The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
After 12-plus years of preaching/teaching this text, I’m quite sure that everyone here understands the fact that John the Baptist, languishing in prison, was struggling in doubt. In fact, given the year we’ve been having, it’s very easy for us to understand why John the Baptist struggled with his doubt. When things were good, at the height of his ministry, John the Baptist was a well-known and quite popular guy. People were coming from all over to be baptized by him. And John was a very faithful man. Don’t get me wrong. He was no hypocrite. He knew (and he had faithfully proclaimed) that Jesus—the Messiah—was coming to put evil to death, and bring life and salvation to all who believe. “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” 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 one year later John finds himself sitting on death row for proclaiming the Truth of God’s Word regarding Herod and his sexual infidelities. (Mrs. Herod didn’t like hearing that she was an adulteress.) One year later and John was still very much a captive, and things weren’t looking good for the immediate future. This is when the devil does some of his best work, when you’re down and out and feeling the crushing weight of the cross you’ve been given to bear. The devil goes to work exploiting the fear and weakness and the doubt. “If you really are the Messiah, how’s about setting the captives free! Or…have I made a mistake? Are you not ‘the guy’?” Like I said, given the year we’ve been having, we understand this kind of doubt. We maybe even condone this kind of doubt.
We could, at this point, go into the many and various ways that we’re no different than John (and for far less, I might add). We could go into the many and various ways we doubt and despair when God doesn’t meet our expectations. We’re all guilty of it. I’m not going to get into all of it though. I don’t need to. You know all the skeletons in your closet. Besides, looking to your own sinful doubts and despairs will never give you the comfort and peace that your Lord desires for you.
Look here. Look to this crucifix. Here is where almighty God Himself 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! I’m baptized, and yet bad things still happen to me. Folks: The problem isn’t with the baptism, but rather with our expectations regarding baptism.
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 the mere 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. After all, 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 or not done. You hear Christ crucified for your sins and for the sins of all the world. Here is the Good News! Do you hear? Do you see? Or are you too busy throwing yourself a pity party; too busy worrying that you might come into contact with germs because someone on the other side of the room isn’t wearing a mask; too busy worrying that Walmart might run out of toilet paper or the Mexican restaurant will be full if this guy doesn’t quit talking and the Baptists get there before us or there’s no Wi-Fi signal in here?
Again, just consider the year we’ve had to endure. All the worries and doubts and fears. So many ‘good Christians’ aren’t worried about receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, but rather how they might possibly get sick by eating bread and drinking wine, especially in the vicinity of other people. It’s so very sad. They look to all this, and all they see is a potential super-spreader. My fellow redeemed: 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; too busy worrying about what you might catch?
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 flee to 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. There is no guarantee that 2021 is going to be any better than 2020. This might be as good as it gets! Six months from now you might be looking back and thinking, “Oh… the good old days. I wish it was 2020 again.” Whatever you’re struggling with may not pass, at least not while you still wear sinful flesh. (For those who are waiting for things to get better before coming back to church, what if your expectations aren’t met? Things have always been bad/scary. The only difference right now is that the veil has been pulled back and you’ve gotten a glimpse of how scary things have always been. The devil will always see to it that there will always be things that scare you and keep you from coming to be in the presence of Christ.)
I tell you all these things, not to be a jerk, but so that when you suffer and struggle and fear and doubt and despair (and you will), you will know right where to look and flee to and hold fast to in the full expectation of faithful hope. I cannot and will not give you false hope, false comfort, or false expectations. 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.
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