A Reed? A Man? A Prophet!

Text: Matthew 11:2-10

Date: Advent 3 + 12/11/05

      A news reporter is expected simply to report the news, to document the facts in an objective way. When a news reporter becomes part of the story, however, or becomes the story him or herself, the original story gets skewed or lost and news turns into editorial, opinion about the news rather than just the news itself. The news was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The news anchor Walter Cronkite cried on camera. The news was the resignation of President Nixon. But suddenly everyone knew the names of the reporters Woodward and Bernstein.

      The Good News (the Gospel)—what I’m supposed to be telling you here—is supposed to be about Jesus Christ. But today the reporter, the one sent to prepare the way, John the Baptist, becomes the news, the focus of attention. Jesus asks the crowds, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see” when you went out to see John? He gives them two wrong answers—a reed shaken by the wind or a man dressed in soft clothing. And then he gives them the right answer: a prophet!

      “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” The expected, obvious answer to Jesus’ question is, “No, of course not!” When John was preaching and baptizing in the wilderness “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him” [Matthew 3:5 (ESV)]. But the folks weren’t out sightseeing or on a picnic or drawn to John merely because he was an entertaining oddity. Or were they? Jesus’ metaphor of a reed that bends to the prevailing winds is a warning that preachers of the Gospel are not to preach only to peoples’ expectations or prevailing opinions.

      The prevailing winds of religion today blow strongly in the direction of what we call unionism and syncretism, that is, denominational differences are to be ignored, avoided and even ridiculed. This even extends to other non-Christian religions. “Denominational loyalty” and even “Christian loyalty” is “out,” “Non-denominational” or “syncretistic” is “in.” Oh, you can quote your Lutheran Confessions when they say, “this we believe, teach and confess,” but you had better leave out the part that says, “therefore we condemn.” The one who speaks out of both sides of his mouth, the one who seems to stand for everything, ends up standing for nothing.

      Well, then, what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Again the expected, obvious answer is, “No, of course not!” Yet, why are people attracted to “Crystal Cathedrals” and mega-“churches” more than the historic stone church on Military Street between Buchanan and Michigan Avenue in Detroit? Or did Jesus have another metaphor in mind comparing “men in soft clothing” with preachers with big hair, thousand-dollar suits and “worship” or “family life centers” that look more like a mall or a movie theater?

      Well, then, what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A prophet? Well, yes. I mean, he looked like a prophet, “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist;” he smelled like a prophet, “his food was locusts and wild honey;” and he even sounded like a real prophet baptizing people who repented of their sins but calling the big wigs of the religious establishment to task [Matthew 3:4-7 (ESV)]. “Yes,” said Jesus. “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” This is the one God promised would come before the Messiah when he said through the prophet Malachi, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you” [Matthew 11:10; Malachi 3:1 (ESV)]. If anyone deserves the Nobel Prize it’s John the Baptist. Yet now he languishes in a prison cell. And even he is beginning to question if his preaching was right, if it has all been worth it.

      What did you come to church today to see or to hear? Indeed, what did I, as the pastor, come to church today to say? Every preacher has his doubts. Every preacher, even as he is preaching, wonders if this Jesus is good for him, if He really comes through for you. Every preacher asks the John B. question, “are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

      That’s the question John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, and it is our question, too. “Jesus, do you really come through? Jesus, does all this preaching and all these sacraments really make a difference? Or should we look elsewhere?” These questions arise when our expectations don’t seem to be met. The preacher is taught in the seminary that “the Word works.” But his experience tempts him to believe that it doesn’t, that he needs to look elsewhere, to other programs, movements or techniques to gain followers. Then he has to be careful to remember that he has been sent to gain followers of Christ and not of himself! The church member is taught that worship is all about God giving out his gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation. But her perceived or “felt” needs are more along the lines of being affirmed and told “everything will be okay.”

      John the Baptist did not come saying, “Prepare your own way, make your own paths straight, build your own road to God.” Rather, it was John who, by his preaching, prepared, made and built your way to God by leveling pride and smoothing out despair. By his preaching and baptism he did not simply introduce folks to Jesus or point Him out. His Word and Sacrament ministry meant to give Jesus entrance into the souls of men prepared with the proper expectation of being rescued from our self-made status and ways, from sin and death by bearing your sins in His body and taking death away.

      To a doubting John the Baptist, to the hesitant preacher, to a skeptical inquirer and to the unconvinced parishioner Jesus simply quotes the prophet Isaiah, “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” [cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5-6]. Then he adds the beatitude, “and blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” He adds that because, remember, the critical issue is not the reporter, John the Baptist, but the subject of his report, namely, Jesus Christ. John would say, referring to Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30 (ESV)]. Today Jesus says of John, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

      The great, almighty Son of God, through Whom everything was created in the first place, took the last place and became “least in the kingdom of heaven,” part of his own creation, for us men and for our salvation. He became “least” by humbling himself to be born as an infant, to live perfectly and sinless under God’s Law in our stead, taking on the form of a servant, “being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” [Philippians 2:7-8 (ESV)]. He did this not to become merely a model of humility for us to follow but as the one-and-only perfect sacrifice that exploded the grave, cleansed us from sin and threw open the gates of heaven to all—to all, that is, who, having really heard John, having their expectations adjusted to their true need, then simply received Jesus for Who He is, the Mighty Savior of the world through his cross and resurrection.

            Blessed are those who are not offended, or put off, or disappointed by this Jesus. Receive Him not as you think He should come to you, but as He truly is for you, your Savior and Lord. Welcome and rejoice in the salvation He gives you here as you hear His Gospel and receive His Sacraments.