The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
We live in a culture today where, when trouble arises, the first instinct, more often than not, is to pull out the cellphone and get it all on video so that it can be immediately posted online for all the world to see. Either that, or we take the approach, “I don’t want to get involved. It’s none of my business.” Blind eyes, deaf ears, and just keep walking. Either way, it’s sad, isn’t it? This is the world we live in.
Of course, I know this isn’t always the case. We might be guilty of treating perfect strangers like this (and we all are, in one way or another, either filming or ignoring), but things change when that someone who’s in dire straits is someone near and dear to us. Just about everyone will put down the phone when a loved one is in trouble. We’ll get involved and it is very much our business when one of our own is suffering and in trouble. We’ll stop everything; we’ll drop everything; we’ll give everything in order to help a person we love, and we don’t care who is watching or if anyone even sees at all, because it’s not about the views or the likes at that point. It’s not about fame or popularity. It’s about truly helping someone we care about. We’ve all been there before. We know what it means to take action when someone near and dear to us is in trouble. We know what it is to do something…anything. And that’s just it: We’ll do ANYTHING. We refuse to stand by idle and be a passive victim or spectator. We’ll take any kind of action and do whatever it takes in order to help our loved one when they’re suffering and struggling.
And it’s with this “do anything to help” kind of mentality that we approach our Gospel text for today. John the Baptist is in prison, and he knows it’s not going to end well. The first century Roman penal system wasn’t like today. It was a dungeonous hell on earth. And why does John find himself in this terrible place? Answer: Because he told the Truth of God’s Word, and he didn’t care who he was speaking it to. When he told King Herod the Truth that his marriage to his brother’s wife was illicit and adulterous and sinful, Herod “solved” the problem by throwing John in jail to rot. Out of sight, out of mind.
It’s from this hellish prison cell that John sends messengers to Jesus to ask if He [Jesus] really is the Messiah…or should they be looking for someone else. Now, I know that we’ve talked about this a lot over the years. Truth be told: Christians have been debating this LONG before we ever entered into the discussion. Did John the Baptist send the messengers to Jesus because he was having doubts, or did John send the messengers to Jesus because they were having doubts and John wanted them to hear the Gospel Truth straight from Christ’s mouth?
A lot of very good and faithful men have argued for the latter. John wouldn’t and didn’t doubt. After all, this was the guy who did the happy dance while he was still a six-month old peanut in his mom’s womb. He recognized Christ even while in the womb, the words penetrating to his little soul and causing him to jump for joy. Even in the womb he knew he was in the presence of the Christ. Even in the womb he understood what many adults still fail to understand/comprehend. This was the guy who physically beheld the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove when he baptized Him. He knew this was Jesus because the Father Himself told him, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” This is He who is the Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. You know what? I can’t argue with any of this. Maybe John didn’t have any doubts. Maybe he was that outstanding of a Christian, caring for and teaching his disciples even as he rotted away faithfully in his cell.
Then again…maybe John was really no different than you and me. Last I checked, John did wear sinful flesh, just like you and I do. He did have a sinful mom and a sinful dad, just like us. Being a son of Adam; a sinner by nature, who needed a Savior, something which he himself confessed to Jesus when Jesus asked John to baptize Him. “I need to be baptized by You, but you come to me?” If John wasn’t really any different from us in terms of sin and the need of salvation, is it really so strange to think that he would suffer and struggle with the same things we do? Is it really so strange and offensive to think that John didn’t have a perfect faith (like Jesus); a faith that, when crushed and bruised and beaten up, might actually struggle in doubt and despair…like us and our faith? Is it so strange to think that John can’t leave prison so he sends messengers to ask his question? I can’t argue with any of this either.
But here’s the thing: The point we want to focus on today isn’t whether or not John doubted. The point we want to focus on today is Jesus’ response. More specifically, it’s all that Jesus doesn’t do here that should really raise some eyebrows. Remember: The incarcerated and suffering John is Jesus’ beloved cousin. And yet…Jesus doesn’t handle this terrible thing like we would. He doesn’t drop everything and try to spring John from prison. He doesn’t go into over-drive, putting together auctions and bake sales and benefits in order to raise the funds for the necessary bribes and bail. He doesn’t organize a mob or bake a cake with a file in it in an attempt to help John break out. He doesn’t work the media or the crowds, trying to stir up public discord and insurrection. That’s the world we live in, right? Raise enough Cain; get enough people mad, and those in charge will cave and compromise. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Jesus doesn’t even channel His divine powers and work a miracle to get John out. No changes of heart or Jedi mind-tricks on Herod or Pilate or the guards. No earthquakes to spring the doors open. Nothing. Jesus doesn’t do ANYTHING we would do if we had that kind of power and ability.
