[Picture: St. John the Baptist in the Prison, by Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, public domain]
Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent, 12/15/2019. The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Third Sunday of Advent, click here.
Over the years, much ink has been spilled concerning John the Baptist and his question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
On one side of the debate John’s faith is not just preserved, but it is absolutely unassailable. And that makes a lot of sense.
John is not a weak reed, who blows in the wind. He is a tree. John is not soft, like the clothing of those who enjoy comfort in a king’s court. John is weathered, seasoned, and durable. He is made for the wilderness.
John proclaimed Jesus even as he baptized Jesus. John saw the Holy Spirit descend on Him like a dove. John heard God the Father proclaim from heaven, “This is My Beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17b
If that were not enough, Jesus says that John is the one of whom the prophet Malachi spoke, who would prepare the way before Him. (Malachi 3:1 ) Jesus says that John is the greatest of all the prophets, and that he is even more: of all the men born of women, not one has risen who is greater than John. Matthew 11:11
With a resume like that, you’re not allowed to have spiritual struggles. And so, the question can’t really be for John. Certainly, it is for the benefit of his disciples, who don’t yet see the big picture.
All of that makes some sense, and I get it. But then again, this is also the same John who begged for Jesus to baptize him instead. For while he is a prophet, even the greatest prophet, he is also a saint of Jesus Christ. He is counted among all the redeemed sinners who flocked to him in the wilderness. He is counted among those in the world, whose sins the Lamb of God has come to take away. When John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb, he was not merely overjoyed at the grace of God come to you, but also to him.
John is acutely aware of his own sins and doubts. John knows that he cannot save himself. And busy as Advent can be, Herod has seen to it that John has ample opportunity to reflect.
The idea that he receives none of the comfort intended for all God’s people is no comfort at all; that he is not encouraged and strengthened by the preaching of Jesus is outrageous. The greatest of men born of women still needs his Savior, especially in this dark time.
But why does any of that matter to anyone else? Why debate the faith of John the Baptist? You’re not him. And that’s the point.
You’re not John. You’re not the greatest of those born of women. You might not even be as successful as your own siblings. You suffer; you struggle; you doubt; even at Christmas.
Everyone’s happy, but you just aren’t. Everyone’s full of joy, but you’re depressed. Everyone’s surrounded by family and friends, while you are all alone, even in a crowded room. And just last Sunday you failed the Christmas Quiz in Bible Study.
Why are everyone else’s kids so well behaved? Why does everyone else’s life have a perpetual Instagram filter on it? Why are you still sick? Why are you still struggling? Why are you still in prison? Wasn’t there something in Isaiah’s prophecy about a jailbreak? Isaiah 61:1
Some days none of this makes sense. Some days you wonder if you believe at all. Some days you’re asking if Jesus really was the One, or if He still is.
And when you do, Satan takes you’re doubts and throws them in your face and says “You’re no Christian.”
If you were a Christian, you wouldn’t struggle with this.
If you were a Christian, you’d get the answer you’re hoping for.
If you were a Christian, Jesus would just say “Yes,” loud and clear.
If you were a Christian, you’d be happy right now.
If you were a Christian, your kids would be just the way you want them to be.
If you were a Christian, everything would be just so.
It’s a lie even worse than the idea that John doesn’t need or doesn’t benefit from God’s Word. John is a Christian, and so are you. And though he is the greatest of all the men born of women, Jesus doesn’t shame John for his doubts. Jesus is not here to shame you either. Jesus cares for John, and He comforts him the same way He comforts you.
He doesn’t just say “Yes,” all matter-of-factly, or give him some cheap platitude. Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” Matthew 11:4-6
Nowhere does any Old Testament prophet restore the sight of the blind. This was a distinct feature of the coming of the Messiah, and John knows it. Thus, John has his comfort in God’s Word and from God’s Word.
In the end, we know that this comfort was sufficient. John did not soften. He did not turn from a tree into a reed. He did not recant his condemnation of Herod for taking his brother’s wife, and it cost him his life.
This was possible for John not because he was the greatest of men born of women. This was possible for John because He received God’s grace by receiving His Word. This was possible for John because the same Holy Spirit who he saw descend on Jesus in the Jordan filled his ears with the words of his Savior.
This is still how Jesus comforts those who wait for Him. This Word is still how Jesus gives His Holy Spirit, to comfort His people as He comforted John.
The Word has been added to water, and you have been washed into God’s Kingdom. You are baptized. Christ has bound Himself to you. He speaks even now, and promises an end to darkness and death, to suffering and loneliness, to doubt and depression, to sin and shame.
He speaks and bids you: “Rejoice(!)” even now in the darkness of this world! Light a rose-colored candle in the midst of Advent. Jesus has come as a Servant and a pitiful Child. Rejoice! On the cross, He has made Himself least in the Kingdom. Rejoice! Among those born of women there had risen no one greater than John; but Christ is risen from the dead; born out of a virgin tomb.
Thus risen, He is not only greater than John and greater than you; He is greater than your doubts and greater than your suffering; greater than your death. This comfort is yours, now and unto the ages of ages. For the Word of the Lord endures forever – Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum*.
*Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum, The Word of the Lord endures forever, (Isaiah 40:8) is the motto of the Reformation. It is memorialized on the back of our processional cross with the abbreviation VDMA.