gives me, trusting him and his mercy to work greater good than I could ever plan out myself. Yet what a temptation to fall away when the heartaches, disappointments, and failures of life to imprison me. How blessed to keep on following Jesus! He's the One.
That means to take his word seriously. But do we, dear friends? Jesus wanted the crowds to think about that. How seriously did they take to heart the word of God proclaimed by John?
Many of them had gone out to those uninhabited areas along the Jordan. Why had they done that? To see a reed swayed by the wind? To see someone with his finger in the air so that he could turn toward popular opinion like a weather vane? No, John wasn't that at all. He stood firm on God's Word, unmoved.
Did they go out to see someone dressed in fine, soft clothes, influenced by where the money is? Such people are found in palaces -- and not in the dungeon part of the palace as John was in his rough camel's hair.
What did they go out to see? A prophet, a spokesman proclaiming the word of the Lord, heralding God's message? Yes, indeed, and even more so. For John was not just another prophet in a long line of prophets. He was the forerunner of the Messiah. In fact, John's coming had been foretold by Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets. He is that messenger sent to prepare the way before the Lord. Of all sinful men born of women, John's official work was the greatest. There was only one forerunner of the Christ.
Yet how much easier for those people to heap praise on to what a wonderful prophet John was and even take time to go out and see him but fall short of taking his word to heart and putting it into practice in their lives! Once the novelty wore off, their itching ears wanted something else.
We have the word of someone even greater than John. This book is the word of God himself. We defend the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible words of God, the only rule and norm for our faith and life, and rightly so. We want to belong to a church body that defends this truth, and rightly so. But if we stop there simply heaping praise on this book without taking its message to heart and practicing it in our lives, than we're worse than the crowds who went to see John and praised him but did not really listen to his message.
Take to heart the message of the Word. For in it you receive greater spiritual blessings than even John experienced in this life. That's what Jesus is getting at when he says, “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]” (Matthew 11:11 NIV).
Jesus gives the key to that riddle in Matthew 13 as he speaks to his disciples, saying, “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16, 17 NIV). John was beheaded before he saw the work of the Messiah fulfilled in the cross and the resurrection.
But you, dear friend, you have seen what John and the prophets had only hoped for. You have heard the fulfillments of what they foretold, the consummation of the ages. You have shared your Christ's cross and tomb, buried with him and raised to life with him in Baptism. You have touched your Savior, eating his body and drinking his blood. You have seen his death, the bloody sacrifice in your place. You have witnessed his resurrection on the third day. You have heard the testimony of the Apostles recorded for you in writing on the pages of the New Testament. How blessed even the least of us are!
So dear friend, don't neglect this most wonderful message at this wonderful time of the year. Kneel again at his manger in holy awe. He did not come in his divine glory but in lowliness. So also, as we follow him in this life expect lowliness. Expect hatred. Expect persecution. Think of John. But follow Jesus, nonetheless, with your faith focused on his word. Take to heart the Good News he proclaims to your poor soul. For his word reveals to you the wonderful Savior that baby is. It reveals to you the wonderful paradise of heaven he came to prepare for you who persevere in faith. He's the One. Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.