Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon: Gaudete (Advent 3) - 2017

17 December 2017

Text: Matt 11:2-11 (Isa 40:1-11, 1 Cor 4:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

John the Baptist has done just what God commissioned him to do, and now he is in prison.  He has baptized Jesus and sent his own disciples to follow Him instead – and now he is left virtually alone.  He has spoken truth to power, and that power has come back upon his own head – and John will soon lose his head to the executioner.

How is John expected to feel about all of these events?  Did he make the right choices?  Has he said the right things?  Was he speaking the Word of God as a prophet, or just raving as a madman?  Is this Jesus “the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Some people don’t believe that John is actually experiencing doubt here.  Some argue that John is just asking Jesus for reassurance for the sake of his disciples, because surely John the Baptist could never have doubts.  But given the fallen human weaknesses of so many of our other heroes in Scripture, I find such arguments unconvincing. 

Our Lord praises His cousin John, saying, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”  And yet, Jesus also said, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

John is a preacher.  He knows the state of the world.  He has called the most religious and powerful men in his community to repent.  John was given the task to baptize Jesus and to point all of humanity to Him, to the One whom John was to call the “Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”

And after doing all of these things, John languishes in prison, even as his own disciples leave him.

But John has heard things about Jesus from prison.  John knows the Scriptures.  Is Jesus really and truly the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Savior?  Are the Scriptures being fulfilled in our hearing?  Does John’s prophetic preaching reflect the truth about who Jesus is?  Is this all really true?

John wants to know, and so he prays.  He asks Jesus.  He pleads with God for a Word – a Word about Jesus.  John seeks the comfort with which the prophet Isaiah was sent to preach to the people seven centuries earlier: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.” 

Does Jesus give comfort to John the Baptist?  Jesus sends Word back to John.  He sends these messengers running with good news: “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”  He calls upon these men whom He has sent to be witnesses.  Our Lord says, “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.”  Indeed, these are the things the prophets said would happen.

This is true comfort to the prophet John the Baptist, whose greatest comfort is the truth: the truth of who Jesus is, and the truth that John himself has preached faithfully concerning this coming, promised Messiah, whom John Himself heard being blessed by the very voice of the Father: “This is My beloved Son” on the day that John baptized Jesus.

John is comforted. And not even prison, not even death, can rob him of his joy in Christ.  And this joy, dear friends, is not only the theme for this Sunday, this Gaudete (that is “Rejoice”) Sunday, this day in Advent in which we light the joyful rose candle and chant St. Paul’s uplifting epistle to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again will I say, rejoice!” – it is rather the theme of our entire life in Christ, in our incarnate and risen Lord, in Him who has come to restore us to the Father, raise us from the dead, and give us the free gift of eternal life! 

Joy, dear friends!

Joy is a scarce commodity in our world and culture.  People are anything but joyful today.  Many are depressed and bewildered, sorrowful and angry, hateful and bitter – both inside and outside of the church.  Some seek happiness by the pill or the bottle.  Some look for happiness in unfulfilled and unfulfilling relationships.  Some seek thrills and riches.  But happiness is elusive.

Joy, however, dear brothers and sisters, is all around us in the Word of God, in the promises of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His divine love and mercy and comfort to us through the cross.

For through Christ, joy is found even in sorrow and suffering – and yes, even in death.  Joy is defiance against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh.  Joy is the hope we have in Christ, borne of faith, given to us as a free gift at the font and nurtured by the Word of God and the sacraments.  Joy is not happiness, but joy is rather contentment and trust that, in Christ, all shall be well.  No matter what happens in this fallen world, all shall be well.  No matter what befalls us in this broken existence, all shall be well.  For what do we see Jesus doing?  Curing the blind and the lame and the deaf and the leprous; raising the dead, and preaching the Gospel.  In the work of Jesus, we see the words of the prophets of old become reality: “He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms.” 

Joy is better than happiness, dear brothers and sisters.  Happiness is temporary, whereas joy is eternal.  Happiness depends on our moods, whereas joy depends on the Word of God.  Happiness is like the grass that withers and the flower that fades, but joy is found in the “Word of our God” that “will stand forever.” 

John the Baptist does not find joy in wearing soft clothing and living in a palace; rather he finds joy in Christ and in His redemptive work: work that leads to and radiates from the cross.  In Christ, we are made whole: we see, we walk, we are cleansed and we hear.  We are raised from the dead and good news is preached to us.  Here is our joy, dear friends, in the Word!  For “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever!” 

Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again will I say, rejoice!  Amen.

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

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