Waiting and rejoicing in this age of the ministry of the Word

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Sermon for Gaudete – Advent 3

Malachi 3:1-6  +  1 Corinthians 4:1-5  +  Matthew 11:2-10

Two weeks ago we heard how Advent is a season of waiting, waiting for Christ to come, how waiting for Christ characterizes the Christian life on this earth. The Old Testament saints spent their whole lives waiting for the Christ to come, and generation after generation after generation passed away without seeing His coming.

Imagine the joy for those believers in Israel when the Christ finally came, when God’s ancient promises were finally fulfilled and the Seed of the woman was born. Imagine the joy of John the Baptist, who knew, from his parents, who heard it straight from the angel Gabriel, that he had been given a special role in God’s plan of salvation, to be the messenger who would “prepare the way before the face” of the Messiah, as Jesus also announces about John in our Gospel.

Well, John carried out his role faithfully. He preached strong words of repentance to Israel. To the penitent he cried out, “Come and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.” And he comforted them with the Gospel: the Christ is coming! Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! To the impenitent he cried out, “You brood of vipers!” Repent or watch out! The Christ is coming, all right. 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. Or as we heard this morning from the prophet Malachi. Then the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple.  But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire And like launderers’ soap.

And then Jesus the Lord did show up on the scene, just as John and Malachi had foretold, but Jesus’ coming may not have been quite what John expected. Where was the “refiner’s fire”? Where was the harsh and abrasive “launderers’ soap” that cleanses away the wicked people from the world? Where was the judgment of the wicked? Where was the punishment of those who refused to repent at John’s preaching? Instead, Jesus used only words. No lightning was called down from heaven against the wicked. (In fact, Jesus once forbade His disciples to do that when they wanted to call down fire from heaven on the cities that rejected Jesus.) No judgment wiped out the ungodly. Just words. Words of judgment and warning, to be sure, against those who would not repent. But no deeds of divine retribution. No tearing down of the rich and the mighty from their seats. No raising up the poor out of their financial poverty. The only deeds Christ did during His entire ministry were acts of healing; acts of temporary providence, like the feeding of the 5,000 and of the 4,000; and the tireless preaching of the Gospel of salvation from sin and guilt and death, by faith alone in Him.

Hmm. John sat in Herod’s prison waiting for his execution. And Jesus was out there, doing what? Preaching and teaching and healing individuals, but not fixing any of the big problems in the world. John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another? Jesus wasn’t doing what John expected Him to do. I don’t mean to say that John was disappointed in Jesus, or that John was looking for some kind of earthly, social justice from Jesus. Not at all. But it seems that John didn’t fully understand yet that God’s plan of salvation wasn’t going to be fulfilled all at once, even with the coming of the Christ. The Christ didn’t come into the world to execute final judgment on it. God’s plan was bigger and better than that. As Jesus once told His disciples, the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.

And He was saving 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. Jesus was fulfilling what the Old Testament Scriptures said the Savior would do. He was performing physical, outward healings as a sign of the spiritual, inner, hidden healing He was also doing by the power of the His Word: He opened spiritually blind eyes to see how dark their sin truly was and to see the light of Christ, the Savior from sin. He took those who were spiritually lame and unable to stand before God and walk in the way of righteousness, and He made them able to stand before God by faith in Christ and to walk in newness of life, to walk in righteousness, guided and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus took the spiritual lepers who were contaminated and corrupted by sin and cleansed them by His Word of forgiveness. He took the spiritually deaf, who couldn’t hear truth in God’s Word and opened their ears to hear and believe His Gospel. He took the spiritually dead, who were dead in sins and trespasses, and made them alive by grace, through faith. And He preached good news to the spiritually poor, to the penitent sinners, that God had given them His Son for a Savior, and together with Him, God would freely give them all things.

So what about all the Old Testament promises of the Christ coming and putting an end to suffering for His people and condemning the wicked and destroying death once and for all? That promise will be fulfilled by Jesus, too. But not yet. Not all at once.

First, according to God’s plan and divine decree, comes spiritual salvation, and that plan includes time—time the Gospel to be preached in all the world. God’s plan was for His Son, His Messiah, to suffer at the hands of sinners, to take our guilt upon Himself, to die for His enemies, and by His blood, to reconcile sinners to God—here, in this life, in a spiritual, hidden way. To redeem fallen mankind from the power of sin, death, and the devil. But Christ didn’t come to sweep His people up immediately into heaven or to impose peace on the earth or to get rid of all the wickedness from the earth. His plan included hundreds—even thousands—of years during which the Gospel would be preached, bringing sinners to faith, one by one. And during that time, Christians would have to wait, not in Christ’s glorious kingdom, but in His spiritual kingdom of grace, which means waiting for Christ here on this sinful earth and suffering in humility until He comes again in glory.

The kingdom of Christ remains hidden now, during this age, within the ministry of the Word. He rules behind the scenes. He comes to earth and to the hearts of men with words. He comes with humble words of preaching and teaching, words connected to outward signs of water and bread and wine. He doesn’t come with any “refiner’s fire” but the fire of His Word, or with any “launderers’ soap” except for the abrasive force of His Law as it exposes and condemns our sin, and with the cleansing power of His Gospel as it drives us to Jesus and pronounces forgiveness upon everyone who trusts in Jesus alone.

As Paul said to the Corinthians in today’s Epistle, “We,” that is the apostles and the ministers of the Word, “are stewards of the mysteries of God,” those entrusted with the responsibility of preaching the Word of Christ and administering the sacraments of Christ to the people of Christ. It’s God’s way of dealing with His people during this age, between the first and the second coming of Christ. This is how God punishes sins in the rebellious, through the Word. This is how God forgives sins to the penitent, through the Word. This is how God sustains and strengthens His people to endure hardship and suffering and persecution and death—by means of this ministry of the Word. This is God’s plan for this age.

So Jesus sends word back to John: Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me. What does that mean? It means Jesus may not do all the things one expects Him to do. It means that a person may stumble over Jesus and His plan for this world that includes suffering both for Him and for His Christians. A person may give up on Jesus because he wants earthly peace and comfort and isn’t content with the humble working of Jesus through the ministry of the Word. But blessed is he who does not stumble over Jesus, because He really does know what He’s doing. And He and His Church really will triumph in the end.

Those words of Jesus sustained the faith of John the Baptist and enabled Him to persevere until the end and to face his suffering—and even his executioner—still trusting in Jesus as his Savior, still confessing Christ as the Lord. The word of Jesus will do the same for you. So rejoice in the Lord always, even though His kingdom is hidden from your sight. Rejoice even now as He carries out His mighty plan of salvation in this age through the blessed ministry of the Word. Amen.

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