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.

Third Sunday in Advent (Isaiah 35:1-10)

Joachim Patinir - Baptism of Christ

In the spring of 2016, Death Valley in California saw an unusual sight: a “super bloom.”  Conditions came together which brought out a huge number of flowers besides the standby desert gold.  Photographers descended on the valley and captured beautiful hills of mariposa lilies and sunbonnets. It was truly a rare event.

The description given in Isaiah 35 is also rare:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; 

the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 

it shall blossom abundantly 

and rejoice with joy and singing. 

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, 

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. 

They shall see the glory of the Lord

the majesty of our God. 

Even more than rare, it has never been seen before  Some might call it inconceivable, others impossible.  The autumn crocus described here is the same kind we have in the rose garden by the playground.  Imagine those bulbs sprouting out in the wilderness and dry land. The desert rejoicing because of the flowers blooming in it!  How can this be?

The rest of the text invites us to picture ever increasingly improbable circumstances:

  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, 

and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 

then shall the lame man leap like a deer, 

and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. 

For waters break forth in the wilderness, 

and streams in the desert; 

the burning sand shall become a pool, 

and the thirsty ground springs of water; 

in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, 

the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 

What a miracle!  Praise the Lord for when He does such miraculous things, because that will vindicate our faith in Him.  Then we’ll know that we have trusted in the Mighty One who changes the desert into a paradise, and restores the ear of the deaf and the tongue of the mute!

Oh, but what comes next?  Isaiah 36 begins an account of Sennacherib besieging Jerusalem.  Isaiah has delivered all these promises of God to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  And in our thinking, bringing disaster is no way to “Say to the anxious heart, Be strong, fear not!  Behold your God will come with vengeance”  It sounds like we’ll have to push our hope down the road and try to keep waiting patiently for the Lord to act.  Until then, we’ll just hang in there and quietly remind each other that the Lord will act…one day.

There are Christians, who are so eager for this visible reward to come, that they seek out the miraculous, the completely inexplicable, as signs of God’s working.  This past week, I taught the confirmation class about the Assembly of God’s belief in Divine Healing. Based on James 5, where the Apostle says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” (James 5:14-15)  Based on the fact that Jesus healed many with diseases, they believe that God will still do that in sudden and miraculous ways if you follow this formula.  So, they exchange stories about how God miraculously removed tumors and made lame extremities whole. Now, don’t misunderstand, God is capable of doing whatever He wills, including sudden healing. But, as I warned the class, don’t just put your faith in the healing.  Also, beware of tying healings directly to “the prayer of faith” because if you aren’t healed, it’s all too easy to think your faith is somehow faulty. Sometimes God’s will is to leave us in our weakness, just like he left Isaiah and King Hezekiah to suffer warfare with Sennacherib (Isaiah 36).

So how does God fulfill this promise?  First, we turn to the Gospel reading, because it’s in the earthly ministry of Jesus that we get our first preview of God doing this on earth.  When John sits in prison, wondering if Jesus is truly the one to come, Jesus assures Him with the signs which He’s doing: “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.”  And it’s true that Jesus did actually open blind eyes, heal lame limbs, cleanse the unclean, give hearing to the deaf, raise those who had died, and preach good news to the poor.

But what about us who follow Jesus in 2019?  What tangible hope is for us? Well, our Lord asked the crowds that day, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?”  So we might ask, “What did you come to church today?”  Did you come to see overt signs of God’s kingdom—signs so obvious even an unbeliever would be compelled to explain them away?  Shall we wait for signs of the spirit in people speaking in tongues and those who are sick having sudden healings? As nice as that sounds, that isn’t what the Lord promises here.

If you came here to hear Jesus’ work for you proclaimed, then you’ve come to the right place.  The signs of the Kingdom of Heaven visibly manifest God’s work among us. But they aren’t bodily healings (because those aren’t given to all) or people speaking in so-called “tongues of angels” (because that doesn’t help others).  They are signs of God’s gracious presence and His steadfast love which endures forever: They’re called signs in the Old Testament and mysteries in the New: They are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Our Lord gives them to us to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.”  In our times of waiting, suffering, longing, they are what God gives to encourage us that we are not laboring in vain and that He has not left us in our suffering.

These signs of the Kingdom are received by faith, by the one holy, Christian and apostolic Church.  Isaiah descries this holy, Christian Church as the highway upon which “the unclean shall not pass over it.  It shall belong to those who walk on the way…[who] shall not go astray.”  Just like the signs of the Kingdom are only accepted by faith, so is this Communion of Saints only comprised of the faithful.  This is the company of believers scattered throughout the world who hear the Word of God and hold to it with faith. You can’t always pick them out, but the Lord knows who are His own. The Lord knows you.

God has done an amazing work in us, bringing together people from all walks of life to walk upon this highway.  This and more God is able to do with you—hope in Him who is able to heal your body and uphold you through any and every trial, who heals you of your blindness, who opens your lips to sing His praise, who changes your heart so that it reflects Him more and more and loves others as He does.  Truly these things are impossible with man, but with God, your God, all things are possible through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Third Sunday in Advent (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) + December 17, 2017
Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
 
John the Baptist was that voice foretold long before—one crying in the wilderness, a messenger before the Lord’s face, and him who was to come in the spirit and power of Elijah.  His task was to prepare the way for the Lord.
 
But although he labored in this calling, dressed strangely in a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt, and spoke boldly about the end of the world, he was not the Messiah Himself, as some suspected.  19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.””[1]
 
In Christian artwork, dating back to the very early icons, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, John the Baptist is pictured with his pointer finger aimed at Christ.  This is the sum total of His ministry—to point to Christ.
 
