Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (13 December A+D 2015)
The Rev. Dr. John W. Sias
Pastor, Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, Colstrip, Montana
Isaiah 40:1–8; 1 Corinthians 4:1–5; Matthew 11:2–10
John the Baptist is the Elijah who was to come, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and children to their fathers, lest the Lord’s coming be a curse and not a blessing to the earth. Another Elijah there will not be—we live in the last days. He turns hearts young and old to what lasts, to the word of the Lord that endures forever, as man’s flower fades and stalk withers. “What shall I cry?” He cried: “Repent, and believe the Gospel, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” And “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
There is no greater man born in the normal way of women than John the Baptist, and no prophet among the prophets—and he is more than a prophet, our Lord says. He is no reed shaken by the wind, no voice rattled this way and that by prevailing winds, much less is he some fop-king, gone soft in finery. What good are such men? No, he is the precipice, the point of the spear, the divine bulldozer sent to smash every mountain and fill in every hole, to make straight the highway of our God: straight, one way, into the hearts of men and, the other, to his gory but glorious throne. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
But now we hear John’s bones rattling in Herod’s prison, and we know his grass is withering and flower fading; that John will not get out of there with his head on. And our Lord says, great as John is, “he who is least, the littlest one, in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”—a strange thing to say of John, as if he were not in the kingdom.
For what Matthew’s Gospel has about the kingdom of the heavens fits John. He preached the kingdom was at hand in Jesus. He seems to have been poor in spirit (“I must decrease, and he, increase”). He was certainly persecuted for righteousness’ sake, locked up and condemned because when Herodias divorced one of her uncles (that’s right) to marry the other, he called a thing what it was. And Jesus says of the poor in spirit and of those persecuted for righteousness’ sake that the kingdom of the heavens is theirs. John did not relax the commandments, so as to be least in the kingdom of heaven, but did and practiced them, so as to be called great, his righteousness exceeding that of scribe and Pharisee. These learned and pious people he rightly called a brood of vipers. He knew the secret of the kingdom of heaven, that Jesus is God’s Son, the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, and he rejoiced with joy at the gates to see him come. If the kingdom of heaven wasn’t John the Baptist’s, I don’t know whose it is. But the least in it, Jesus says, is greater than he.
Our Lord’s point in that is not to flatter us, to say that the least interested, least committed, most wayward of us baptized-into-the-kingdom is still better than old John. So relax, eat, drink, be merry? No! We might think that, pointing at John as he did toward the Christ, but to sneer, “Look how he now doubts! He makes my faith look good!” But our mothers said, if you reckon John’s faith as having failed, fingers point back at you threefold.
No, our Lord does not speak that way of his own, and John is his own. Which of us has—out of care for what God has to say, or of love for powerful men who nonetheless die and face the judgment—which, done as the Psalm (119:46) says and as John did: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and I will not be put to shame.” Which of us has stood out stalwart and single-minded, lived on locusts and wild honey (some daily bread!), proclaiming repentance and Baptism for the forgiveness of sins to a whole people, let alone to our community, or even our people? Which of us deserves to be painted always with arm extended and mouth open, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?” We are nothing compared to John the Baptist. Jesus was his whole life; repentance and the forgiveness of sins. “I must decrease and he, increase!” Even our day to day vocations, which God values because he loves our neighbors, we do not throw ourselves into as John did to his. But most of all the word of repentance, the word of forgiveness, are wanting, even our wanting to hear them, let alone speak them. By the Spirit John finds Jesus and his whole life is “Repent! Believe the Gospel! The kingdom of God is at hand!” How now, ye who are in the kingdom of God? In like Flynn, what’s it mean to us? Will we say a word of it? Do we care?
That is not an “Aw, schucks, but thank goodness the Lutheran Confessions and old Luther force the pastor to move on to the Gospel” sort of an observation. John did not preach the law that way. John will not let us get away with that. This law hits me like a ton of bricks, and should any heart that’s still warm. This law does not wink and nod, this Law John preached. John had an inkling of what Jesus fully knows, what is in man. “Repent!” was his opening, no matter to whom. He believed. And cared. And so his life, at the verge of the end of days, judges us, upon whom the end of days has come. The least of us is greater than he, our Lord says. Really? Well, that is, if he had something to captivate his life, to make him the slave of God most high, to go turn the hearts of the children of his people to the Lord their God, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared, how much more have we, who have not only his pointing, but the the thing he pointed to!
