Advent teaches us to rejoice in God’s gift list

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Sermon for Gaudete – Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-10  +  Isaiah 40:1-11  +  1 Corinthians 4:1-5

There’s a reason why parents ask their children to make a wish list for Christmas.  Not only because it makes Christmas shopping easier, but because parents like to see their children get what they want. They want to see their children laughing for joy when they open their presents – not disappointed because they got a gift they never really wanted in the first place, disappointed because they didn’t like the gift.

Sometimes people think they ought to make a Christmas wish list for God, so that he can give you just what you asked for. Then you would be happy.  Then you would rejoice on Christmas morning, too.

But you know it doesn’t work that way, don’t you?  Your Father in heaven doesn’t ask you what’s on your wish list.  Instead, he tells you ahead of time what’s on his gift list, what gifts you need from him, what gifts you should expect, and then he tells you to adjust your wish list accordingly. That’s what Advent is all about, about letting God tell you about the gifts he wants to give, so that you can set your heart on those gifts and rejoice when you receive them.

Because not all people will rejoice.  Most are utterly disappointed when they unwrap their gifts from God. If you would rejoice today on Gaudete Sunday with the Apostle Paul, with the Church and all the saints, if you would rejoice today, halfway through the Advent season, then you should know what it is God has placed on his gift list so that you can wish for it and not be disappointed when you open it.  Advent teaches us to rejoice in God’s gift list.

The fact that John the Baptist still had disciples by the time our Gospel takes place indicates that they were still on the fence about Jesus.  For months John had been pointing his disciples away from himself to Jesus, insisting that he must decrease while Jesus must increase. But now, as John sits in King Herod’s prison cell, it appears that John’s disciples were even less convinced about Jesus.  If Jesus is the Christ, why hasn’t he pulled out his winnowing fork yet to punish the wicked and to rid the world – or at least, to rid Israel of all the evil and pain and suffering that fill it?  If Jesus is the Christ, how could he let his prophet and our teacher, John, waste away in prison like this?

Now, we can’t say for certain whether John was having his own doubts about Jesus or whether he was only using this as a teaching moment for these disciples of his who were still clinging to him in prison.  Prophets and preachers are by no means immune to doubt.  Either way, it’s the question John sent his disciples to ask and Jesus’ reply that are important.

Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Whether or not John had his own doubts, he did the right thing here.  He didn’t let his disciples wallow in doubt and self-pity.  He didn’t sit there in prison complaining about how he was being treated, or beg his disciples to stay there with him and keep him company.  He did the right thing.  He sent them to Jesus to ask him for the answer.

And what an answer Jesus gave!  “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.”  So, rather than answer the question directly – anyone could say anything! – Jesus let his deeds and his preaching speak for themselves. The Christ is revealed in both word and deed, and it’s his deeds of salvation that gave evidence to his word of salvation.

So, impressive deeds, though, right?  In a way, yes.  Jesus’ healing miracles were amazing – no one had ever done what he was doing.  He was doing exactly what the prophet Isaiah said the Christ would be doing.  But in a way, what a strange kind of Messiah – who stays completely away from politics and political agenda, who humbly stays out of the spotlight, who gathers a following of the most humble, sinful, downtrodden people Jewish society had to offer and basically spends all his time in the hospitals, in the ghetto and in the graveyard.  A Christ who spends all his time with sinners.

And what does he do there?  He heals the sick and preaches good news to the poor.  What good news?  “Hey! Those rich people have really cheated you out of the life you deserve! I’ll help you rise up against them!”???  No.  “Hey! Don’t worry!  If you follow me, God will make you rich and give you all the comforts of life!” ??? No.  The poor remained in poverty after Jesus preached to them.  And those who were healed of their diseases… still faced all the hardships of a healthy person and still eventually died.

What good news?  In the words of Isaiah, “Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned. You have received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins.”  Jesus came handing out gifts to the poor and downtrodden – salvation in the forgiveness of sins and the promise of a future in God’s presence after suffering many trials and tribulations on this earth.  That’s it.  That’s God’s gift list.

