Pastor Chris Matthis
Epiphany Lutheran Church, Castle Rock, Colorado
Advent 3, Series A
Saturday, December 14th, 2013
Sunday, December 15th, 2013
Sermon: “Are You the One?”
Text: Matthew 11:2-15
Focus: Jesus is the promised Messiah come to save us from our sins.
Function: That they would put their hope and trust in Jesus Christ, our Lord, the Coming One.
Locus: “I believe that Jesus Christ… is my Lord…” (SC, 2nd Article of Apostles’ Creed).
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Have you ever been disappointed… by God? Does it ever seem as if God has let you down? If not, you’re either lying to yourself, or you just haven’t been a Christian long enough yet. Sooner or later, you will be disappointed. Maybe God won’t give you what you want. He won’t deliver the big miracle for which you pray. Or he won’t do the things you expect him to do. Perhaps even more devastating, he might not turn out to be who you thought he was.
That was the dilemma for John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson. In prison—in prison—John hears about the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus (Matt. 11:2). And wonderful as it is, it’s not what John was expecting Jesus to do. When John preached a baptism of repentance and declared that the kingdom of God was at hand, he expected final judgment any day. And John the believed the Messiah would be the one to mete out God’s punishment to King Herod, the Roman Empire, hypocritical religious leaders (Sadducees and Pharisees), and any unrepentant sinners.
John knew that he was the last of the Old Testament prophets. It’s a sad and terribly lonely thing to be the last of any kind. But the last of the prophets was a particularly prickly affair. John’s job, his calling, was to prepare the way for the Lord and his Messiah. John had boldly told his disciples that Jesus was the one. But now Jesus wasn’t doing the things John expected him to do. He didn’t turn out to be who John thought he was. Was it possible that John was mistaken, that he got it wrong—that he got Jesus wrong? “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).
This is a strange, provocative question from a firebrand such as John. “Are you the Coming One, or shall we expect someone else?” How could John betray such doubts? Is he not the one who declared about Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)? Is he not the one who told Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:13)? Isn’t John the one who said—again, of Jesus—“he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matt. 3:11)? Yes, indeed, one and the same. Then how does John ask, “Are you the one?” “Are you really the coming one, the Messiah of the Jews, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the entire world? Because right now you sure don’t look like it, Jesus!”
John the Baptist discovered one of the painful truths of life and ministry: disappointment with God. God rarely turns out to be who we thought he was, but always turns out to be exactly who he promises to be. And that can be hard to handle. The wilderness wild man with camel skin clothes and locust legs stuck between his teeth declared that Jesus would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12). “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10). John rightly understood himself to be the Lord’s prophet and Messiah’s forerunner, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” (Matt. 3:3). But John could only envision a Messiah wielding an axe and casting fire upon the earth. In other words, he saw Messiah’s role as one of judgment, putting the world to rights and punishing all the wicked and evildoers. So as John endured persecution and mockery, he looked around at the prison walls and must have thought to himself, “This isn’t what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like! This isn’t the work I prepared for Messiah to do!”
Now we must allow that John was partly right about Jesus’ job description—the judgment and winnowing and burning and all that bit—but his timing was off. Jesus will come again someday to judge the living and the dead (we ourselves confess it in the Creeds). On the Last Day, Jesus will come with a sword to cast fire upon the earth (Luke 12:49-51). So John’s vision telescopes outward to the End Times. But his talk of wheat and chaff, axes and fire, is fitting for another time.
But we live in the now. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2b). And now Jesus is here to heal and save, not to destroy and burn. The Day will come when Jesus will judge evildoers and destroy our enemies; but not yet. Now Jesus comes to heal the sick, raise the dead, and preach Good News to the poor. John failed to grasp that the first coming of the Christ was to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:17). Messiah comes to heal men’s hearts and mend their brokenness. The first time Jesus came was to bring salvation; judgment could wait for another Day.
And so Jesus sends John’s messengers back to him with eyewitness testimony of his ministry. “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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:4-6). Blessed is the one who does not fall away and stumble on account of Jesus.
We do not know how John received this Word. But I choose to believe that Jesus’ answer made a difference, that one of the “blind” men whose eyes needed opening was John the Baptist himself. His eyes were blinded by the smoke of his fire and brimstone message. He needed the air to clear so he could see the grace of God and the new thing Jesus was doing. And when he finally saw, he believed all over again and began anew to hope and trust in Jesus the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—John’s sins, your sins, my sins.
As you look around you today, you may be overwhelmed by the rot and ruin of a wicked world. The terrible shooting on Friday at Arapahoe High School is another reminder of our fallen, sinful world. So you may despair of hope and healing. You may be ashamed of your own trials and temptations to sin. Your enemies still surround you, above all that unholy axis of evil Luther mentions in our Small Catechism: “sin, death, and the power of the devil” (SC, 2nd Article of Apostles’ Creed).
You may not be in a physical prison, like John the Baptist, but you still may feel trapped by your job, your marriage, your pain, your guilt and shame. And as you look around at the walls of your prison, you may think to yourself, “This isn’t what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like!” And then you turn your eyes to heaven and cry out to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”
Jesus sends back his message in the least likely, and yet most expected, place of all: his Holy Word. He quotes the prophet Isaiah and asks, “What do you see and hear?” Hearts are healed, souls are saved, relationships are reconciled, and God’s forgiveness rains down from the cross of Christ. What did you hope to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man in fine clothes? No, none of these. Instead, a man stripped of his clothes and left naked, nailed to a cross for all the world to see. And then decide: will you mock him or follow him, reject him or believe and receive him?
Jesus’ searching eyes reach out to you from the cross with arms spread-eagle in blessing. He holds a beatitude just for you: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:6). Happy and blessed is the person who does not stumble and fall away on account of Christ Jesus. Do you want to be happy and blessed? Then don’t give up, and don’t lose hope. Jesus the Messiah truly is the Coming One. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Do not look for any other. Keep on praying, keep on hoping, and keep on believing because Jesus is the One!
God may not give you what you want. He may not do the things you expect him to do. He may not turn out to be who you thought he was. But he always gives what you need, he always does what he promises, and he always turns out to be precisely who you need him to be. So don’t look for another. He is the one who is to come!
“Truly, I say to you, 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” (Matt. 11:11). There is one greater than John who is still least of all: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Son of Man. “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt 23:11). Christ Jesus is the one who humbled himself and became nothing, taking on the form of a servant so that he could give his life as a ransom for many (Phil. 2:5-10; Matt. 20:28). And so the baby born in the manger and baptized by John on Jordan’s banks reveals his true purpose: he was born to die. What did you go out to see? A cross, a Savior, the Lord? Yes, he is the one who is to come. He is the one who came at Christmas and at Calvary. He is the one who will come again. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Chris Matthis