Rejoicing in the Violence of the Cross: A Sermon for Gaudete on Matthew 11:2-10

Baptist beheaded (Gaudete)

The introduction to this sermon has been adapted from Pastor Ken Kelly’s excellent Gaudete homily. You can read the whole thing at:

That John the Baptist was in prison should come as an absolute shock to everyone who reads the Gospel of Matthew. John doesn’t belong in a prison; he belongs in asylum! What’s wrong with this guy? Either he had finally eaten one locust too many, or maybe all that time in the wilderness wearing camel skin had finally gotten to him. Either way, how could John, of all people, ask a question like Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?

Didn’t John leap for joy in the wombat the sound of Mary’s greeting (Luke 1:41, 44)? Wasn’t it his job to prepare the way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3)?  And indeed, did he not point to Jesus and say with his own mouth, behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)? Did he not with his own eyes see the dove descend upon Jesus at His baptism, and with his own ears hear the veryvoice of God from heaven (Matthew 3:16—17)?

How could John even consider asking Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another (Matthew 11:3)? Something’s up here. Now bear in mind that John’s in prison when we meet him in Matthew 11, and he’s having a real-life nightmare, but instead of waking up, he remains in prison while his head is brought to Herod on a silver platter (Matthew 14:1—12).

If John’s broken under the pressure, could you really blame him? You know the promises of God. You know Christ is your only refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). You know that He is the One who brings peace into the midst of the chaos of your life (Psalm 46:2—7), who alone can still the raging of storms and nations. In Him alone are found green pastures, still waters, peace on earth and peace with God (Psalm 23:2—3, Luke 2:14).

And still, the moment things start to fall apart, is it not as if you’d never heard anything of this Jesus, His presence with you, about His victory over your sin and the grave? Do you not have every reason to rejoice, always? Is not to live Christ and to die gain (Philippians 1:21)? Why then are you so afraid? Have you still no faith (Mark 4:40)?

Maybe John isn’t so crazy after all. Maybe he’s just human.

Or it could be that John knows exactly what he’s doing, that he’s taking this one last opportunity to point to Jesus. After all, it’s kind of hard to preach the Gospel from prison. Could it be that John has used his one phone call to point us, this one last time, to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Did he not get in touch with his disciples and send them to Jesus? And didn’t Jesus make it clear that John was not a reed shaken by the wind (Matthew 11:7)?

When John’s  disciples get back to Jesus, He tells them point-blank: From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force (Mat 11:12 ). The cost of discipleship is high. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and if you truly follow Jesus, you will suffer for it.

This is neither fun nor easy. It’s why so many churches today soft-sell Christianity and preach their own version of the Gospel where Jesus has only happy things to say. This life is a long and often painful journey through the valley of the death-shadow. But you do not go alone. As David wrote in the Psalm: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).

We like our idols, but the problem with idols is that they’re idols. We might find comfort in them for a while, but sooner or later we will be brought face to face with reality. Reality may not always be pleasant, but it does no good to live in denial. What’s more, if there’s nothing wrong then we don’t need Jesus and we’re all wasting our time here today.But there is something wrong, and you know it. Things aren’t the way they should be.

During Tiffinie’s first pregnancy I received a phone call from an abortion clinic right around 20 weeks urging us to make an appointment to come in. This all came about  because the little boy in her womb wasn’t measuring quite as the “experts” had anticipated. And do you know that when we refused, the lady from the clinic became angry with me and insisted that if we changed our mind, we should call this place in Detroit that would still do the abortion after 20 weeks? If we had given in to the pressure of one of our doctors and this clinic, our very healthy 6-year old son wouldn’t be here with us today. And this whole thing could have been avoided if only the doctors had accurately calculated our son’s due date the first time.

Things are not as they should be. Why should children die, unborn or living? Why should anyone die, for that matter? Why should some be afflicted with homosexual desires? And the rest of us with impure heterosexual ones? Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease (Jeremiah 12:1)?

And why should anybody suffer for the sake of the Gospel? Why should John lose his head over it? If there’s one thing that ought to result in nothing but peace, you’d think it would be the Gospel.Things aren’t as they should be. But the wicked prosper (or so it seems), and to confess the pure Gospel is to take up your cross and suffer with Jesus.

But God would use even your suffering to advance the Gospel. Speaking of his imprisonment, St. Paul says, Now I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has actually come to pass for the progress of the Gospel (Phil 1:12).

And indeed, isn’t this the point of all suffering? That it might be an opportunity for Christ’s power to be made manifest in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9)? Isn’t that why we remember and give thanks to God for the martyrs, like the Holy Innocents, St. Stephen, and St. James, the brother of our Lord? Was the shedding of their blood for the sake of Jesus not some of the most powerful sermons ever preached?

All of this on a day called, Gaudete (Gow- DAY- teh), which means, “rejoice.” How could we possibly rejoice when faced with the messes of life and especially the violence of the cross?

Because of just that: the violence of the cross. You can rejoice because of the greatest confession of love the world has ever known,that your Lord hung there and confessed His love for you with His own blood, the very same blood into which you were baptized.

You can rejoice because there is One who didn’t break under the pressure; who sought refuge in God; who prayed all the more earnestly while He was in agony, who continued to pray even when His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44); who in the face of death did not run, but said, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39); whose final words were, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).

So rejoice! Your Lord never returns denial with denial. He is with you in your suffering. He releases you from the powerful grip of guilt and shame. He even raises up the dead. In the words of the Psalm: Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:8)!

Blessed indeed are all who take refuge in Him, who find joy in feasting with Him at His Table with angels, archangels, the Holy Innocents, John the Baptist, Sts. Stephen and James, and all those who rest in Christ. Let us rejoice and give thanks to the Lord our God, indeed!

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Matthew 11:2—10
Gaudete, 2013: “Rejoicing in the Violence of the Cross”
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