SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT, 12-15-2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL
Pastor Michael Larson
Are You the one to come, or shall we look for another? Those are the words of John the Baptist as he languished in Herod’s dark prison. Are You the one? Are You the one promised to our Fathers, to Abraham, and proclaimed by the prophets and patriarchs? Are You the one to save, to heal, and restore? Or should we keep looking, praying, and waiting?
Was John asking this question for himself or on behalf of his disciples? John’s disciples likely needed help. John had spoken of himself as the friend of the bridegroom. He pointed the world to Jesus. “He must increase and I must decrease,” he said. John was a voice. He was a finger. “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.” And there’s some evidence that John’s own disciples may have needed continued guidance to do just that. To go to Jesus and turn to Him alone.
There is something of a common consensus that this is behind John’s question “Are You the one?” That John simply wanted his disciples to be strengthened in their faith. The church fathers with only a couple exceptions (Tertullian) and most of our Lutheran dogmaticians have made a careful point to relieve John of the possibility of having any doubts whatsoever about Jesus’ identity.
And there’s good reason to go that way! Because who’s more faithful than John? John, you might say, was the first to worship Jesus. Remember him jumping in the womb at the presence of Christ? Remember his fiery preaching, his humility. He’s the last of the Old Testament prophets. He is, as Jesus himself said, “the greatest born of women.” So besides being all that other stuff, he’s just the greatest human being every born, says the Lord. Well, that’s not bad for a resume!
So we know that John is not a reed shaken by the wind. He’s an oak tree. He’s unmoving, he’s sturdy, he’s faithful. So how could he possibly have any question whatsoever about Jesus and His great love?
I’d like you to have a look at your bulletin cover this morning. It’s John in prison. It looks like a Caravaggio but it’s not. It’s painted by another Spanish painter, Juan Fernandez Navarette. But no one called him that. He was called “El Mudo” (or The Mute) because he was deaf from birth. The painter couldn’t hear.
But he speaks clearly when he lays before us a portrait of John the Baptist in his jail cell. Good chance he knows exactly what’s coming. The cold blade of Herod’s sword – his own death. The greatest born of women doesn’t look exactly like an oak tree. Not now. He’s slumped over a makeshift altar. His hands are fastened in rope. But his eyes are fixed – gazing at a somewhat crudely assembled wooden cross. So in a dark night of faith wrestling with despair a shaft of golden light pours through the iron bars on his window. “Are you the one, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus answers John’s question: “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.” Oh, what a glorious message to carry back! It’s a message John’s disciples needed to hear. It’s a promise El Mudo, the mute painter, longs to hear. It’s a comforting sermon John himself needed in his darkest hours. Best of all, it’s the Gospel that we need to hear.
The collect we prayed this morning is perfect: “Lord Jesus Christ, we implore You to hear our prayers and to lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation.” In Herod’s dark dungeon those words of Christ brought heavenly light and comfort to John. Did you catch the crown jewel in there? And the “dead are raised up,” preached Jesus. How John would rejoice at those words, especially, that crown jewel of promises, the resurrection of the dead! Perhaps John whispered those words to himself when the sword was raised over his head. “The dead are raised up.”
Folks, you live in the same world as John the Baptist. It’s still a fallen world! Cruelty. Violence and injustice. Sin and shame and loss. Disease, heartache, and devastating sadness, cruel death! You haven’t yet been taken to God in heaven. Unlike John, you haven’t yet been translated from the church militant to the church triumphant.
When we read the Bible, it’s no sin to consider the tension of faith endured by the patriarchs and prophets. Because it’s for our comfort and consolation. The point is that John’s question is for us all! Jesus, are You the one? It’s not a faithless question but a faithful question. It’s a sort of language of love spoken, prayed, and sung by all the saints of God. It’s faith seeking reassurance. It’s like a bride asking her husband if he loves her (this insight from Rev. David Peterson). She knows the answer, but she asks anyway. She loves to hear what she already knows. She is loved.
It’s why Christians come to church every Sunday. To hear it all again. To hear again what Christ has done for us. To hear from the one whose life proved stronger than death. Whose love swallowed up evil and who proved mightier than thesins of the whole world.
We’re heading into the Christmas season – a strange tension of sadness and joy. We remember those we have loved, and whose presence brightened our days and filled them with laughter. And they’re gone. And we sometimes feel as cold and dreary inside as a December day. But again, back to that collect we prayed this morning: “O Lord, lighten the darkness of our hearts by your gracious visitation!”
This morning, this Gaudete Sunday, John sends us to Jesus, to the only one who can lighten our darkness, because He comes bringing good news that He is the forgiver of sinners and the resurrection of the dead. That in Him is a glorious kingdom of healing and restoration – that is working now – and will finally be revealed on the last day when He comes again.
I don’t want this Sunday to come and go without you meditating deeply on these words of our Lord: After He tells His disciples that John the Baptist is the greatest born of women, He says this: “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he!”
You see, John was the greatest in this sense: He had the once-in-all-of-history task of being the point man for the Lamb of God. But he never tasted in this age and life the fullness of what his Lord was coming to do. John was never baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity as you have been. It was never given to John to hear the words of absolution spoken in the name of Jesus – an absolution anchored in the work of the cross. John never knew the unspeakable joys that you know when you eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus in His holy supper – and become a partaker of the divine nature.
This must move us to gratitude and praise! You are given treasures of salvation that John the Baptist and all the prophets and all the patriarchs longed and ached for and yet never received in this life. Let this move us all to humble repentance! We have all been Esaus, despising the birthright we have received. How little we’ve thought of baptism! How little we’ve thought of His Word and Holy Supper. These are sacred gifts of God that have bestowed on you a greater status than John ever knew.
Got it? Just like little Rose this morning, you are baptized into the life of the Holy Trinity. A communion of eternal love in which you’ve become a divine, holy child of God. You are invited to come to your pastor in Christ whenever you wish it, at any time of the day, even in your darkest hour on your darkest night, to hear the words of holy absolution, spoken from the pastor as from God Himself – not doubting, but firmly believing that by it yours sins are forgiven before God in heaven. In those blood bought-words, just watch the gate of heaven swing wide open. Just watch the heavenly light flood in as you hear God’s divine approval of you through the atoning blood of His Son.
And as often as you want it, you may approach the holy altar and feast on the very Lamb of God to whom John pointed. The Lamb that carries away the sins of the world. Yes, dear Christian, you are greater than John the Baptist, as to how God in His mercy has lavished you with privileges, status, treasures, and riches beyond compare.
Are you the one to come or should we look for another? Jesus provides the answer. He points us all back to the words of promises of God in which all doubts melt away – promises that have all been signed, sealed and delivered through Christ and His blood – that you would be forgiven, restored, and set free. And stand up tall like an oak tree at the resurrection of all flesh. In the name of Jesus. Amen.