And I am not speaking of clothing and shoes, house and home, wife and children, fields, cattle, and so on, of which we have more in spades than old John, but that’s not in the kingdom of heaven; that’s here on earth, and more of all that here does not make one greater there. John didn’t point at all that, “Behold the stuff that saves the world!” Who cares? We do, God help us! But the grass withers and the flower fades. Yet, if you do not stand at the verge of the kingdom of heaven but are in it, you are greater than John the Baptist. He pointed at Christ, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” You have this Lamb of God, and he has taken your sins away. John begged to be baptized by Jesus. “I should not baptize you; you should baptize me.” But you have been baptized by Jesus. John was God’s instrument of giving for a time. You have received for all time. And who is greater? The one who waits table, or the one waited on? You have received. And at table! The food that made John the Baptist who he was, locusts and wild honey. The food that makes you who you are? The body and blood of Christ! Thus you, who are in the kingdom of God, if you do not hold back at the verge of it, are greater than John was. Not that you have done more or are a better person. You haven’t and aren’t, and neither have or am I. But you have been given more, and it is what God gives us that makes us, and you have more than he got.
And yet, there is doubt. No? If you do not doubt in your heart the facts of the faith, whether God means his law, and for our good, whether a man Jesus died and really rose the third day, whether he is God’s Son, and so on, then doubt gets you between these things and their implications. We who, by virtue of Jesus’ Resurrection, shall never die, live in fear of death—which is not really to live. We who have in our ears and hearts the word of life—or if you stand at the verge of the kingdom, who at least have it today in your ears—does not doubt obstruct its railroad to our mouths? We who have a God who’s prepared by his own blood once offered an eternal weight of glory for us that is beyond compare, we crave earthly glory and mourn its passing to others. God help us, we do! You may not put to words, “Is this Jesus the one who was to come, or should we expect another?” But our actions suggest this is constantly on our minds, and the prison walls close in, and Salome warms up her dance.
And yet! This is not quite what John put to words either, “Is this Jesus the one who was to come?” That is a deadly sort of doubt, the opposite of faith, although that question, even, has a purpose. There are things no one bothers to doubt, because there’s nothing there, and because it doesn’t matter. You don’t give two shakes whether there really was a Zeus, and I suspect thinking Greeks didn’t either. Allah cannot be proven or disproven, or Buddha. They teach ideas. There is nothing to prove or disprove, just philosophy that might work or not. The Christian faith is not that. It could be disproven, theoretically, unlike all these other false religions, because it rests not on ideas but on facts. Had Jesus not been raised bodily from the dead, we, Paul says, would be without hope. But he rose. The body of Jesus produced would void the faith, render it stupid. But no such body has been (or, we know, will be) produced. It matters that there is a Jesus, and that he is the one to come, because we do not save ourselves by working out his ideas, but he saves us by what he did and does. So “Is Jesus the one?” is an important question, even if it reveals that doubt that’s the enemy of faith.
But that’s not what John asks—and, given your presence here today, not what you’re asking. John doesn’t ask, “Is Jesus the one?” He says, “Jesus, are you the one?” Catch the difference? He wants to hear it again from the source, from Jesus himself. That, my friends, is not doubt the way we think of doubt, or if it is, it is some doubt that is the friend of faith, like hunger is the friend, the helper, of fullness. John basically says, when he hears of Jesus doing all Isaiah spoke of, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the Gospel preached to the poor, and so on—all except “release to the captives,” captive John says, “Jesus, tell me again.”
You are here for that, O dear fellow captives of this prison-house of sin and death. The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Our grass withers. Our flower fades. Herodias’ daughter dances and the king of this world leers, and our heads feel loose. (That’s Matthew 14.) But worst of all, our flesh is so weak, our ears so dull, our hearts so hard, our tongues so tied. None of this should be. Christ has promised—and baptized, and absolved, and nourished us. He’s done more for us than for John. Yet we groan. Flesh is weak, but the Spirit is willing. So you are here to ask with John, believing, “Tell us again, O Jesus, that you are the one, that you will do it.” “I AM” he says. “It doesn’t look finished, but it is. I am yours and yours are mine. Take, eat; take, drink. Listen! Your sins are forgiven. You shall not die, but really living, live. And blessed are you, who are not offended by me.” Blessed, that is, are you, even if the least in the kingdom of God, for you have more than John got. And blessed are you if, even the least and most worthless in the kingdom of God, if you are not offended by Jesus—that is if you count him, by this good news preached to the poor, enough to redeem you. So, if we doubt, let us doubt with John that doubt that is the friend of faith: “Come, Lord Jesus, tell us again—I need to hear it always—until you come to take us home.”