Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent – December 11, 2022
James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” “This is not at all what I expected.” “How could God let this happen?” “How can I believe that Jesus is the savior when I don’t feel saved at all?”
Jesus described John the Baptist as the greatest of all the prophets, and yet all these thoughts and questions went through John’s mind.
The John we meet in our gospel reading for today is a very different John than the one we met last week. Last week John was full of vim and vigor, preaching boldly and bravely, calling people to repent, for the kingdom of heaven had come near. John lambasted Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a brood of vipers, a bunch of snakes. He barked that the ax was lying at the root of the tree, and any branch that didn’t bear good fruit would be thrown into the fire. He said that one more powerful than him was coming, and that he would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. John was fearless and loud!
Later, John’s big mouth would get him in trouble with Herod Antipas, the Jewish king who served as a puppet ruler for the Romans. Herod had his own personal sexual revolution going on which became a bit of a public scandal. Herod abandoned his first wife in order to marry his sister-in-law – that’s right, his brother’s wife. Herod passed himself off as a pious Jew when it fit his purposes, but then he ignored Jewish law about marriage in order to indulge his appetites. Well, John just couldn’t let this slide. He publicly rebuked Herod for his behavior, and he ended up in prison for it.
Perhaps John was expecting that his stand against adultery would earn him protection from God. Perhaps, once he was imprisoned, he though that Jesus would put together a tactical squad to come orchestrate a jail break, or maybe that he would negotiate for a prisoner swap. After all, wasn’t the Messiah supposed to overthrow their oppressors and bring liberty to the captives?
John sat in his prison cell, waiting for something to happen. He had plenty of time to think. As days went by, maybe weeks, some troubling questions started to come into his mind. “Is Jesus the One? Was I wrong about him, because this is not at all how I expected things to go! Should I be waiting for someone else, some other Messiah, some other savior?”
John’s questions, his experience, his feelings, are not unfamiliar to us. They are not uncommon, even amongst the most devout and faithful Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. If John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest of all the prophets, experienced this season of confusion, if he asked these troubling questions, why should we expect to be spared from them?
And it seems to me that this confusion and these questions are especially common during the holidays. We are told over and over again that it’s the most wonderful time of the year, and then people get confused or troubled when things aren’t so wonderful. People watch hours of Hallmark Christmas movies, where everything gets wrapped up neatly in a nice bow by the end, when every problem gets resolved by some last-minute Christmas miracle, and then people get confused and troubled when they don’t get a Christmas miracle of their own.
The truth is, this is a hard time of year for many people. I wrote about this in the church newsletter this month, and have had more responses to it than any other article in a long time. It is a season which is fraught with emotion, with so many expectations, that it leaves many people disappointed and despairing. Family gatherings, or lack of gatherings, sometimes open up old wounds, causing fresh stabs of pain. Financial stress gets worse when it seems like everyone else has new iphones under the tree. There are people who can’t enjoy Christmas cookies or egg nog with their family because they are nauseous from chemo. There are single parents trying to juggle all the expectations of Christmas on their own. I remember as a child of divorce how stressful this time of year was as all those special Christmas moments had to be carefully divided up between time with mom and time with dad, and how it meant leaving one parent sad and alone in order to be with the other. There are widows and widowers and others who have lost beloved family members and find that their grief is powerfully stirred up this time of year.
Oftentimes this brings confusion. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This isn’t what I was expecting at all. How could God let this happen?” And often this confusion leads to questions, questions like John’s: “Who is this Messiah again? Who is this savior? Because I don’t feel very saved. Where is he? Why isn’t he breaking me out of this jail cell? Why isn’t he freeing me from this awful situation? Is Jesus the One, or should I be waiting for someone or something else?”
John sent a few of his friends to go and ask Jesus precisely this question. And Jesus responded by sending his friends back with a word of reassurance. Jesus didn’t scold John or asking the question. He didn’t say, “How dare you ask that?” Instead, through the witness of these friends Jesus pointed John back to the promises of scripture. The prophets had said that when the Messiah came the blind would receive their sight, the lame would walk, the lepers would be cleansed, the deaf would hear, the dead would be raised, and the poor would have good news brought to them.
Jesus was indeed already doing many of these things, but while Jesus may have been doing great things for others, setting them free, he wasn’t doing it for John. And so Jesus is asking John to believe in a promise he cannot yet see. He is encouraging John to look beyond his circumstances to the promise given to him in scripture. He is telling John to stop looking inwardly at his feelings and instead to keep his eyes on him, even if he seems to be taking his sweet time. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus said. He is inviting John to live by faith.
John, like many of us at times, seems to have been a little confused about what Jesus’ ultimate mission was. Jesus was healing people from dreadful diseases. He was restoring people’s sight and hearing. He was helping the lame to walk again. But these were all signs of the greater salvation he would bring. For every person healed during Jesus’ short time walking the earth, there were countless people who were not physically restored, and millions, perhaps billions, who have not since. These miracles were signs pointing to something bigger that Jesus was up to. Jesus ultimately came to heal people from the disease of sin. He came to open up people’s eyes to God’s mercy and their ears to the Good News of God’s grace. He came to raise people up to walk in newness of life. He came to conquer death so that we could live forever with him. All the miracles leading up to his death and resurrection were simply signs pointing to this greater salvation he was bringing. He hadn’t come to organize a tactical squad to bust people out of Herod’s prisons, he came to set all people free from their bondage to sin. He hadn’t come to form an army to overthrow Rome, he came to defeat death and the devil.
Jesus send John’s friends back to him with this message. Jesus wanted John to trust the promise. He wanted him to know that he was One, that he wasn’t wrong. He was the long-promised savior, and that while things weren’t currently going the way he expected, he would indeed see his salvation in due time. In the meantime, John was to keep his eyes on Jesus. He was to keep his ears tuned to the Word. He was to hold on to the promise. He was to look away from himself and to the words and deeds of Christ.
Some of you here today are like John. Perhaps you’re thinking, “This isn’t at all what I expected my life to be like at this point. This isn’t how things are supposed to be, especially this time of year. How could God let this happen?” Perhaps you’re asking, “Is Jesus the savior, because I don’t feel very saved.”
Today our Lord encourages you to keep your eyes on him and your ears tuned to his Word, his promises. Jesus isn’t angered by those tough questions, but he does want you to know the truth, the truth that he is your savior! And so he encourages all of us to look away from ourselves and our circumstances, whether those circumstances are good or difficult or a mix. He encourages us instead to look to his Word, to his promises.
Instead of looking inwardly, at our feelings, which may be happy and light or may be dark and despairing, or may swing from one to the other depending on the moment, Jesus instead encourages us to look at the signs he has given to us, the little miracles he gives us in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion which point to the bigger salvation he has in store for us.
As James reminds us in our second reading, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Like John, we sometimes might have to wait. Like John, that waiting can be unpleasant. But “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Although it might at times seem like Jesus is taking his sweet time, our patience is blessed by God.
Our circumstances in life can change on a dime, and our feelings are fleeting, but Christ’s promises, the promise that we are forgiven and that we are loved and that we are destined for eternity with him, are something we can hold onto. We are invited today to trust these promises, no matter what is currently going on in our lives. These promises remain until he comes to again to make all things new.
In the meantime, even now these promises set us free from our prisons of doubt and despair, so that we would live in hope and peace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church