Text: Matthew 11:2-15
Date: Advent III + 12/12/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Last Sunday, in Matthew chapter 3, a man named John appeared preaching a baptism of repentance. He looked like an Old Testament prophet—coat of camel’s hair and leather belt, preaching not in town but out in the wilderness. He sounded like an Old Testament prophet—calling everyone out, the politically correct and the politically incorrect to repentance, labeling some snakes and hypocrites and all sinners. Matthew then nailed it down for us telling us he was a prophet, the one predicted by Isaiah (40:3) and Malachi (3:1). Now, today, we have one more piece of evidence that identifies him as a bone fide prophet—he’s in prison. All true prophets are persecuted and suffer violence. And those who have read ahead in the story to chapter fourteen of Matthew’s Gospel know that John lost his head being martyred as a party favor by Herod for a young lass dancing for the stars (14:1-12).
Stop and think about that detail, being locked up in prison. ‘Ever been in jail? I almost get claustrophobic thinking about being locked up in a small cell. As I thought about it I was reminded of more modern-day martyrs and thought of Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Letters and Papers from Prison when he was incarcerated by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in the early 1940s. One little thing he wrote on November 21, 1943 while sitting in jail was about the season of Advent. He wrote, “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” How true. Advent is about waiting; the long centuries of Israel waiting for the promised Messiah to arrive, being born in Bethlehem; our time of waiting for His final return. “Be patient,” says St. James today, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7-8). And Advent is about hope. As “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in the night of Christ’s birth, so do Christians spend their days in faith, hope and love. And, yes, Advent is, as Bonhoeffer says, “doing various unessential things,” I suppose like all the necessary things that obtain only to this earthly life, those things that finally will fly away, that disappear, that you can’t “take with you.” “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”
“The door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.” So is the Gospel of the salvation of God. Mankind is so enslaved, held captive by sin that no one can escape or break out from that prison. The door of freedom must be opened from the outside, meaning someone else, someone other, someone greater than you must do the opening.
That Someone is Jesus Christ who came, as it is written, “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk. 4:18-19/Is. 61). In Jesus is all our waiting, our hope, our freedom. The hymn writer captures Bonhoeffer’s description as he writes of all who belong to Christ, both those who go through the gate of death and the grave, and we who still await our deliverance. We sang this hymn exactly a year ago today at my dear wife’s funeral, saying:
Oh, how blest are you whose toils are ended,
Who through death have to our God ascended!
You have arisen
From the cares which keep us still in prison.
We are still as in a dungeon living,
Still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving;
Are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.
Come, O Christ, and loose the chains that bind us;
Lead us forth and cast this world behind us.
With you, th’ Anointed,
Finds the soul its joy and rest appointed. [LSB 679]
So here is John the Baptist, his world closing in on him in prison, made the more aware of his deep need for God’s deliverance. He, of course, had once not only introduced Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, sending a few of his own disciples to attach themselves to the Messiah, but he even baptized Him, if reluctantly. You will remember that John told the people, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” “He’s got an axe in one hand to cut down the fruitless trees and a winnowing fork in the other to clean things up in people’s lives.” John’s last word concerned burning up the chaff, the worthless stuff of life, with “asbestos fire,” unquenchable fire.
Now John hears in prison about the deeds of the Christ. He hears of His teaching and preaching and healing. But where’s the fire? I mean, if not literal fire from heaven “at least a fire and brimstone sermon once in awhile would shake people up and wake them up better than ‘the soft touch,’ the comfortable gospel, only seeming to be concerned about people’s ‘felt needs.’” “You are the One, aren’t you?” John asks through his disciples…meaning, “Did I screw up? Should we be looking for someone else?”
It would appear he’s not the only one ever to ask that question, especially today. For people seem, increasingly, to be looking for someone other than the Christ-child softly bedded down in the nostalgic wrappings and trappings, the fantasy and childhood memories of a Christmas grown old. If we were ever shocked to think as a child that dear Santa Claus didn’t exist, it seems as adults that the Christ keeps fading further away. People are looking for someone else, anyone else who will have the more immediate answers to our hurts and fears, our frustrations and sadness. Surrounded by all the contradictory religions around, and even those seemingly of the same denomination arguing and disagreeing with each other, people quickly get the idea that “religion” is a matter only of personal preference and opinion and so they shop for one like an appliance that meets only their perceived needs. Even then, when you settle for one religion, denomination or church, you quickly become aware of the shortcomings, the wrinkles, yes, the sins of the other people involved and many just walk away, throw in the towel and conclude there are no answers in religion.
No, John, you didn’t screw up. Your only problem is God’s timetable. You, like us, are still a sinner, still of limited sight and perception as to the ways of God. “Go and tell John what you hear and see”—all the scriptural evidence that, yes, this is the One, preaching, teaching, healing, setting people free, but on His way to His necessary goal: the cross and death, not for Himself but for us and for our salvation. The fire you’re looking for? It is the fire of God’s judgment reserved for the devil and his angels and all who will not receive the deliverance of God through faith in Christ crucified and risen again. Until then, until the Last Day is only the fire and the warmth of God’s love and of faith.
Now, just in case you begin to think less of John for his suffering and his doubt, Jesus had a few things to say about him. He isn’t just a passing fad of Advent. In fact Matthew says John guided and marked the progress of Jesus all the way until it was time for Jesus Himself to set His face toward Jerusalem and His destiny of suffering, death and resurrection. John was no sideshow. That’s not what you went out into the wilderness to see, was it? Neither was he of the Julian Assange school of sartorial splendor. Guys wearing fine linen and tuxedos are to be found in Buckingham palace or at least Men’s Wearhouse® where “You’re gonna like the way you look, I guarantee it.” Well then, what did you go out to see? A prophet? Ah, you got it! He is the Malachi 3:1 prophet. In fact, ears of faith will understand John is also the Malachi 4:5 Elijah sent to prepare the way for the Messiah.
But as great as John is, “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” No one became more humbled or did greater service to mankind than Jesus Christ. For it wasn’t just his humble birth in a manger or the fact that he had no home of his own. But it was as the apostle Paul put it, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking 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” (Phil. 2:6-8). “Greater love has no man than this” Jesus said once, “that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). This is the picture of the least being the greatest. For this death destroyed all sin and death. This death is the hand that opens the door to freedom from the outside, from the side of God’s mercy and love for his creation, His love for you. He ushers you through that opened door in the flood of His mercy in your Holy Baptism. He carries you along by His gracious Word of freedom and forgiveness. He feeds your faith, your hope and your love with the food of His own life-sustaining bread of heaven. And,
What joy to know, when life is past,
The Lord we love is first and last,
The end and the beginning!
He will one day, oh, glorious grace,
Transport us to that happy place
Beyond all tears and sinning!
Come, Lord Jesus!
Crown of gladness!
We are yearning
For the day of Your returning! (LSB 395:6)