So what exactly does Jesus do? Answer: He points John and his disciples to the Word and Promise of Scripture. More specifically, Jesus points them to the very fulfillment of all that Word and Promise. “That’s it?! There’s gotta be more than that, right? Just the Word? What’s that gonna do?!” Jesus—the very Word of God in the flesh—points them to all the miracles He’s already worked in their very hearing and presence: the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead, the healing of the bleeding woman, the healing of the two blind guys who called out to Him to be merciful, the healing of the mute demon-possessed man…and this is all right after He stepped out of the boat from driving a herd of demon-possessed pigs over the cliff after they had been exorcised out of the possessed man living in the graveyard. This is all that John’s disciples had just beheld with their own eyes. “You go tell John what you’ve just seen.” Christ sends these two guys back with His Word; His proof of hope, assurance, comfort, and peace. He sends these guys back with the proof that the Gospel is in the flesh and very much at work and fulfilling all that John had been testifying and prophesying about. God is at work, working His plan and keeping His promise…just as He had been saying all along.
Now, the reason I say all this is because I know that this can be a very tough and depressing time of the year for many people. Maybe not for you, but I know you know someone close to you who’s struggling. Consequently, many people are looking for solutions to their troubles. Those struggling are looking for quick-fix remedies and actions they can take to alleviate their suffering, and the good-intentioned loved ones of the suffering are seeking to take action so that they can help alleviate that suffering. Everyone wants to help! Everyone wants to do something…ANYTHING! It’s just in our nature.
Well…here is Christ. I’m not going to point you to prescriptions and self-help. I’m not going to point you the actions you think you need to do. What I’m going to do is point you to Christ and all that He has already done for you, and all that He continues to do for you in your very hearing and presence. I point you to His cross. “It is finished!” Does it get any better than that?! Actually, it does.
“I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Look here. Look to the font. Here is where your God and Lord has made you His own, washing away all your guilt and condemnation, baptizing you into His victorious death and resurrection, washing you and putting His name upon your head and your heart, claiming you from the bonds of sin, death, and the devil and securing for you the free and unconditional and irrevocable gift of everlasting salvation. Look here to the altar. Here is Christ, in your very presence, kneeling down from Heaven to place His almighty and victorious Body and Blood into your mouth, for the complete forgiveness of all sin and the peace that surpasses all understanding.
Listen to His Word of absolution. “Your sins are forgiven and remembered no more, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the very triune name that you bear in Holy Baptism. Folks: Your Lord Christ Himself has already promised that the gates of hell cannot prevail against this Gospel certainty! It doesn’t matter how dark or depressive or scary this world may get. Nothing and no one can snatch this Gospel gift away from you. “You belong to Me. Whether you live, whether you die, you belong to Me. It is finished.” If this doesn’t give you a comfort and peace beyond all understanding, nothing will!
And one final thought: You know this peace and joy, don’t you? You have this peace and joy. Don’t you want others to have it too? You have something that all the money in the world can’t buy. You have something that Santa just can’t deliver. You have a peace and joy that you’re not going to get from Walmart or out of catalog. No baked goods can come close to this holy, life-giving supper. You have something that goes way beyond “holiday cheer.” You have Christ.
Dear children of Christ: You have the Gospel that was first promised in the Garden and reiterated and reinforced to every generation down to today; the Gospel Promise of God Himself in the flesh…in your flesh; in your heart, your soul, and your mind. May this Gospel promise be also on your lips and witnessed in your daily vocations; nothing special; just what God has given you to do. May Christ be witnessed in all that you say and do, for it is Christ—and Christ alone—who has done and will continue to do all that is necessary for true peace and joy and comfort and confidence.
To Him alone be all glory, all praise, and all honor.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people. It is NOT necessary to ask my permission for any of it! In fact, you don't have to mention me at all. (I think it's highly problematic when pastors seek credit/glory for sermons inspired by the Holy Spirit!) Give praise to God for the fact that He continues to provide for His people.
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