Sermon for Gaudete – Advent 3
Matthew 11:2-10 + Isaiah 40:1-8 + 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Gaudete! Rejoice! That’s what that single pink candle on the Advent wreath signals to you on this third Sunday in Advent. Rejoice! But notice, it’s hidden in the back, the hidden joy of Advent. It almost seems out of place, buried as it is among the blue and green and white. It’s hidden for a reason. It’s hidden because the reason for the rejoicing of God’s people is hidden from the world. It’s revealed only to those who know where to look and what to look for.
Obviously, we rejoice because we know that Jesus is coming! We’re looking up, watching and waiting for him. But he’s a very unexpected kind of Savior, and through the ages, even God’s people have sometimes wondered, “Can this be right? Is this Jesus, revealed in the Bible, really the one whom we should expect? Is he really someone over whom we should rejoice?”
John the Baptizer – by Jesus’ own proclamation, the greatest of all the prophets, the greatest man ever born – wasn’t so sure anymore that he should be rejoicing over Jesus. He did rejoice for a long time. He was convinced by the Holy Spirit himself that Jesus was the Son of God, and he joyfully proclaimed that to the people. With great rejoicing John announced to his disciples, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
But John’s rejoicing began to diminish after he’d spent some time in King Herod’s prison. You remember, he was imprisoned by Herod because he had dared to call even King Herod to repentance for marrying his brother’s wife. There John sat – a faithful prophet of God, abandoned in a prison cell. Abandoned, so it seemed, by the very one whose Advent he had proclaimed.
Oh, John’s disciples would come and visit. They would tell him about what Jesus was doing there in Galilee – the miracles, the teaching. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” At one time John had rejoiced greatly over Jesus’ coming, but now he was beginning to wonder if he had made a big mistake putting his confidence in Jesus.
Why? Because Jesus was supposed to make things better for those who listened to John’s preaching, and worse for those who didn’t. John had preached repentance to the people of Israel. He had shown them their sin, shown them that no one could call himself righteous before God, that each one needed to mourn over his sins in true contrition, because Jesus was coming! He had pointed the penitent to Christ for forgiveness. Those who heeded his warnings were supposed to be saved; but those who had refused to listen – like the Pharisees, like King Herod – they were supposed to perish at the coming of Christ. Believers were supposed to be rescued from the wicked. The wicked were supposed to be crushed and removed from the face of the earth.
But the wicked weren’t being crushed or removed from the earth by Christ, and those who were living in repentance were still being persecuted and imprisoned by the wicked. There sat John in prison – soon to be beheaded. How could Jesus be the one we should expect? How could John rejoice?
You see how the joy of Jesus’ coming was hidden – even to John at this time? I find John’s doubt awfully familiar. Don’t you? We look around, and we may not be in prison, but we don’t see salvation for the people of God. Over 2000 celebrations of Christmas have taken place, and still, God’s people suffer afflictions. Still this world is filled with wickedness. And so, by the way, is your heart. Wickedness surrounds you. And wickedness still lives within you. And it’s not supposed to be that way! Your heart is supposed to be clean and free of selfish or lustful thoughts, but it isn’t. Your life is supposed to be lived in complete dedication to hearing, learning and doing God’s Word, but other concerns compete and sometimes win out. You’re supposed to care about the lost souls around us that haven’t heard the gospel, but you’ve grown all too caught up in your own life, all too content with the current size and make-up of our membership. It isn’t supposed to be this way. Can Jesus be the one we should expect?
Oh, where is the joy of Christ and the rejoicing of God’s people? It’s in the very repentance that John preached. Joy is hidden – like a single pink candle at the back of the Advent wreath – hidden in the sorrow of repentance, because there at the bottom of the barrel, when you’ve found that place where all your personal idols are torn down, all your goodness is stripped away and your sin is exposed and your shame is revealed – there comes Jesus. There comes Jesus with his kind of salvation – not the immediate removal of wickedness from the earth, but the immediate removal of your sin’s power to condemn you. There is Jesus, entrusting his servants with the secret things of God, commanding his Gospel minister, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for” – her sin! Not the sin of those wicked people over there. Don’t be surprised – and don’t you dare be disappointed that Jesus has not yet burned up the wicked with his coming, because that means that you have been spared. That means your sins have been paid for and there is comfort for you.
Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” All John could see at the moment was his own cross, and joy is always hidden when we focus on ourselves. Jesus called John to look up! To look up and focus on Jesus’ works and Jesus’ words. See, John! See the glimpses of salvation hidden behind Jesus’ lowliness and apparent inaction. Those who repent of their sins are being saved – some are being healed temporarily of their physical maladies. All are hearing the good news of forgiveness. And Christ’s preaching of good news to the poor is for you, too, you poor, downtrodden, sinful imprisoned prophet. Blessed is the one – happy is the one, joyful is the one who does not fall away – who does not stumble over me. Oh, John, hold on – just a little bit longer. Trust me! I won’t let you down. But don’t hold your breath waiting for earthly salvation. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
And lest the crowds there that day get the wrong idea about John or about Jesus, lest any of them start to wonder, like John, if Jesus was really the one who was to come, Jesus confirmed both John’s ministry and his own. “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Remember, Jesus tells them. You who followed John and listened to John during his ministry – you didn’t go out to see him in the desert because he looked so good or sounded so sweet. His environment was harsh. His manner of dress was strange. His message was stern. Your eyes and ears gave you no reason to find any joy in John the Baptizer.
So why did you out to him? What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” You went out to John because you recognized that, behind the camel skin shirt and the long hair and the stern message of repentance, there was truth – The Truth from God, the truth that pointed ahead to a Savior from sin, to real, lasting joy in Christ – joy that will outlast the pain of this world and continue into eternal life – joy that remains hidden from the eyes of the world but is revealed to the one who believes in Christ.
Joy is hidden behind the cross, like a single pink candle is hidden at the back of the Advent wreath. Blessed – joyful is the one who looks for the hidden joy of Christ’s Advent. There is joy hidden for you in repentance, because repentance always results in the forgiveness of all your sins. There is joy hidden for you under the cross of affliction and persecution, because you get to be like The Cross-Bearer as he appeared in weakness at his First Advent, which guarantees that you will also be like him in glory at his Second Advent. Rejoice that he comes to you now in Word and Sacrament with forgiveness and peace, and with the promise of his return. At the time of John the Baptizer, much had yet to be accomplished in this world before the end could come and the people of God could be rescued once and for all. But Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. The Advent candles have burned lower and lower through the ages. The time for his return is getting closer and closer. The time of your final redemption is drawing near. Look up from your prison cell! And gaudete! Rejoice! Amen.