Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon on Matthew 11:2-10, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Blessed to take no offense at Jesus"



In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Jesus and John the Baptist are talking through messengers in our reading. John, like many others in history, “played second fiddle” to someone more famous, namely Jesus. But John took pains to show that he was content with this role—he wasn’t seeking attention for himself. His proper focus was on elevating Jesus. As Jesus first publicly took the scene, John announced: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).
But even though John knew his secondary role—Jesus shows how great this role was. John was more than a prophet, he is the very messenger prophesied seven centuries earlier by Isaiah and four centuries earlier by Malachi. The one to “prepare the way of the Lord”. Just think that faithful Israelites had been anticipating John’s coming for 7 centuries! That’s more than twice the history of the USA! And by waiting for his coming, they were ultimately waiting for the Messiah whom he would announce. The prophecies showed that John would usher in the coming of the Lord. He’s the best man to Jesus, the groom.
But now to our reading…the “best man” John, is locked up in prison. And he’s anxious to know if he was really right about Jesus. When John baptized Him he proclaimed Jesus to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But now he’s sent messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?
What was behind John’s question? We can only guess—it could have been doubt—was he really right about Jesus’ identity? It could have been impatience or urgency—“I’m pretty sure you are the Messiah, but where is the kingdom you are bringing in”? Or it could have just been confusion—maybe he thought the kingdom would come with more judgment and more power? Whatever the trouble, we can understand John’s concern, because he was locked up in prison for preaching the good news, and for opposing the adulterous and incestuous union of the powerful Herod Antipas. To say John was in hot water would be a gross understatement. Not long after, John would be beheaded at the whim of Herodias. John must have been wondering, “Is this how the kingdom of God is going to come? Am I going to get out?”
Whatever doubts or uncertainty played on John’s mind, reappear later in the worries and concerns of Jesus’ other disciples. Right down to Peter’s abandonment of Jesus, or the disciples hiding in fear after His death and even Resurrection. Or the Emmaus disciples puzzling over how the kingdom of God, that seemed to be coming through Jesus, could go down in shame and death on the cross. In various ways, Jesus’ disciples took offense throughout His ministry. Why should Jesus’ kingdom be marked by such suffering and shame, and finally death? Wouldn’t more power be in order?
Outside of His circle of disciples, there was even harsher criticism of Jesus’ actions. Others were offended that Jesus would eat with sinners—associating at the homes of tax collectors, or welcoming prostitutes who sought to hear Him. Healing the sick and the lame on the Sabbath day of rest. Not only did He ignore the customs of the Pharisees, but He was even sharply critical of them! And finally, for the Gentiles, all non-Jewish foreigners like the Romans and Greeks, (or even us Americans!), the thought that Jesus would die on the cross, was utter foolishness and contempt. They could see nothing honorable in the most demeaning criminal’s death. From John’s yearning questions, to the skeptics who were most offended by Jesus, many were offended by Jesus’ coming, and didn’t know how to receive it.
Yes, when Jesus answered back to John’s messengers, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me”—these were and are tough words to swallow. Pundits and observers of Jesus’ kingdom felt they had plenty to criticize and dispute. Many scratched their heads or waved their hands in dismissal. And so it is today. Some find the greatest offense in Jesus’ words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” His exclusive claim of salvation. Others find the miracles, and especially the resurrection of Jesus impossible to believe. People still take offense at Jesus. But blessed is the one who is not offended by Jesus. How do we receive His kingdom, and that blessing? How do we not take offense at Jesus? First we must hear and take His Word to heart.
Let’s rewind just a half sentence before Jesus’ blessing. Jesus says, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. This may be the most significant of the signs Jesus names, proving who He was. Who are these poor, and what good news was coming their way? It echoes Jesus’ opening words of His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Poor in spirit means to be humbled and empty before God. A complete dependence on Him. It’s to such people, poor in spirit, that Jesus brings the kingdom. Jesus’ good news comes to the poor. Jesus’ kingdom won’t find a place among the proud and scornful—among those who imagine they have spiritual riches of their own, and aren’t beggars awaiting God’s help. If we come before God puffed up with our own knowledge or pride, and think we don’t need to receive anything from God—the kingdom of Christ won’t come our way. Not until our lofty pride and presumption is brought low. Not until we set aside our offenses, and listen humbly to His Word. Not until we are poor in spirit, are we ready to have the good news preached to us.
