16 December 2012 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 11:2-11
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Gaudete! “Rejoice!” says our Lord. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again will I say, rejoice.”
This is the season of rejoicing – especially for retailers looking to finally run from red to back. This is the season for rejoicing – especially for pharmaceutical companies who sell antidepressants. This is the season for rejoicing – especially for liquor stores cashing in on both the joyful and the profoundly sad.
We are indeed to rejoice always. These are the very words of St. Paul recorded in His letter to the Philippians that is not only the words of Scripture but also the opening of today’s liturgy that gives this Third Sunday in Lent its name. The rose-colored “shepherd’s candle” lit this week is a visual reminder of the joy bursting at the seams just under the surface of this season of purple penitence.
Jesus had wonderful news for John the Baptist. He told John’s messengers, with great joy and perhaps even excitement in His voice: “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.”
Jesus is indeed telling John to “rejoice” for the Kingdom of heaven is truly at hand. “Rejoice” for the Messiah foretold by the prophets for thousands of years has arrived. “Rejoice,” for you, John, have come as the last prophet, and “more than a prophet” – the “messenger” foretold by Isaiah, sent to prepare the Lord’s way before him.
“Rejoice,” St. John the Baptist, for truly Jesus says to us concerning His own cousin John: “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”
And yet it is hard to imagine John rejoicing. For he is suffering. He is in a prison, a dungeon, a cold, gloomy place of isolation, cut off from those he loves and from the ministry the Lord called him to do. He knows that at any moment, he could be seized by vicious goons and dragged away to a chopping block to be executed. He is miserable and lonely and hungry. He seems to be having doubts about His own proclamation that Jesus is the Christ: “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
One can only imagine the low point in John’s life as everything he has known has been taken from him. Even his trust in God seems to have gotten him nowhere. He is mourning in lonely exile, seemingly defeated, as happened so often in his nation’s history, crushed yet again by a mightier people aided by the scoundrels and traitors in the puppet-government who collaborate with the tyrants.
And in this situation, Jesus gives Him this “good news.” Rejoice in the Lord always?
In the midst of our own celebrations and family gatherings, our gift-giving and good cheer, this is for many a time of loneliness, an exile of haunting memories and regrets about the past. Our country mourns the senseless and evil loss of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, suffering the effects of evil, imprisoned by the notion that these children are not to be seen again on this side of the grave – so close to Christmas. Think of the lifelong scar this will sear into those families.
In the midst of our own mournful exile here, we may be tempted to join with John in asking our Lord, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another.” And our Lord tells us: “Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always. Again will I say, rejoice.”
Even when children are being slaughtered. Even when the innocent languish in prison. Even when evil seems to have the upper hand. Even when we suffer physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Even when we “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
For that is the point, dear friends. Our Lord has come to ransom captive Israel from this, to save us out of this, to liberate us from this captivity, this prison, and to empower us to rejoice in the face of this, this fallen world of sin, this seeming sovereignty of death, this apparent invincible empire of the devil. No, brothers and sisters, this is all temporary. It is already undone. It has been overcome by our Emmanuel! For “Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.” And like one stubborn candle burning defiantly in the middle of the night, our Lord comes to disperse “death’s dark shadows” and to dispatch the devil, to conquer death by dying and to raise us to new life by giving us victory “o’er the grave.”
For as vicious as Satan is this time of year, and as seemingly powerful evil is in snuffing out the lives of children (much as Herod did in a futile attempt to murder the young Jesus), as mighty as the devil appears in destroying the unity of families, shredding communities and churches and even the peace of the entire world itself, remember, Satan is a paper tiger that has already been defeated by the Babe of Bethlehem, by the one announced by John the Baptist, by the one crucified whose mortal wound mortally wounded the serpent, and whose resurrection from the dead confirms for us the promises and the fulfillment of Holy Baptism, the one who bids “our sad divisions cease.” For John was not merely the preacher of righteousness, he was the baptizer of the Only One Who Is Righteous.
So take heart, dear brothers and sisters, take heart! Even when your health is in decline or even distress, know that your eternal life has been declared. Rejoice! Even when family disharmony and strife divides and seemingly conquers all that is good and right and holy, know that your brothers and sisters in Christ around the world continue to confess Him who is the one true Good, Right, and Holy. Rejoice! Even when subjected to prison, to false accusations, to physical depredation, to mental anguish, to the stress and strains of life in this fallen and diabolical world – continue to cling to Him whose “gentleness” is “known to all men” for “the Lord is at hand.” Rejoice!
This is how we Christians can rejoice even in sorrow, how we can find courage and strength to go on even when confronted with a slaughter of innocents in our own day, when it seems every joyful Christmas carol and Advent hymn proclaiming victory and hope ring hollow: remember the words of the ancient hymn:
O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Emmanuel shall come to Thee, O Israel.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the coming Messiah, the Babe of Bethlehem, the Merciful One: Gaudete! “Rejoice!” says our Lord. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again will I say, rejoice.”
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In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.