Go and tell John what you hear and see…Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  You see, God’s gift list offends most people.  It might even offend you if you were on death row like John was for preaching the truth of God, and all Jesus offered was the good news of sins paid for and a blessed future after wicked men put you to death.  Many people, most people are offended by the good news, by the Gospel. They want something else from Jesus: some how-to lessons for leading happy, healthy lives; some proud words congratulating them for their good Christian behavior; some miraculous sign; an end to poverty; a comfortable life, riches, fame, fun, excitement, adventure, glory!  That’s what’s on the wish lists of most people.

If that’s what your wish list for God looks like, you will be offended by Jesus. You will trip and fall over him and you will die in your sin, because those things are not on his gift list.  Salvation for miserable sinners; the spiritual sight to see Christ as your Savior; cleansing from the leprosy of sin; spiritual hearing for those who were deaf to God’s Word; spiritual life for those who were dead in sin and, eventually, resurrection from the dead and a glorified body; the good news of forgiveness of sins to all who mourn; and the blessed cross – the cross of Jesus on which he purchased the forgiveness of your sins and the cross that every follower of his bears.  Those are the gifts on God’s gift list.  That’s what you should expect to find under the Christmas tree of the pulpit and the altar.  And if those are the items on your wish list, you will not be disappointed.

There’s one more item on God’s gift list that Jesus mentions in the Gospel, and we should take a moment to consider it. After Jesus sent John’s disciples back to John with their report, he spoke to the crowd about John the Baptist.  What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.  As you recall, John the Baptist was a rather strange man by worldly standards.  He lived out in the wilderness.  He dressed in camel’s skin clothing, he ate locusts and wild honey.  And his message was nothing if not direct: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near!

So Jesus reminds the people, you knew what to expect from John.  He wasn’t a reed shaken by the wind.  In other words, he wasn’t a people-pleaser.  He didn’t bend a like reed in one direction to please some, and then bend back in the other direction to please others.  He didn’t mince words.  He just told it like it was.  Stiff. Stern. Immovable.  The people knew that’s what they were getting with John.

And they knew he wasn’t a success-seeker.  He didn’t dress to impress.  Neither did he dress to fit in or to be comfortable.  He didn’t spend his time lounging around in cushy kings’ houses.  His message was stern and serious, and it didn’t make him rich or comfortable.  On the contrary, his preaching got him lots of alone-time in the wilderness and eventually, it got him into the king’s house, sure enough, into King Herod’s prison.

So, what was John?  Jesus says, What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “ ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”  John wasn’t a people-pleaser or a success-seeker.  He was a prophet sent by God. But also more than that, because John didn’t just foretell a distant future in which God would come.  John was the only prophet whose coming was foretold in Old Testament Scripture, and the only prophet who didn’t speak about future promises, but about present-tense fulfillment, who pointed his finger, not at the coming Christ, but at the Christ who had come.  “Behold, your God!”

John himself was on God’s gift list as a messenger of Christ.  He was the forerunner who ran before Jesus and prepared the way for him, a forerunner who knew his place, that he must decrease so that Christ could increase.  He was also the forerunner whose life, in many ways, set the pattern for Jesus’ life and whose message followed the pattern of Jesus’ message.  “Repent and baptized for the forgiveness of sins!”  John’s entire ministry, and even John’s death by execution at the hands of his enemies, pointed to Christ and his death by execution on the cross at the hands of his enemies, so that the people might recognize John as the promised forerunner, and Jesus as the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Would you have welcomed a prophet like John?  Would you have recognized him for what he was, a spokesman for God and a herald of Christ?  Or would you have found him too weird, too stern, too negative?  The truth is, every New Testament minister of the Word – every pastor and preacher – is called to be no more and no less than a John a Baptist, a spokesman for God and a herald of Christ, stewards of the mysteries of God, as Paul said in the Epistle Lesson.  Ministers of the Gospel are on God’s gift list to his people, not for their own sake or for their own glory, but as the humble means by which God comes to you with his Word of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  If you’re looking for a people-pleaser or success-seeker in your minister, then you will be offended by a true minister of Christ.  But if you’re looking for a spokesman for God, a herald who points to Christ, a dispenser of the mysteries – the sacraments of God, then you will not be disappointed.

So, what’s your Christmas wish list looking like?  May the Gospel today and this Advent season cause your wish list to conform to God’s gift list.  Then you will approach the manger rightly.  Then you will be amazed at what God gives you there, and with the angels of heaven, with the Holy Church and all the saints, you too, will rejoice!  Amen.

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