Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sermon: Advent 3 (Gaudete)

11 Dec 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 11:2-11 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel deals with a man who is typically treated as a minor character in Scripture. Indeed, if the Bible were only literature, John the Baptist wouldn’t be very important – given that he’s killed off very early in the story. And yet, notice what Jesus says about him: “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus submitted to John and was willing to be baptized by him. Jesus’ words about his courageous cousin are not merely polite commentary given at a retirement banquet. Indeed, this is very high praise coming from God himself.

But notice the circumstances. John has been put in jail, and he hears “about the works of Christ.” Instead of rejoicing, John – this greatest of all men, this bold preacher who took on the political establishment of his day – begins to wonder if he’s made a mistake. “Are You the coming one, or do we look for another?” Jesus, are you really the Christ, or are you yet one more prophet making promises. I heard about your works, Jesus, and that’s not quite what we all had in mind of our Messiah. So what’s the deal?

It seems like everyone misunderstood Jesus. Many Jews were looking for a political king to overthrow the Roman government. Herod certainly was. Certainly nobody expected the Messiah to be put on trial by Herod and executed by the Roman government.

So John is in doubt. How does Jesus reassure him? Notice he doesn’t go to John himself, but sends men, messengers, under the orders: “go and tell.” We sometimes describe ordination into the preaching office as “holy orders.” In order to comfort John, to assure him of his own work, Jesus sent two preachers.

And notice these preachers are told exactly what to say. They aren’t instructed to make small talk, crack a few jokes, and make up something to make John feel better. No, these disciples of Jesus are sent with a specific message. And that message points to Jesus.

Notice the increasing order of importance. They say: “Look, John, look at what Jesus is doing: he’s healing sick people, he’s even raising the dead, but there’s something even greater: he is preaching the Gospel!”

They are telling John that Jesus is fulfilling John’s own preaching: “Behold, the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world!” This preaching unto the forgiveness of sins is the Gospel. And of all the miracles of our Lord, this is the greatest. It not only restores the flesh, but takes away the sin that places the flesh on a collision course with death! The miraculous preaching of the Gospel, and the offering of himself as the Lamb of God, that we eat in the Church’s weekly passover, is what Jesus presents to John to bring him comfort.

Our reading from Isaiah includes this word “comfort.” “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 very next line in this reading is a direct prophecy of John the Baptist: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Notice how the word “comfort” is used here. It doesn’t refer to air conditioning, heated leather seats, power steering and a built-in DVD player. Rather it is used as forgiveness and pardon. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “comfort” literally means sorrow and repentance.

So Jesus doesn’t remove John’s suffering to comfort him. He doesn’t save him from his upcoming death any more than he would later save himself from his cross in response to his mockers. He doesn’t send John blankets and pillows. No, to bring him comfort, he sends him preachers armed with the Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God – with the Gospel. In fact, the Greek name for the Holy Spirit is: the Paraclete, literally, the Comforter.

And notice Jesus’ final word sent to John: “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” Time and again in the Gospels we find people taking offense, being scandalized, by Jesus. How relevant this is today! Every Christmas it seems we re-fight the battle over “Merry Christmas,” Christmas carols, and the “inappropriate” displays of Jesus in “Holiday” decorations. The world is still offended by Jesus. Our flesh is still offended by Jesus. This is why Jesus is a scandal – the word translated as “offended” is literally “to scandalize.”

Christianity is scandalous. It always has been, and always will be. Why? Because our sinful flesh hates the Gospel. We’re proud. We don’t want charity and handouts. We want to be self-sufficient – so we can continue to hold ourselves higher than welfare-recipients and folks we consider to be moochers. We want to earn our salvation – or at least have a hand in it.

Also, like the Jews, we want a powerful, swaggering, “cool” Jesus. We want a wise-cracking macho Jesus like Will Smith or Bruce Willis. We don’t want a weak Jesus who goes silently to the slaughter. We don’t want a crucified Jesus. The cross is offensive and scandalous – Paul tells us so in these very words: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block (literally: scandal) to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” The last thing you will ever see in a megachurch that has theater seating and cup-holders is a crucifix. This is because preachers in these so-called churches misunderstand the command of our Lord to his preachers to give comfort to his people. They don’t know what the word means. They think the word “comfort” has something to do with wearing khakis and golf shirts and sipping on a Starbuck’s during worship.

Dear friends, there is no greater comfort than to have the crucifix before our eyes at all times. Every room in our homes should have one on the wall – for it is the most powerful reminder of the Gospel, of our comfort. And yet, it is a scandal to those who don’t believe. Those who seek a different Gospel, a different Jesus, will always turn up their noses and roll their eyes at Christ crucified.

Now, after Jesus sent his preachers to see John, Jesus addresses the crowds. He confronts them with their motives for coming to hear John preach. “So, what did you people make the long trip into the dessert to see? Grass being blown around? A big-shot in a nice suit? Some kind of entertainment? No, you came to see a prophet, a preacher of the Word of God.”

Just as Jesus sent his preachers to bring comfort to John, God had sent his prophet John to fulfill our Old Testament lesson to bring comfort, that is, the refreshment of repentance, to his people. Jesus later sent out more preachers two by two. And just before he ascended, he placed the Eleven under holy orders, breathing the Holy Spirit, the Comforter on them, ordering them to fan out into the world spreading comfort, making disciples by baptizing and teaching. In turn, these apostles ordained future ministers to administer sacraments and preach and teach.

And so on it goes, and will go until the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world returns to be our Judge. This is what Paul speaks of in our epistle text when he tells God’s people to regard their pastors as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” That is to say, pastors are under orders to their master Jesus and are charged with serving, dishing out, the mysteries of God, that is, the sacraments.

So, dear friends, as we gather around the mysteries of God this Gaudete Sunday, a day of rejoicing within this penitential season of Advent, what did you come here to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in soft garments? No, you came to hear a preacher proclaim comfort. You came to have the mysteries served to you. You came to hear Jesus himself speak his words, words of comfort, the Gospel, through his messengers. And as great as St. John the Baptist is, our Lord reminds us that paradoxically, in God’s Kingdom, the first are last and the last first. All of us who are the least in God’s Kingdom, are even greater than John. Our Lord sees us as, and holds us with the same high regard, as he does his servant John the Baptist who was faithful unto death. St. John the Baptist is no minor character, and neither are you, O baptized saints of God!

“Behold your God! Behold, the Lord, God shall come with a strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him, behold his reward is with him, and his work before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”

O Salem, your warfare is ended, your iniquity is pardoned:

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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