Third Sunday in Advent

~ Gaudete ~

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11 | 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 | Matthew 11:2-11

Text: Matthew 11:2-11

We hear from the Epistle to the Hebrews, “In many and various ways, God spoke to His people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son.”[1]  But what do we think of when we hear about prophets?  Men with unkempt beards and long robes, whether they’re as eccentric as Ezekiel or a member of the court like Nathan.

And when we think of what prophets say, we usually think of judgment and condemnation—“Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees” (Matt. 3:10).  Yet, God sent His prophets with a two-fold message.  Yes, there was condemnation for unbelief, but to the repentant, there was also the soothing words of comfort.

The name for this Sunday, Gaudete, meaning “Rejoice!” is from Philippians 4:4, where St. Paul says very memorably, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say, Rejoice!”  This really sums up the goal for God sending His prophets.  Much more than the wet blanket that people usually took them for, God’s prophets brought genuine cause for rejoicing in the Lord.

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah is a perfect example of this.  Hear what the Prophet wrote, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,  that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”[2]  What cause for rejoicing!  You know that sin which God rightly condemned? It is pardoned.  God spoke through Isaiah and said that Jerusalem’s warfare was ended—even while Babylon was getting ready to pillage the city.  The warfare was between God and us.  And One was coming who would bring terms of peace,[3] the very same One who would pardon our iniquities.  And this is none other than Jesus Christ.  In the full pardon of His death and resurrection, sinners would receive this double blessing of peace and forgiveness for their sins.

When John the Baptist came, it was he that Isaiah was writing about: “A voice cries, in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”[4]  That’s exactly why God sent him: to prepare the way for the His Son, Jesus Christ.  In chapter 3 of his Gospel, St. Matthew tells us that John came with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[5]  Again, it was a message of repentance, but for all who heard it in faith, it was a message of comfort—a cause for rejoicing in the Lord.  John was the last prophet and was sent to proclaim the imminent coming of God’s Kingdom.  Many expected God’s Kingdom to be a great breaking into the world, with a show of force and fire from the sky.[6]  But in fact, John’s preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven pointed to the Lamb of God, who takes our sins away.

Like so many prophets before him, John was not well received by Israel’s ruling class.  John found himself in prison because of what King Herod Antipas thought of God’s call to repentance.  And from prison, John sends his disciples to Jesus.   He may have been arrested, but he was still carrying out his prophetic call.  He tells them to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  In case John’s proclamation on Jordan’s bank wasn’t enough, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[7] he adds still more testimony.  And the testimony is in Jesus’ reply: “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 proof that the Kingdom of Heaven has come is not in fiery signs from above or the spilled blood of unbelievers.  It’s in the Gospel preached to blind, lame, deaf, dead, and poor sinners!  And Jesus is the Coming One who all the prophets up through John had foretold.  In Jesus Christ, the Lord, the lowly are exalted, and the rich are sent away empty.[8]  He brings good news for sinners who have been slain by the Law, and rebuke for the proud who boast in their own righteousness.  This is truly cause to rejoice in the Lord!

And blessed are those who see this good news as the coming of the Kingdom.  Those who are looking for an earthly kingdom, where Jesus reigns supreme over all the ungodly, will be greatly disappointed.  Those who expect the Church to be filled with flawless people with flawless lives will also be greatly disappointed.  The Kingdom of Heaven is filled with sinners who have been called by the Savior and washed in His blood.  The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and the dead—all have hope in the Lord who makes them well.

God spoke to His people of old by the prophets, but now He has spoken to us by His Son.  God still speak to us by His Son.   All the prophets pointed ahead to Christ until He appeared.  Once the glory of the Lord was revealed in the flesh,[9] God stopped raising up prophets like John, Malachi, or Zechariah.  But He still sends servants who point to Christ, and they still bring cause for rejoicing.  They are the Lord’s pastors.  Like John, they preach repentance and pardon for iniquities.  They are now the ones who prepare the way before His coming in glory.

So, even though the “Prophets prophesied until John”[10] the Lord is still preaching His Gospel to the poor.  St. Paul explained this in the Epistle, saying, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”[11]  Pastors are servants of Christ, sent to bring His powerful Word to you.  It is a Word which convicts and calls you to repent.  But more than that, it is the Word of Christ, who brings you good news in the forgiveness of your sins.  God’s pastors bring you cause for rejoicing in the Lord!

However, just as it was for John, there are many who misunderstand the pastor’s ministry.  “What did you go out in the wilderness to see?” the Lord asks us today.  If you came looking for a pastor whose charismatic personality will attract droves of people, you will be greatly disappointed.  If you came looking for a pastor who is a visionary leader like a CEO, then you won’t be satisfied.  If you’re looking for a pastor who makes you feel good about yourself with motivational sermons on Christian living, look somewhere else (but don’t really, because you won’t find Christ’s life there)

But, if you are looking for a pastor who is like John the Baptist—who has a godly love for you, who will speak God’s Word of repentance and heal you with the life-giving forgiveness of Christ—then you are in the right place!  In this Christian Church, Christ brings good news to the poor through His pastors.  He sends you cause to rejoice in Him.  Pastors are “stewards of God’s mysteries”—the Sacraments which bestow good news to the poor, and give them cause to rejoice: the gracious washing of Holy Baptism, the unbinding word of Holy Absolution, and the death and sin-defying food of Holy Communion.  The Lord’s servants are sent to you, “knowing nothing except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”[12]  Such prophets God graciously raises up in each generation. They bring Christ to you, because only in Him will you find the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  There is ample cause to rejoice in the Lord always! In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Hebrews 1:1-2

