Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent, 12/11/2022. The bulletin is available as a PDF: Advent3 Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Third Sunday of Advent, click here.
Just prior to America’s reluctant entrance into WWI, several German ships had taken refuge in Boston Harbor to avoid British attack. But when we, too, declared war against the Kaiser, those ships were seized, and their crews were interned on Gallup’s Island, a bit more than halfway between here and Hull, on the other side of the Harbor.
Not wanting any Christian to be without spiritual care, the First Lutheran Church of Boston, then Zion Kirche, sent their Associate Pastor Walter A. Maier, to care for the German sailors, to preach to those who were in prison.
His sermons became so popular that the POWs petitioned the War Dept. to keep them in Boston Harbor, rather than be moved to Hot Springs, North Carolina, despite the harsh winter approaching. If my preaching can rise to that level, we should all be quite comfortable without an HVAC. Their request was denied, however, and they were moved down south.
Months later, the government and Boston port officials summoned Pr. Maier to the Immigration Authority headquarters, where he was greeted with cold formality, and a telegram in German was set down on the table in front of him.
“Rev. Maier, did you send this?” After confirming that he had sent the sailors a Christmas message, they commanded him to translate it – a task which had already been performed.
“…May you fight the good fight of your Christian faith (1-T-I-M-6-1,2), for you know that God will support you in your absence from loved ones in Germany. Always remember R-O-M-8-37-39. Christmas blessings in I-S-9-6.”
At this point, Pr. Maier was interrogated about the coded references plugged into the message. He laughed with polite bewilderment, explaining “Gentlemen, you know what this is!” as he held up his Bible. “’1-T-I-M’ is the common abbreviation of First Timothy in the Bible, while the numbers are chapter and verse.” Thus, he read aloud the cited passages and explained them to the Sunday School dropouts.
“Rev. Maier…this is very embarrassing for us. You see, it’s just that…well…in wartime…” They would have stammered on this way for some time, but Pr. Maier laughed to break the tension, as a good pastor would, and all was well. Though it ended on good terms, it was a serious situation. Obviously, they had suspected him of sending them some secret code. And in that, they were half-right.
The Word of God is not written in code, but its meaning is hidden to those who refuse to hear and see.
John, of course, is neither blind nor deaf to the Word of God. But his vision and his hearing are somewhat impaired. It isn’t just the frustration that comes with being in prison, it’s that from his cell, all John can do is hear from others what is going on.
But even before he was thrown into jail by Herod, John was feeling some friction with the ministry of Jesus.
Where was the thunder of judgment? Where was the rebuke of the wicked? Why use power over demons but not over evil men? And why allow the prophet of God’s righteous wrath against sin to rot in a cell?
From the moment when Jesus insisted on being baptized by John, instead of the other way around, the reign of God was taking shape in ways even he did not fully expect.
Again, John was not faithless – far from it. But neither was he insincere. He had a real question, and Jesus gave him a real answer.
They didn’t have chapters and verses back then, but Jesus’ answer could be heard this way:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, (I-S-3-5-5-6) lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, (I-S-2-9-1-8) and the dead are raised up, (I-S-2-6-1-9) and the poor have good news preached to them. (I-S-6-1-1). And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. verses 4-6
John has eyes to see and ears to hear. He knows the Word of God. He himself is a prophet and trusts the words of the prophets before Him. He knows what God spoke through Isaiah. He knows the answer is “Yes.” Jesus is the Coming One, the Messiah. And “No.” They shall not look for another.
What John does not get to see from prison, he does get to hear about. The miracles matter as evidence. But what Jesus wants John to cling to is the Word of God, in the pages of Scripture and from the lips of His disciples.
There is no experience; no philosophy; no worldview; no guru; no miracle… There is no substitute for the Word of God. It alone is what reaches those in prison. It alone can comfort God’s people.
John was called to comfort God’s people. And it was true then as it is true now: you cannot give what you have not received. John needed that comfort as well. He was in prison after all: oppressed, depressed, disillusioned, and alone, and this is the man of whom Jesus said just one verse after our text:
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Matthew 11:11
Of course, Jesus makes himself least in the kingdom, and is greater than John. But there’s another point to be made here as well. You, dear Christians, who are oppressed by the culture, who are depressed by the million and one things that can understandably depress you, who seem to be alone, even when surrounded by friends and family, not to mention angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven… You, dear Christians, who suffer much, who may be little, least, or last, have the comfort preached by John, and you are honored in the kingdom of heaven.
How do you get that comfort? The same way John did. Jesus calls and sends men to proclaim the Word of God.
Thus, I am sent to those in prison, i.e. those who do not get to see or hear for themselves. The report of Jesus, and of His witnesses is sure. The dead are raised. The deaf are made to hear. The poor have Good News, the Gospel, preached to them. Christ has been crucified. Christ has been raised again. Jesus has won. He is through. He lives and reigns now. And He does this for you.
Maybe John felt a lot better, and maybe not. But He had what he needed. He had the Word, the Promise of God, and that is sure and certain. He will be raised from the dead. And even if he doesn’t feel it, he knows it.
You might still feel like you are in prison. The world is still dark and difficult and sad. But you have John’s comfort because you have John’s Lord.
He who will raise John the Baptist from the dead will raise you. Come what may, all shall be well. We wait on Him to return, and we wait for nothing and no one else.
But we do not wait passively. The Word must go out.
Boys, you need to start looking around. You need to be thinking about it now. Parents, you need to encourage them in this discernment. I’m happy to help. But we need five of you to become Pastors more than we need five of you to become engineers.
Your parents need called and ordained servants of Christ to preach to them. I’m going to need someone to bring me the Sacrament when I lay dying. It can’t always be someone else. It may need to be you. No soft reeds. No yes-men. Prophets.
Those German sailors understood the importance of the Word they had received. When they got home they arranged to sent us a gift: the very same communion ware from which you receive the Sacrament.
It’s a wonderful gift, of course, and one we treasure. But I think Pastor Maier would be even happier to know that some of them became pastors. I know Pastor Hopkins would.
Rejoice, now, you beloved of God. Your warfare is ended. Your iniquity is pardoned.