Sermon for Gaudete – Advent 3
1 Corinthians 4:1-5 + Matthew 11:2-10
People expect a lot from Christmas. And I don’t just mean a lot of presents. They expect treats and goodies, lights and decorations and festivities. They expect certain songs to be played and sung. They expect vacations and family reunions and time with friends, and they expect—or at least, really wish—for those reunions to be happy and fun. (Some people expect snow for Christmas, although, for us, it would be more of a surprise than an expectation.) But it’s more than those external things, isn’t it? It’s a feeling they’re after, maybe the return of a feeling they vaguely remember from times past. The feeling that everything is OK. A feeling of peace. A sense of belonging. The return of joy. No wonder the build-up to it lasts for weeks, or months! No wonder Christmas time can be the most depressing time of year for many people! Because the expectations are so high—too high for any holiday to fulfill. As long as you live in this world, you can’t escape the reality of sin—the sins of others, and your own sins, too. You can’t escape the reality of suffering and death.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be joy. For the Christian, sin and suffering and death are conquered things—things that have been conquered for us by Christ. And we don’t need for everything to be made right right now. It’s enough that some things—the most important things—are made right immediately, knowing that everything with be made right eventually. That’s the true secret to joy.
But we all need to be reminded of that on a regular basis. Even John the Baptist, the great prophet and forerunner of Christ, needed some reassurance. Why?
We hear in the Gospel that John was in prison. You may remember why. He had spent the last year or two of his life preaching repentance and a baptism for the remission of sins—a necessary preparation before Christ began His public ministry. He had faithfully proclaimed the word of the Lord to Israel. He had preached that the coming One—the Christ—would baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. And then, when Jesus appeared on the scene, John began pointing everyone to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
In the course of preaching against Israel’s sin and impenitence, John struck a nerve with King Herod, accusing the king of adultery because he had married his brother’s wife. So Herod arrested John and put him in prison—an imprisonment that would soon end in John’s beheading.
As John sat in Herod’s prison, waiting to die, he began to have some questions. If Jesus was the Christ, as John had announced, where was the baptism of fire? Where was the winnowing fan and the cleaning of the threshing floor? Why was the wheat not being gathered into His barn? Why was the chaff not being burned up with unquenchable fire? In other words, the Christ is supposed to make everything better, make everything right. But everything isn’t better. I wasn’t wrong about Jesus, was I?
So John did the wise thing, the faithful thing. He sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him the question. He trusted, but he didn’t understand. So he asked: Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another? Is there another Christ coming to make things right, to put an end to the wicked and impenitent and to rescue the believers out of this sin-filled world?
Now, Jesus could have simply answered, Yes, I am the Christ. Expect no one else. But instead of claiming it, He demonstrated it. At that very moment when John’s disciples came to Jesus, Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind He gave sight. Then Jesus told them, Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.
First of all, Jesus is making some things right right now. He was performing miraculous healings that no one else could do or had ever done, doing the very things that the Old Testament promised that the Christ would do. As Isaiah wrote, Say to those who are fearful-hearted, “Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing. Jesus pointed John to the Scriptures, which pointed to Him as the Christ because of His deeds.
But then there was that other part of what Jesus was doing: the poor have the gospel preached to them. Understand what that means. The Gospel—the good news—that Jesus was preaching to the poor had nothing to do with taking them out of financial poverty. These were the “poor in spirit,” as Jesus called them in the Sermon on the Mount, those who recognized the poverty of their sinfulness, who humbled themselves before God, because they knew they deserved nothing from God but wrath and punishment. To them, and only to them, Jesus preached Good News: the forgiveness of sins through faith in Him. That to all who look to Jesus for salvation, salvation is given fully and freely—eternal life that begins right now, reconciliation with God the Father that begins right here, right now, as sinners are brought to God the Son by God the Holy Spirit. All things necessary for our salvation are done by Christ. All the riches of heaven are donated to the poor who trust in Jesus. Those are the things—the most important things—that Christ was preaching, and that Christ was actually doing.
As for the rest—the end of suffering, the end of death, the punishment of the wicked and the final redemption of the righteous—well, John would just have to trust that Jesus the Christ will take care of those things, too, in His good time. None of the Old Testament prophets, including John, could fully appreciate God’s New Testament plan. His plan wasn’t for Jesus to come only once, to pay for sin and to judge the world and do away with the wicked all at one time. His plan was always for the Christ to come twice, the first time to pay for sins with His death and usher in the age of the preaching of the Gospel to all creation, building His Church throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel; and the second time, at the end of the age, to take care of the rest. John had waited his whole life for Jesus to appear, and he got to see Jesus, but he would never get to see the rest of the story unfold.
But you might. You’ve already seen the vast majority of the story unfold: the death and resurrection of Christ, the preaching of the Gospel, the building of the Church throughout the world over these last 2,000 years. You’ve seen far more than John was ever given to see. And you may well live to see the second Advent of Christ at the end of this age. Or He may delay a little while longer. In either case, as Jesus said to John, blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.
You won’t understand all the plans that God has for this world, or for your life. You won’t know the day of His coming before He comes. And you won’t escape the reality of this world’s sin, suffering and death, until you actually escape from this world. Don’t stumble because of that. Don’t be offended because of Jesus—because the cross you bear as His disciple is heavy, because He isn’t making everything right right now. He never promised to do that. But He has made some things better right now. He has given Himself as the atoning sacrifice for your sins. He has given you the ministry of the Word, where God Himself speaks to you through men whom He has made, as Paul wrote in the Epistle, “stewards of the mysteries of God.” He gives you His body and blood now. He hears your prayers. He has promised to hold you up, as His dear child, even in your darkest hour. And He has given you the promise of everything being made right at His Advent. You already have that promise, even though you don’t yet have the fulfillment. Let that be your source of joy, at Christmas and always. Amen.