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Sermon for Gaudete – Advent 3
1 Corinthians 4:1-5 + Matthew 11:2-10
In this Advent season, as we focus on waiting for the coming Christ, we’ve talked about what the coming Christ will be like, and what will happen when He comes. He’ll come in glory. He’ll come for judgment. He’ll come with eternal salvation for those who have persevered in the faith, and with vengeance against all His foes.
But, as we’ve also discussed, that’s not how or why He came the first time. He came the first time in humility, in poverty, in meekness, not to condemn anyone, but to save everyone by His sacrificial death on the cross, and by sending out ministers in His name, equipped with His Holy Spirit, to preach His Gospel and to build His Church throughout the world until He comes the second time.
You and I have been told what to expect from Jesus. We may even take that knowledge for granted. But it wasn’t so clear for the Old Testament believers, and it’s still something that New Testament believers struggle to keep straight—what to expect from Christ here and now as you wait for Him to come, what to expect while you’re expecting.
John the Baptist knew that the Christ was coming, and that Jesus was the Christ. But the Old Testament was intentionally vague and blurry in its prophecies about Christ’s coming and often blended together prophecies of His first coming and His second coming into one great prophecy of the future, so that many Old Testament believers expected the Christ to come only once, both to make atonement for sins and to remove all wickedness from the world, to usher in the eternal kingdom of God in a visible way. John the Baptist knew that the Christ was coming, but he—or, at least, his disciples—seemed to be struggling with the lack of change Jesus was bringing into the world. His miracles were amazing. But they weren’t solving the larger problem of evil.
When John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”
John, the great forerunner of the Messiah, as Jesus Himself testified about him, wasn’t leading a quiet, peaceful life as a prophet of God. He was in Herod’s prison, because he had preached against Herod’s adultery. He was in prison, waiting to be beheaded, even as the promised Christ walked about the land of Israel in the flesh. It’s not that John was complaining about his plight. It just didn’t make sense.
Are You the one who was to come? We’re wondering, Jesus, because it doesn’t look like You are. We were expecting bigger things at Your Advent: vengeance against Your enemies. Salvation for God’s people. The end of pain and suffering. The restoration of Paradise. As John had preached earlier about the Christ, 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.
But where is the winnowing fan? Where is the gathering of the wheat? Where the burning up of the chaff? The wicked still prosper. The wicked still preside over a corrupt church. Meanwhile, the godly are in prison. The godly are still weak. The godly still suffer. Sickness and death still reign. The Christ is supposed to fix everything at His coming, isn’t He? How did Jesus’ actions harmonize with the promises of the Coming One?
Jesus answered and said to John’s disciples, “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.”
Jesus helps to correct the misunderstanding of John’s disciples, still without explaining everything in detail. He tells them, stop focusing on the things I’m not doing that you think I should be doing. Focus on what you see Me doing. You see Me doing the very miraculous signs that are predicted in the Old Testament Scriptures. You hear Me preaching the Gospel to the poor—not the Gospel of riches here on earth, or the Gospel of a reasonably comfortable middle-class life, but the Gospel of the riches of God’s love for poor, miserable sinners, love that is personified in Jesus Himself, who came in humility that He might live under the Law in our place, be righteous in place of all our unrighteousness, and suffer the Law’s condemnation, so that we could be justified by faith and made heirs of everlasting riches in the new creation, when Christ comes again.
You can’t see it all yet, John, and I can’t explain it all to you yet, either. You can’t see how I will be crucified and raised on the third day. You can’t see yet how I’ll send the Gospel out into the world, or how I’ll gather My Church over the centuries, or how I’ll preserve a remnant of believers throughout the whole world all the way up to the end. All you can see and hear is Me, right now, preaching the Gospel. That’s all you should expect for now. Don’t be offended by it. Don’t be offended by Me, the humble Preacher of the Gospel. Instead, rejoice!
What should you expect from the Christ while you’re expecting His return? Maybe your life isn’t what you think it should be, what you’ve asked God to make it. Maybe things aren’t going well. Nothing’s easy. And it’s getting harder. Jesus keeps saying things that you don’t understand, or worse, that you don’t like or agree with, that go contrary to our culture and our cultural beliefs. Is Christianity really the right way?
It is. And not our culture’s twisted version of Christianity, either, but the genuine Christianity presented in the Scriptures and carried on by the Church catholic, by the churches that are faithful to the Lutheran Confessions. Because true Christianity teaches now what Christ Himself always taught: suffering here. Humility here. Humble preaching of the Gospel here, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament, as the way in which Christ will gather and preserve believers until He comes again to fix everything that is wrong.
To highlight that very point, Jesus then turns in our Gospel to the crowds who were there with Him, many of whom had first followed John the Baptist out in the wilderness.
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.’
Think back, Jesus says, to when John was baptizing in the wilderness and you all went out to him. What did you go out to him for? Did you think of him as a prosperity preacher? No, you didn’t. Did he dress in fancy clothes and impress you with his oratory skills or with his wit? No, he didn’t. Did you expect him to adjust his message to the liking of the leadership? Did you expect him to be nice and friendly and relational, to preach a soft, sweet message of peace on earth, an easy life, an earthly kingdom of glory? No, you didn’t. You went out to him because you believed he was a prophet from God, with a message from God. And you were right. He is a prophet, and more than that, the prophesied forerunner of the Christ, sent to prepare the way for Me!
So, does it surprise you that he’s in prison, that God would let that happen to His prophet? Or even that he’s sending to Me to ask questions? It shouldn’t. What you see in John is what you should expect of every genuine prophet—a somewhat strange preacher of the truth who doesn’t fit in, who suffers for his preaching, who may even struggle to understand what he preaches, but who always points to Christ as the answer to your sin, and who always sends you to Christ to answer your doubts.
This is a lesson for us about the ministry of the Word. What should you expect while you’re expecting Christ’s return? Expect that He will keep sending ministers, prophets, preachers who will be a lot like John the Baptist, and know that Jesus expects you to listen to them. Not necessarily preachers who are nice or friendly or who tell cute stories or run a good church activity or community outreach program. No, what you should expect, if it’s a Biblical ministry, is a minister who preaches nothing but the pure Word of God, who regularly calls you—and all people—to repentance and faith in Christ, who administers the Sacraments, and, to some degree, who suffers for all of it. You should expect exactly what St. Paul tells the Corinthians to expect: Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
It’s helpful to know what to expect while you’re expecting Christ to return. Then you won’t be disappointed. Then you’ll see that Christ is doing everything He said He would do and giving you exactly what He promised to give you in this life—not comfort, not ease, not a growing church, not perfection, but the humble ministry of the Gospel, through which He Himself calls you to repentance, kindles your faith and fans it into flame, comforts you under the cross, and even enables you to rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Amen.