Wouldn’t it be great if we had John the Baptist pointing to Christ in our own day?  Actually, we do.  Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul:
 
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.
 
John was a servant to Christ, as he prepared the way by preaching boldly.  The Christ is coming not only as Savior but also end times judge!  The axe is already laid at the root of the tree, therefore bear fruit proper to repentance![2]  Yet John was far from the last servant of Christ.  All of the Apostles served Him, as well as the 72 disciples He sent out, preached and worked signs of the Kingdom.[3]  It continues still in every generation through the pastoral office.  Pastors are servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
 
Stewards own nothing of what they manage, but they are called upon to administer the property according to the master’s wishes.  In the case of the pastor, His Master has given clear instruction: preach repentance, forgiveness of sins to those who repent, withhold forgiveness as long as they refuse to repent.  Baptize and teach.[4]  A pastor’s work, properly speaking, is the Lord’s work.
 
Pastors are God’s stewards, entrusted with handling God’s mysteries faithfully.  Although it’s their mouth and their hands, the power doesn’t really come from them.  We do not believe in magic, and pastors are not arcane priests just because they wear long robes, chant, and serve at an altar.
 
Like John the Baptist, a pastor’s ministry is to point the finger to Christ. In fact, the robes clergy wear and chanting are meant to cover up the man and keep the focus on Christ.  We sophisticated adults should learn from our young children who point at the pastor and say, “Jesus!”
 
Your pastor is a servant of Christ and entrusted with His heavenly mysteries.  When you are cast down under heavy burdens of your sin, your pastor comes beside you to lift your eyes to the cross.  If you get sick and your life is upended by illness, your pastor brings the powerful medicine of God’s living Word and Christ’s Body and Blood your bedside.  If you are caught in the delusion of sinful security, it is your pastor’s job to call you to repentance.  Administering the Lord’s Supper with closed Communion is also the pastor’s job—to discern as far as humanly possible those who are fit to receive the Body and Blood for the forgiveness of their sins.
 
Pastors are therefore a gift from God, who deliver His mysteries to you.  That’s why the call between the congregation and her pastor is divine.  It is through this blessed vocation that the Lord continues to tend His flock.
 
Think of what individuals and congregations lose when they don’t have a pastor—unity of faith, spiritual leadership, and correction from error.  That’s also what happens to a person who stops going to church.  Separated from the Good Shepherd and His servant, they become a wandering sheep, to fall prey to the devil or mired in their own foolishness.
 
This is God’s intent in giving the 3rd Commandment—“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”  We are not to despise preaching or His Word by avoiding church.  But we could break the 3rd Commandment even while sitting faithfully in the pew if we despise the preacher.
 
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
 
Pastors answer to the Lord of the Church for the work that they do.  The Lord calls them to be faithful to Him.  Again, picture John the Baptist: dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, calling people a brood of vipers and that they should repent before the coming wrath of God.  Our modern sensibilities would look down on John for being insensitive, and not meeting the congregation’s felt needs.  John probably would have picked all the hymns you call a “dirge.”  These are the things we think would make for a successful ministry.  The Lord did not call John to “be successful” but to be faithful.
 
So also pastors are called to be faithful, not successful.  This is really baffling in a world where you answer to the one who cuts your paycheck.  Many congregations fall into the error that the pastor is the employee of the congregation.  In our economic system, some of the language of the business world applies—taxes, health insurance, and payroll.  But it is a dangerous road to travel when you think of your pastor as an employee.
 
If the employee isn’t meeting expectations, and not fulfilling the job description you have for him, then you take disciplinary action.  You slash his pay, or you threaten to fire him unless he bows to demands of the ruling faction of the congregation.  Congregations have tried to leverage their pastors by denying them health insurance or forcing them out of the parsonage and changing the locks—all because they have forgotten who the pastor really answers to.
 
It’s called a divine call, not a contract, for a reason.  Because it’s a divine call, Scripture, rather than business practice, determines how a congregation regards and treats their pastor.  We’ve already heard it, but it bears repeating: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  He also has this instruction from Galatians 6:
 
Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:6-8)
 
The flesh is stuck thinking, “Pastors are expensive!  What makes them worth all that money?!”  The flesh perceives only the material—the building, the offering envelopes, and the monthly figures.  But beware, because Scripture says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”[5]  Just as the pastor is called to faithfulness, so is the congregation.  The congregation is not called to have a balanced budget, but to be faithful to the Lord’s Word and trust in Him to provide.  “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”[6]
 
The Lord’s saving work cannot be quantified and measured; it is of the Spirit, and the Spirit says, 17 Let the elders [that is, pastors] who rule [lead] well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”[7]  Again, the Word of God says, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”[8]
 
So the question for the congregation to ask isn’t, “Are the numbers up?” but instead, “Is our pastor faithful to the Lord in His calling?  Does He preach the Word in its truth and purity and administer the Sacraments according to the Lord’s institution?  Does He pray for us and counsel us with the Word?  Does He catechize our children, offer Bible studies, and encourage us to grow and live out our faith?”  These are the things which the Lord calls faithful in His sight. This pastor will live by what His Lord says, “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.”[9] Amen!  Come, Lord Jesus.
 
 
[1] John 1:19-20
[2] Luke 3:7-9
[3] Luke 10:1-12
[4] Luke 24:47, John 20:21-23, Matthew 28:19
[5] Romans 8:8
[6] Matthew 6:33
[7] 1 Timothy 5:17-18
[8] 1 Corinthians 9:14
[9] Luke 12:43 (see also Luke 12:35-48)