The Third Sunday in Advent – Gaudete – December 16th, 2018

Luther Memorial Chapel & University Student Center

Rev. Michael C. Larson

Isaiah 40:1–11; Psalm 85; 1 Corinthians 4:1–5; Matthew 11:2–11

“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?” 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.” Matthew 11:2-6

The fiery preacher from the Jordan, John the Baptist, is languishing in Herod’s dungeon this morning. He’s awaiting his torture and death. He likely knows it’s coming. So, he sends word to his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In other words, are you truly the Christ, the Son of God? Are you the one to whom our fathers pointed us, who will redeem us from sin and hell and bring us eternal blessedness? Or should we keep waiting, and look for another?

Most commentaries on the Bible are eager to clear John’s name here of the possibility that he, personally, would have any doubts about Jesus’ identity. And there’s good reason for that. He is, after all, the greatest born of women, according to the words of Jesus. He was the first to worship Jesus, jumping for joy in the womb. John is clearly spoken of from our Old Testament last week in Malachi and this morning again in Isaiah. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord; and make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” He proclaimed Jesus so boldly and so clearly, when he pointed to Christ our Lord, and preached the greatest and shortest sermon ever preached: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” So, the thought is that he is unwavering in his faith. And the question he has directed at Jesus, “Are you the one, or shall we look for another?” is not for himself, but rather for the benefit of others, mainly his own disciples who needed encouragement and confirmation in their faith – that this Jesus truly was the one.

This invites the question, however, “What would be so wrong if the question did come from John, for John, and also for his comfort?” Surely, even the greatest saints need to be encouraged and confirmed in their faith. “Lord, are you the one?” It’s not a horrible question, it’s not a faithless question. It is faith seeking reassurance. It is a bit like a bride asking her man if he loves her. The answer of course is yes, she knows that he does, but it’s always good to hear.

John did not often speak of himself, but when he did, he spoke of himself as “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, and rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.”

And that’s the voice John needed to hear in prison, in his darkest moment. The only voice that could bring comfort. John, after all, is rotting away in Herod’s dungeon, facing torture and death. He’s plagued by the devil, his own conscience, and a thousand fears and terrors. So he sends a word out to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one?”

Jesus replied, “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, 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.” His teachings and miracles all bear witness that He is the One! – The Messiah, whom the Father had proclaimed at His baptism, saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” the Holy Spirit descending upon Him in the form of a dove. 

Our Lord points all those who struggle back to the words and promises of God. His works and deeds all so clearly point to Him. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, even the dead are raised up – foreshadowing the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day. Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that testify of me.”

John the preacher, himself, needs a preacher. Just as pastors, like all sinners, also need pastors to preach the Gospel – a Gospel which liberates, frees, and comforts. Therefore, even though John was locked up, and bound in chains, he through this preaching of the Gospel was free.

Recall that Jesus at the start of his public ministry stood up in the synagogue. He read from the book of Isaiah, which prophesied of Him. He read from the Scriptures: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to set the oppressed free.” And then He said something that no man up till that time could ever say – “TODAY these scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing!”

How wonderful! The promised Messiah at last had come and burst upon the scene to be the Savior of us all. John was comforted in his affliction, in his imprisonment. He could stare down death and hell and his own executioners, with a cheerful confidence in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Herod and his executioners could sever his head from his body but not his soul from Christ. And so at the cold touch of the steel blade upon his neck, he was transferred from prison to the eternal presence of God. And even now, with us, awaits the glorious resurrection of all the flesh, and the consummation of heaven and earth.

This morning Jesus preaches the Gospel to very troubled people – the blind, the lame, and those with leprous flesh. He preaches a word of comfort to the deaf, the dying, and poor. He preaches to those in prison. So maybe you’re asking yourself, “Well, who are all these tragic and needy people?” They must be the real down and out sort of people, and the dregs of society, we think, but surely not us! But oh no! YOU, yes, you, are the one of whom Jesus speaks. You are both the poor and captive. We have wandered, every one of us, to his own way. We are captives, prisoners to the wild impulses of our sinful nature. Despite our best intentions we’ve relished the very thoughts and actions of which we ought to be ashamed. We’ve given free reign to our sinful hearts and pretend that we are so good and holy, when we know that nothing good dwells within us. We are captive to our sin, even if we deny it, especially when we deny it – then these chains rattle the most.

Martin Luther preached to his own congregation, “Don’t waste any time denying your own sins.” Just out with them. Confess your sin and hear Christ’s word of absolution. Shackled and oppressed by sin, tortured by a guilty conscience, you’ve got nothing to bring God except your sin, empty hands, and shattered hearts. That’s what He’s looking for and what pleases. But if we remain smug, complacent in our sin, we cannot be filled with His love. If we go to Him like empty vessels, crushed, with contrite hearts, well know this, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We come to Him as empty vessels and He fills us to overflowing with His forgiving love.

Dear friends of God, if St. John the Baptist, the faithful, courageous, greatest born of woman prophet, was tested, tried, and tempted, what should you expect for yourselves? So be comforted, your God will not write you off because of your deepest struggles or even your most desperate questions. 

Jesus says something rather strange this morning. He says, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” John was the greatest and last of the Old Testament prophets. He announced Christ’s advent and beheld Him in the flesh, as he even baptized Him.

But our Lord says, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. How strange and what a surprise, that he speaks of the likes of you! You, greater than John the Baptist! The spirit of God, given to you in your baptism dwells within you. The risen Christ stands among you and imparts His resurrected life – in body and blood – given and shed for you. The Holy Church’s rank and file believers, all of us, enjoy privileges that far exceed any under the old covenant. The patriarchs, prophets, and saints of old in their lifetimes could hardly dream of the pleasures we enjoy this morning in the Divine Service! And so Paul in our epistle this morning directs us back to the stewards of the mysteries of God, the ministers of the Gospel, who still deliver Christ’s overflowing forgiveness to the poor in spirit, comforting God’s people with the word of the Gospel which stands forever. A Word which forgives, frees, and restores us to God in heaven.

This morning, this third Sunday in Advent, we light the pink or rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath. It represents something of a shift from penitence toward celebration and Christmas joy. That’s why historically in the church year we call this “Gaudete” Sunday, which simply means “rejoice.” So, what a perfect Sunday to have the children’s Christmas program, and hear about the joyous birth of Christ, from our finest preachers, the children, who like John the Baptist, also leapt in the womb, at the presence of Jesus. In the name of Jesus. Amen.