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 (Matthew 11:2-6)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) + December 16, 2018

Text: Matthew 11:2-6

God sends His messengers to point us to the true signs of Christ’s imminent kingdom.

For about the last 40 years, Americans have been very skeptical of what their government is doing.  This was epitomized in the 1974 Privacy Act after the Watergate scandal, which sought to make government dealings available to the public.  When it comes to man, sometimes force is necessary to get them to explain what they’re doing.

But not so with the Lord.  In Amos 3:7, He says: “For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”  Some accuse God of being secretive or double-minded, of withholding information from humanity. But this is not true!  God created humanity for fellowship and oneness with Himself, and even since our parents sinned, God has been working tirelessly to reveal His will to us in spite of our deaf ears and blind eyes.

When it comes to His work of taking our sins away and restoring eternal fellowship with man, God does nothing without telling His will to men.  Whether they listen is another matter.

He told His people ahead of time what He was going to do.  From Malachi 3 and 4: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”  He sent that forerunner of the Christ in John the Baptist.

“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” says your God. “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.” The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  (Isaiah 40:1-5)

But to those who turn away from Him and hate His Word, the Bible will forever remain a closed book.  For them, this earlier Word through Isaiah is true: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.”  That’s how it was with Herod, who locked John up in prison.  John had preached against him taking his living brother, Philip’s wife.  John was God’s messenger to Herod to repent of his evil ways for the Kingdom of Heaven had come.  But Herod and his new wife, Herodias, refused to listen.  Rather than continue to be made to feel guilty by John, he locked him up in prison. (Matt. 14:3)

God continues to send His messengers far and near, who make His will known.  This is what St. Paul teaches in the Epistle lesson: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.”  These servants of God today are pastors, called by Christian congregations to preach the Word of the Lord and administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution.  Pastors take a sacred vow in the presence of God and the congregation to preach nothing more or less than Scripture says.  They also vow that they will bring that Word to bear in evangelical (Gospel-centered) spiritual care for God’s flock. This means they are to call those who are sinning to repentance and to pronounce the Lord’s forgiveness to all who repent.

Congregations, for their part also have a sacred duty to hear the Word of the Lord spoken by their called pastor.  They do not “hire” a pastor to simply put on a pleasant feel-good show on Sunday and feed them intriguing spiritual nuggets in Bible study.  Christians have this right to call a man of God so that He will be the Lord’s instrument to keep watch over their souls–rebuke them when they err, instruct them in true doctrine, guide them in living holy lives, and strengthen and keep them in the true faith (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Peter 5:2-3).

“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?’”

Now, John, the man of God, had a problem, because His preaching and wound him up in prison.  That led him to have some doubts if he had preached the right message.  If this is the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world and bring about God’s Kingdom, why am I rotting in this jail cell?  He’s not alone in his doubts.  Other men of God have doubts when their hearers rear up because of what they preach.

For my part, I’ve had my doubts in my call at this congregation.  When I came, several long-time members–people who had been part of calling me to shepherd this part of the Lord’s flock–bugged out of my spiritual care and the support of Bethlehem because they did not agree with the Scriptural doctrine of the Lutheran church.  But when 6 households up and leave, including several council members, in the first year of my arrival, it led me to have serious doubts.  Did I say something wrong?  Was I not whimsical enough in the way I taught the faith?  It was a very rough first year, and during VBS week of 2017, I was facing 6 of them tell me they were never coming back because I didn’t pick or let them sing their favorite ditties.  If even the forerunner to Christ had doubts, you can imagine how doubts must plague pastors today.

But Christ, my Lord has helped His servant see the truth, just as He did for John.

“Jesus answered [John’s disciples], ‘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.’”

Jesus could have given him a simple “yes,” but He chose to do more.  He points John to the signs of His Kingdom.  These were signs that could only mean that Jesus was the Christ, God Himself come down to usher in the new covenant.  The signs were external, visible (yet spiritual discerned) confirmation that John’s ministry was right where it needed to be–even if it meant being in a jail cell and soon execution.  John, in spite of what it looked like, was fulfilling his ministry.

Jesus’ way of pointing to spiritual signs continues to be true today, because the ongoing task of God’s messengers is to point to the signs of Christ’s imminent Kingdom.  The Christian faith is assaulted by intellectual attacks: our children are made to feel backwards and closed-minded by their teachers and peers for their moral convictions, we are worn down by voices who urge us to shake off what they call an unreasonable faith.  Some are forcefully attacked at gunpoint, with threats of death, and others have their reputation and livelihood destroyed.  The Church cries out, “Are you the One who is to come? Or are the secuarlists right?  Have we been lied to by the Bible and our pastors?”

Jesus is here to point you to the signs of His Kingdom.  It is not a kingdom like this world, with borders, and an army to fight reproaches.  Rather, you are blessed because you are poor in spirit and have believed the good news preached to you.  Your spiritual eyes and ears, which you know are plagued by sin, have been opened to see and hear Jesus in the Scriptures, see His Body and Blood in the Sacrament, hear His voice from heaven announcing that you have peace with God and have eternal salvation.  You, who were dead in your trespasses, God has made you alive with Christ, and you will most certainly be raised to life when He comes again.

Incidentally, the Lord Jesus has also given answer for Bethlehem.  He pointed me to (and continues to remind me) what signs prove that His kingdom has come among us: the Word of God is preached and taught in its truth and purity here, sinners are brought to repentance and believe the precious word of forgiveness that He has placed on His servant’s lips, adults and children are baptized and publicly confess this Scriptural faith, and every age from infants baptized to elderly laid to rest acknowledge that God has worked all of this.

May Jesus Christ, John the Baptist’s Lord and yours, fill you with joy and conviction that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming among us and will continue to come so long as His Gospel is preached.  For His holy Apostle Paul has said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.” (Rom. 1:16) Bessed is the one who is not offended by Him. Amen.