The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
I know everybody here can understand the fact that John the Baptist, languishing in prison, was struggling in doubt. It only makes sense. But WHY was he struggling with such doubt? The answer is found in the very first verse of our Gospel lesson for this morning. Right off the bat, Matthew tells us that John, sitting in prison, hears of the deeds/works (the ergos) of Jesus. Think about what’s being said here. John hears all the things that Jesus is doing/working. This, in itself, should come as no surprise. Word spreads like wildfire, especially when that word is speaking to the miracles Jesus had been performing; e.g., feeding thousands of people with a couple of table scraps, healing the lame, the leprous, the blind, the deaf, raising people from the dead. People being raised from the dead! Word like that travels fast. John gets wind of all this miraculous work, and what does he do? Answer: He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask (on his behalf) if Jesus really is the promised Messiah, or should they maybe be looking for someone else.
Do you see the problem? John’s issue wasn’t with what Jesus was doing. The issue was with what Jesus wasn’t doing. The text is very clear. John heard all that Jesus was doing. John’s big hang-up/problem, though, was with what he wasn’t hearing. He wasn’t hearing about Jesus baptizing with fire. He wasn’t hearing about Jesus laying waste to all the evil doers and the righteous inheriting the earth. He was hearing…he just wasn’t hearing what he expected to hear; what he wanted to hear. (Sounds a lot like last week, doesn’t it? People see, but they don’t see. People hear, but they don’t hear.)
And we know how the rest of this plays out. Jesus sends these guys back to John, not with some cryptic, secret message promising immediate clemency; not with a file baked in a cake or even with the false comfort of “just hold on, I’m working on it.” No. Jesus sends these guys back with the simple message, “Look at and listen to what I’ve already been doing. The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” For those of you who aren’t familiar, Jesus is citing the messianic prophecies out of Isaiah. Jesus is directing John to Scripture. He’s saying to John, “You know what has already been said concerning the Messiah. Pay attention! I’m doing it, just as predicted. It’s all coming to fulfillment in/through Me. I am exactly what was promised!”
Jesus then asks the crowd: “What about you? What did you come out here to see?” Folks: The question needs to be asked of every one of us. What about you? What are you looking for? What are you expecting to see/hear? It’s very easy for us to understand why John the Baptist struggled with his doubt. He knew (and faithfully proclaimed) that Jesus—the Messiah—was coming to put evil to death, and bring life and salvation to all who believe. He knew (and faithfully proclaimed) that Jesus the Messiah was sent to work the Great Reversal, from death to life, from sin to salvation. He knew (and faithfully proclaimed) that Jesus the Messiah was coming to “set the captives free.” And yet…John was still very much a captive, and things weren’t looking good for the immediate future. “If you really are the Messiah, how’s about setting the captives free! Or…have I made a mistake? Are you not ‘the guy’?” We understand this doubt. We maybe even condone this kind of doubt. It makes sense to us.
But what about us? We could, at this point, go into the many and various ways we doubt and despair when God doesn’t meet our expectations; i.e., our prayers don’t get answered the way we want. We’re all guilty of it. Not everyone will be wise enough to admit it, but we’re all guilty of it. We could also launch into a long litany on how our expectations aren’t met within the context of worship, either on the “high” end or the “low” end, as if greater/better things would happen if we just did X, Y, and Z, like the church across town or like the church we grew up in. The grass always seems to be greener elsewhere, right? Dress it up all you want. Justify it however you want. It’s all just a way of saying that your expectations aren’t being met.
Folks: I’m not going to get into all of it. Look here. Look to this crucifix. Here is where almighty God brought His plan of redemption to completion. “It is finished!” I don’t care who you are: No one would ever draw up the plan for victory over sin, death, and the devil with this as the centerpiece; the goal. This looks like the devil won! And yet…here is where God won the victory. Here is how God won the victory.
Look to this font. Here is where this same God and Lord brought these cruciform victories over sin, death, and the grave to you (ref. Rom 6:3-11). Here is where the bonds of sin and death, which held you captive, were rent asunder. Here is where God set you free from your sinful captivity and adopted you into His royal household. Ordinary water. I know this doesn’t meet expectations, though, does it? There has to be more to it than this!
Look to the lectern. Look to the pulpit. Look to the Bible. Look and listen. What do you hear? What do you not hear? You don’t hear opinions of men. You don’t hear what you need to do. You don’t hear how your salvation is only potential, provided you meet all the prerequisites to meriting such a gift. ‘“It is finished…’ but here’s what you still need to do.” Unfortunately, though, this is what so many people expect. This is what Old Adam wants to hear. Sadly, there’s always someone there to scratch that itch and tell you what you want to hear. Test the spirits! Discern. LISTEN. What do you hear? You hear Christ. You hear His Law, regardless of who you are, who you’re related to, or what you put in the plate. You hear His Gospel, regardless of who you are or what you’ve done. You hear Christ crucified for your sins and for the sins of all the world. Here is the Good News! Do you hear, or are you too busy worrying/complaining because you’re not hearing what you expect to hear; what you want to hear?
Look to this altar. Look to the rail. Here is Christ, kneeling down from heaven to nourish you with His own body and blood; giving to you His peace that surpasses all understanding. Here is where heaven is intersecting with earth. Here is where angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven join with us in communion with our God and Lord. Talk about not meeting expectations! Ordinary bread. Ordinary wine. The heavens don’t rend. No one flops on the ground and bursts into flames, speaking in tongues. “Take and eat. Take and drink. This is My body. This is My blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sin.” In, with, and under these humble means you hear and receive His victory; His grace; His peace. Do you hear, or you too caught up in what you don’t hear? Do you recognize and give thanks for what you receive, or are you too busy lamenting what you don’t receive?
Folks: This may come as a shock to some of you, but faith in Christ doesn’t make you magically immune from bearing crosses in your daily life. Being baptized or receiving Holy Communion doesn’t magically make all the problems disappear. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The life of faith is the life that is lived out under the cross. Jesus tells His apostles (and us) that we can fully expect to be hated and persecuted for His name’s sake. You bear the name of Christ on your head and on your heart. Do you honestly think the devil is going to make life easy on you? If so, your expectations are way off the mark.
Look here [the crucifix]. I tell you all these things, not to go all “doom and gloom” on you, but to give you real expectations in faith. I tell you all these things so that when you suffer and struggle and doubt and despair (and you will), you will know right where to look and hold fast to in the full expectation of faithful hope. I cannot and will not give you false hope or false expectations. Things may not get better on this side of eternity. This thing you’re struggling with may not pass, at least not while you still wear sinful flesh. I do, however, give you the greatest gift of all. I give you Christ. In good times, in bad times, in sickness, in health, for richer, for poorer, even in the midst of the shadowy valley of death: Here is Christ, and where Christ is you can fully expect all the fullness of His grace, mercy, and peace. Just look at what He’s already done for you. Look at what He continues to do for you. Look, listen, and be at peace.
And may this peace, which does surpass all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds unto life everlasting.
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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