On a purely practical level, that means we know and realize that we are sinners. Not just a generic “Oh well, nobody’s perfect”—but admitting that we have rebelled against God in thought, word, and deed. Realizing we aren’t dressed in fine robes of our good works, ready and presentable to God—but that we are dressed in the tattered and filthy rags of our sin—needing a bath and a change of clothes. John knew about this spiritual poverty—he prepped people for it—confessing their sins, stripping off those rags, and washing in the baptism of repentance and forgiveness. He helped them empty themselves of the pride of false works.
Jesus later made this command, that we Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you. Jesus prescribed that cleansing wash of baptism for all of us, that we’d all be washed and made clean. And St. Paul explains further that in baptism we are clothed with Christ, dressed newly in His righteousness. To get the kingdom, we have to be emptied of ourselves, to receive the fullness of Christ’s gifts—forgiveness, eternal life, the gifts of the Spirit, Jesus’ righteousness. To those humbled, those so emptied in spirit, who are not offended by Jesus—this good news is preached! The poor hear good news, and are blessed. The Gospel kingdom makes its way into poor hearts, and we begin to overflow with the spiritual richness and blessings of Jesus Christ.  
Even John, the great forerunner of Jesus, His “best man”, had to be reminded to humble himself and not take offense at Jesus’ kingdom as it came. Jesus’ kingdom came in lowliness and grace and suffering. But it also came with these proofs that He was the right One, the “Coming One” whom John correctly expected. Jesus told John, “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.” Jesus laid down a full hand of cards and more, that showed that John was right to expect Jesus as the promised Messiah. He correctly understood that the prophecies pointed to Jesus; his ministry had not been in vain. John must have felt reassured, even if his fate was still gloomy. Jesus’ miracles, and most of all His preaching the Good News, confirmed that God’s kingdom had truly come.
Jesus brings His kingdom to us that we might be blessed, and not for us to take offense. When we see His destination of the cross, nailed there for the forgiveness of sins, we must not be offended that we need a Savior from our sin, but rather be humbled and poor in spirit, to hear that Good News. God changes our hearts, He prepares His way in our heart, through preachers like John the Baptist, and through all the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross confronts us with that offense, what St. Paul calls a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles. But hidden in the cross of Christ is the mighty power and wisdom of God to save us. The earthly eye, the eye of our sinful flesh, can’t see it. But the Spirit of God teaches us these things. Jesus patiently taught them to troubled John, and He patiently teaches them to us.
In your heart, in my heart, there are certainly sinful obstacles to receiving Christ’s kingdom. It could be pride, or doubt, or anxiety. It might be unrest with the troubles and sufferings you endure in life, and wondering where Jesus is in it all. It could be distraction from hearing and listening to His Word—too occupied by the busyness and cares of life. Whatever the obstacles, this Advent season pray that God continue to clear His way into our hearts through faithfully hearing His Word, as our Lord comes our way. Listen with the poor, to the Good News preached by Jesus. Listen with John to the reminder, Blessed is the one who is not offended by me. The Lord Jesus is coming—this is His kingdom—hearts are made open to be blessed and receive His grace! Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Matthew 5:3, the first Beatitude opening Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Read Matthew 11:2-6. How was Jesus bringing His kingdom to the “poor in spirit?”
  2. Read Isaiah 61:1. When John heard this verse quoted by Jesus, how might he have been encouraged? What might he have hoped to hear from Jesus, that is mentioned in the rest of the verse? What was he facing soon? Matthew 14:1-12; see also Matthew 5:10-12.
  3. John asks Jesus if He is “the coming one”. Who were the Old Testament believers expecting? Deuteronomy 18:15, 18. What signs of prophecy did He fulfill? Isaiah 29:18; 35:5-6; 61:1. In addition to those signs that were definitely prophesied, what additional miracles of Jesus were named here?
  4. What actions and words of Jesus’ life and ministry caused offense to some? Matthew 11:18-19; 12:9-14; 12:22-24, 33-37. What is the blessing in not being offended by Jesus’, but believing Him? Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
  5. How did Jesus’ actions convey that His first coming was to usher in a kingdom of grace, not judgement? At His second coming there will be judgment, but what promise do those who believe in Him have? John 3:16-21; 5:22-24.

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