[2] Isaiah 40:1-2

[3] Luke 19:41-42

[4] Isa. 40:3

[5] Matthew 3:2

[6] Luke 9:54

[7] John 1:29

[8] Luke 1:51-53

[9] Isaiah 40:5

[10] Matthew 11:13

[11] 1 Corinthians 4:1

[12] 1 Cor. 1:23

Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete)

Readings: Isaiah 40:1–11 | 1 Corinthians 4:1–5 | Matthew 11:2–11

Text: Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist (whose birth we have been hearing of during our midweek services) winds up in prison some time after Jesus began His ministry at the Jordan River.  Yet, even while in prison, John still has his loyal disciples.  No doubt they were part of the throng from “Jerusalem and all Judea” [Matt. 3:5] who came out to hear John’s preaching of repentance and received his baptism.  Now that he was in prison, they were going to remain loyal to him and care for his needs, in spite of wicked King Herod.  These loyal disciples were willing to suffer scorn and shame for John’s sake because they believed God was working through him and doing something mighty in their midst!

“2 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?”  Some have wondered if this hints at some doubts that John is having, but John’s wrestlings aren’t really the point.  John sends his disciples to Christ with a loaded question.  It’s a question that John knows the answer to (as we will hear next Sunday from his testimony in John 1:19-28).  “Are you the Coming One, or shall we look for another?”  It’s the kind of question you ask when you want to want someone to really ponder the answer.

You see, John is not to meant to have disciples of his own once Christ comes.  And for that matter, neither are Moses or Elijah [John 5:46-47].  John the Baptizer is doing what he has done for all of his ministry: pointing sinners to Christ.

But there is some rivalry at first, as we hear in John 3:26-30:

26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

So Jesus responds, not by saying, “I sure am!” but by pointing them to the signs: “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.”  He lets the Scriptures and the evidence of their fulfillment speak for him.  Isaiah 25:6-9; 29:18, 35:3-6, 40:9, 52:7, 61:1-3 proclaim in spades that Jesus is that promised Messiah, the Coming One who brings good news and comfort to sinners.

Here, there’s an important lesson: Do not judge God’s work merely by your own reasoning.  John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus to be the Greater One, even the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But when people considered Jesus’ credentials, it didn’t add up.  He wasn’t a Levite; He was a carpenter’s son.  He lived in the nowhere town of Nazareth which isn’t even mentioned in the Old Testament.  Despite the pious artwork we know, He had no halo or glowing eyes.  Isaiah also had said, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa. 53:2)  Perhaps most offensive of all, He was followed by tax collectors, former prostitutes, demoniacs, and sinners of all stripes—and even ate with them!

Jesus then asks the crowds about John,

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”

Why did people go out to see and hear John?  Were they there for the spectacle, for the shared experience, to find an alternative to the corrupt temple worship?  But John was none of these things.  He was the Lord’s prophet, and the prophets from Adam to Malachi have all pointed to the fulfillment of God’s coming Savior.  It’s not about John; it’s about Christ.  So, no longer be disciples of the past, but of God incarnate.

In the same way, the purpose of the Church is not to make a name for ourselves, a particular congregation, group of people, but to glorify Christ who alone has the power, the signs, the eternal life.  This is cause for each of us to reflect also: What have we come to this place to see?  Often it is peripheral things: family connections, music, beautiful vestments, or love of tradition.

These are all fine and good, but let them not be the main thing.  Let them be witnesses to Jesus—your family, the music, the reverence, the traditions—let them be instruments by which Christ is magnified as your Savior.  None of these can save; only Christ Himself.  As Luther wisely said, “Only Christians are saved. Whoever is not a Christian even John the Baptist cannot help.” (Lenker, vol. 1, 91) 

John the Baptizer was no more than a witness to Christ.  Even as an ascetic, and despite his fervent calls to repentance, he was also a sinner. “I need to be baptized by you,” he said to Christ [Matt. 3:14]  And John was in prison, and the time came when John was no more.  The same is true of all the other witnesses to Christ.  Pastors will come and go, they will die.  The family who are your reason for coming will die.  And music, ritual, and tradition are all empty without faith.  But do we cling to the One who came?

In Him there is life, hope, and joy.  The Scriptures have proclaimed Him to be the Christ, and we need not look for another.  What He has done is enough; it is complete.  And it’s His work which has the power to uphold us no matter what comes.

Hear the words of St. Paul in Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”  We sung these words at the beginning of the service in the Introit.  But hear how he continues, as he writes to the Christians in Philippi from prison:

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus… I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:5-7)

This faith we have in Christ is tested by affliction.  It’s one thing to give lip service to these truths by speaking the Creed, but it’s another to live by them.  Rejoice in the Lord always, because it’s the Lord who has redeemed you and made you a child of God.  When everything else falls apart, it is He who will care for you, restore you, and save you from every evil in this world.

No other person, no life discipline, no music, no place on this earth can do this.  Only Jesus can.  His birth among us makes Him our Brother, but He is also our Savior from every pain and distress, every sin that haunts us, and even the grave that swallows us up.  He has overcome the world for you and for me.  So, rejoice in Him.  Seek Him where He has promised to be: In His Holy Word read and preached, in the Absolution, in the waters of Holy Baptism, and in His Body and Blood at His table.  Here, your Savior, your Jesus will be with you today, and unto eternal life.  Amen.