A Thrilling Voice

Text: Matthew 11:2-15
Date: Advent III + 12/15/13

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord, for the once blind eyes are being opened to see it and the deaf ears to hear the thrilling voice announcing the coming of the kingdom of God. We need this light and this voice because they are like no other. This light, as our brother John said, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Or has it?

This is Gaudete Sunday, the rose candle on the advent wreath calling us to “Gaudete in Domino semper,” “rejoice in the Lord always.” “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice…it shall rejoice with joy and singing” (Is 35:1-2). Those who come “shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is 35:10). John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb as she greeted the mother of our Lord. And it was with a strange sort of joy when his thrilling voice echoed in the wilderness exciting Jerusalem and all Judea to hear that God was moving to bring His kingdom, His salvation near. Once again the thrilling voice calls to us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand and rejoice.”

Do you remember the anticipation and joy of Christmas as a child? I’ll never forget watching the ever-increasing number of presents under the beautifully decorated evergreen tree which was three times taller than I, wanting to peal back just the corner of the wrapping with my name on it to get a hint of what was inside. But now what has happened? Everyday life has crowded out the joy and anticipation. I had a similar experience when I first was awakening to God’s call in the gospel! Where, however, over the years, has the thrill, the excitement, the anxious anticipation, energetic commitment and joy of it all go?

We do well today, therefore, to ask also where the thrill and excitement and joy of God’s rule and salvation have gone. For it has, hasn’t it? Well, we’re not alone.

Today we’re some time down the road in the gospels since John was baptizing in the wilderness as he boldly and joyfully proclaimed to crowds of people, “Behold” (pointing to Jesus) “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Here he was, the last and final prophet of the Old Testament and the first evangelist of the New. He was no wacko blown about by strange winds of doctrine. He did not appear in a carefully pressed three-piece suit, tie and carefully quaffed hairstyle surrounded by TV cameras. No, he was a prophet, and more than a prophet. “Truly, I say to you,” said Jesus of him, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” What a thrill! And to find yourself drawn to repentance, drawn to God’s plan and truth for you, drawn to faith in Jesus and His joyful salvation is such a rush, at least at first, as well as at various moments of enlightenment along the way.

So John was thrilled at the coming of Jesus. And lest there be any question about it St. Matthew comes right out and tells us John’s conviction calling Jesus “the Christ.” He comes right out and calls Him the Messiah even as he relates today how John’s faith and conviction began to wane, the initial thrill at the expectation of seeing Jesus wield “His winnowing fork in his hand” and “clearing His threshing floor” and giving those considered mere religious fluff and chaff the what-for of unquenchable fire. But none of that was happening yet in Jesus’ ministry of merely preaching, teaching and healing; more preaching, teaching and healing. “Where’s the fire and brimstone, preacher?”

There have been various attempts made to somehow explain the Baptist’s question so as not to impugn his faith as somehow becoming weak. In true prophetic style John preached both the immediate fulfillment of God’s promises in the earthly ministry of Jesus and, at the same time, the culmination of His second coming. The winnowing fork and threshing floor and unquenchable fire was still to come at the last day. They were not yet. And so John, now languishing in a dark prison, entertained some doubt. “…or shall we look for another?” And how many folks these days grow weary or even skeptical over hearing the same old gospel, singing the same old songs, lighting the same old candles and praying the same old liturgy? Shall we look for another?

John needed a Gaudete Sunday. And we, like John, are tempted annually, even daily along the way to wonder if it is all worth it; continually coming to hear God’s word, receive His sacraments, repent and believe with hearts and minds newly cleansed by the operation of the Holy Spirit. At times it begins to feel like a never-ending religious treadmill. Lately with the death of Pastor Long, the death of a long-time friend in Colorado last Monday and marking the fourth year since the death of my wife, Alice this last week, I find myself torn between grief and sorrow and even anger over the Last Enemy on the one hand, and the defiant confidence of faith in our Lord’s victory over death and the grave and the promise of paradise, resurrection and eternal life on the other.

Is it worth it? Shall we, after all, continue and go on we now ask from the prison of our daily struggle of saint-and-sinner-at-the-same-time? “Are you the one…or shall we look for another?” Or, shall we just quit looking at all?

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” says Jesus as He reaches back to the words of Isaiah John knows so well, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Is 35:5-6a). In every teaching in every sermon and in every act of healing Jesus proves He is “the one who is to come,” the Christ. And solely on that evidence is John and are we to rest our faith. “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” says our Lord. Blessed are those who, as St. James says today, have patience “until the coming of the Lord.” As the farmer waits for, “first the blade and then the ear, then the full corn to appear” (LSB 892:2), so we are called today to rejoice in patient hope. As Job remained steadfast in hope in the face of the most horrendous suffering and was enabled, nevertheless, to proclaim, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25), so the Baptist needed to believe, that as the Christ he proclaimed was now standing upon the earth in grace and mercy, so He would stand again on the last day there with His winnowing fork and fire for those who did not believe the Gospel and the comforting rod and staff of the saving Shepherd ushering the redeemed into the green pastures of eternal life.

Gaudete. Rejoice. “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,” for already by faith “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:12, 21-24).

No, John. No, world. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). His name is Jesus: Jesus, the incarnate Word of God; Jesus, the son of the virgin; Jesus, the suffering servant; Jesus, the crucified one; Jesus, the risen one; Jesus, the ascended, living and reigning one. Truly in Jesus the kingdom of God has come near to you today. Repent, believe and receive the gift of forgiveness and eternal life now, today.